GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The municipality of Gaza — one of the largest in the Gaza Strip — took a new step to address the eight-year-long Israeli siege that greatly affected the work of all service sectors. The municipality’s officials worked for several months to overcome the lack of cars for use during municipal work, and found a solution: bicycles.
The project, welcomed by Gazans and environmental institutions, is only just the beginning. Its organizers are waiting for financial support from donors to reproduce in other Gaza municipalities.
Abdel-Rahim Abu al-Qumbaz, the director general of the Health and Environment Department in the Gaza municipality, told Al-Monitor that the lack of cars in the municipality is nothing new. Transportation has been an ongoing problem for years, prompting engineers with the Health and Environment Department to consider alternatives.
Qumbaz noted that in February, a number of engineers presented the idea to provide a bicycle for each of the 50 inspectors at the Health and Environment Department as an interim solution. “We thus raised the project to the municipality in May and it was approved and implemented in early September, after 7,000 euros [$7,893] were provided by the Municipal Development and Lending Fund (MDLF), a semi-governmental association created in 2005 to support the reform and development efforts of local bodies,” Qumbaz said.
Each bicycle has a unique serial number and bears the Gaza municipality’s logo. They were all painted orange to distinguish them from other bicycles in the city.
Qumbaz stressed that this project is one of several that have been implemented in the past few years to overcome the siege, such as animal-drawn carts to collect garbage in the city. These carts are still used today, as Israel prevents the entry of garbage trucks into the Gaza Strip. After the MDLF managed to collect the funds to buy the trucks, Israel banned them but never provided a reason. The municipality needs 50 vehicles for its needs, at a cost of around $6 million.
All 23 municipalities in the Gaza Strip are suffering the repercussions of the siege, ongoing since Hamas won the municipal elections in December 2006. The movement's victory was rejected by Israel, which warned the municipalities against dealing with it.
Municipal inspector Atta Metwally Arqan expressed joy over the initiative. He told Al-Monitor that he had had a bicycle of his own, but it was old and rusty and would always break. He noted that his new bicycle is special because it has the municipality’s logo on it, which makes it easier to introduce himself to citizens.
Arqan, who works in a 10-square-kilometer (roughly 4-square-mile) area, said that with the bicycle, he is able to continuously follow up with garbage collectors and to reach places where citizens report sanitation issues.
Inspector Mohammed Moutaweh Sabah explained that this project is particularly important because citizens are happy to see the inspectors make their rounds in their neighborhoods.
Sabah told Al-Monitor that since he has a pulmonary condition, the bicycle has helped him greatly, making the distance he used to walk every day much more manageable.
Al-Monitor interviewed citizens from neighborhoods the inspectors visit on their bicylces. Wael al-Khaznadar from al-Rammal, west of Gaza City, expressed how pleased he was with the continuous attention by the inspectors in ensuring the garbage is cleaned up in the streets. He said he lives in a neighborhood with lots of shops that produce large amounts of waste.
Sohad al-Attar, who resides in central Gaza City, believes culture plays an important role and that municipality workers and inspectors achieve their work quickly once the citizens become used to putting out trash in garbage bins. She also demanded the municipality pass strict laws fining those who litter.
Meanwhile, the head of the waste collection and transfer department, Ahed Hato, said his department named the bicycle project, which he also manages, “We will prevail over the blockade.”
Hato told Al-Monitor how difficult it was for the municipality to provide cars with minimal taxes collected from citizens in return for the municipality services. He pointed out that when the bicycle project was submitted and studied, one of the most important considerations was making sure the car alternatives were eco-friendly. Pollution in Gaza is high due to some of the worst overpopulation in the world.
Hato said that bicycles had been given to 40 out of the 50 inspectors who supervise dozens of workers who collect waste from Gaza City, which produces 600 to 700 tons of solid waste per day.
The director general of the governmental Environment Protection Department of the Environment Quality Authority, Bahaa al-Agha, told Al-Monitor that his organization has followed the municipality’s project from the start and were the first to praise the idea, saying the bicycles help reduce air pollution and save a lot of money.
Agha pointed out that many rich countries use bicycles for such tasks, such as the Netherlands, noting that stigma plays a role in the citizens’ reluctance to use bicycles. Gazans often see those who ride bicycles as poor. He explained that the project is a major turning point for efforts to help the environment.