Gaza's poor struggling to survive in the face of an economic blockade

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The Independent Online

Though she wasn't expecting visitors, Itidal al-Nazli, 35, was happy to display the sparse contents of her refrigerator. Despite the daily and lengthy interruptions to electricity supply since the Israelis bombed Gaza's only power station in early July, it's where she still stores the more perishable food for her family of 10 children. Yesterday morning, after the family had breakfasted on two large potatoes and an aubergine donated by a kindly neighbour, it contained six rather shrivelled peppers, a bag of coffee, three olives in a bowl, a bag of charcoal, and three bags containing crusts of bread.

Even amid the deepening poverty of Gaza since Israel and the international community imposed its economic blockade on the Palestinian Authority (PA) after Hamas won the elections last January, Mrs al-Nazli's plight is acute. Belonging to no political faction, and unable to leave the children - including five-year-old quadruplets - ranging from Nevin, 10, to Aya, two, she says she receives no handouts from local charities. From a long time Gazan familiy, she is ineligible even for the UN food coupons handed out to refugees; indeed, she explains, once or twice a year, some refugee friends pass on one sack of flour, two bottles of oil, and two kilos apiece of beans, lentils, rice and sugar.

It was after January, however, that survival became a real struggle. We are in the eastern suburb of Shajaia which has borne more than its share of the 218 Palestinian deaths in Gaza - including, according to the Palestinian Centre of Human Rights, 146 civilians, in Israeli incursions since Cpl Gilad Shalit was abducted by militants in June.

But Mrs al-Nazli's main preoccupations are financial - a sharp reminder of how high the stakes are for Palestinians here in the imminent international debate on whether to ease the economic siege on the Palestinian Authority in response to the new Hamas-Fatah government of "national unity" expected to be formed in the coming days.

For the last six months, she has paid neither the £37-per-month rent nor, like hundreds of thousands of Gazans, £18 per month in water and electricity charges. Her husband Sami, 38, is unemployed but his wife says "he used to work four or five days every month, doing odd jobs". "But now there is nothing. We don't have anything. The children eat the same food as I do - lentils and beans. Meat? We never see it." Sometimes, she says, neighbours give them handouts of a few vegetables and fruit. "I have no milk for the children," she says, rubbing her thumb and fingers together to show the problem is money and not shortages.

The breezeblock walls and concrete floor of her two-room apartment, whose living room is furnished with one single bed and where most of the children sleep on a blanket on the floor, are entirely bare. Yet there is something irrepressibly cheerful about Mrs al-Nazli, who, despite coming from a poor family, took a two-year qualification in teaching Arabic only to find, like so many other Gaza graduates, that there were no jobs. If she had got a job she would have found ways of funding child-care and might have had fewer children, she says, while adding quickly with a radiant smile that " they are a gift from God".

A few doors down, by contrast, Souad al Qaraya, 33, weeps repeatedly as she describes her struggle to feed her five children. "We had bread - one shekel [13p] - beans - one shekel," she says of yesterday's family breakfast. "That's it." In her four-room home there are carpets, wall coverings and pictures, denoting a once adequately provided-for family fallen on the hardest of times. Her husband Samir, 46, lost his job two years ago when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer - he is currently in hospital in Egypt, his treatment, she says, delayed by the inability of Gaza's Shifa hospital to get the right medicine.

But she somehow scraped by with the help of savings and the £32-per-month PA social security until, like the PA employees' salaries on which Gaza's economy so disproportionately depends, it stopped after Hamas's election victory. With a less forgiving landlord than Mrs al-Nazli, she has to borrow the £48 rent he comes for every month. "He comes to the door and won't leave till he gets it," she says. Neighbours help when they can.

But Mrs al-Qaraya dissolves into tears again as she indicates that the family solidarity which has kept Gazans afloat despite all the odds may be breaking down. She says her father helped her "three times" financially "but now doesn't visit - God forgive him" - and she cannot afford the taxi fare to see him. "He said my husband's brothers should help me now. But they have done nothing and it is hard to ask them because I have my dignity."

Mrs al-Nazli and Mrs al-Qaraya hardly dare share in the optimism expressed by Hamas that the EU will ease its part in the blockade in response to the formation of a coalition government which, while not explicitly recognising Israel, should commit Hamas to backing talks on a two-state solution when it is formed, perhaps as early as next week.

Although Mrs al-Nazli voted Fatah last January she says: "I blame the governments of America and Britain for this but not the peoples because they don't know about us."

By contrast, her cousin Hamoud Wadiyeh, 23, who earns £3.50 a day as a barber and buys the orangeade to exempt Mrs al-Nazli from the indignity of not offering hospitality, says: "I blame Hamas because they only look after their own people," while adding that "Fatah is the same" .

Asked of the prospects of the "unity government", Mrs al-Qaraya says: "We should be hopeful about anything new. But hope depends on God. "