Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news

Gaza border: a dangerous business

Mohammed Arafat | 06-06-2018

Boy collecting trash to recycle for money
A boy collects trash at the Great Return March to recycle for money (photos by Mohammed Arafat)

As Gaza’s Great Return March goes into its 11th week, the massive protest along the border with Israel has become a source of much-needed business for a variety of types of people. For example, hundreds of foreign journalists have flooded the Strip and most need fixers, videographers, photographers or producers to help them complete their coverage. That’s how I became fixer for a day, a new challenge for me.

I received a call from a friend, asking me to “fix” for a Turkish journalist. My father begged me not to go due to the danger of the protest; already, 120 demonstrators have been killed and more than 13,000 wounded. But I decided to take the assignment.

I accompanied the Turkish journalist to the march the next Friday. As we approached, we could see thousands of protesters, obscured by huge clouds of dark smoke from tires burnt to hide them from the view of Israeli snipers. What grabbed my attention, because I wasn’t expecting to see it, were the large number of vendors selling whatever the protesters needed—toys, cigarettes, chocolates, ice cream and even cheap sandals and slippers.

A vendor at the Great Return March in Gaza

The number of people seeking to earn some income by selling on the streets and now at the protest has soared in the wake of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to slash the salaries of its 40,000 Gaza employees by 50 percent. Likewise, the ripple effect from the cuts has caused the unemployment rate to jump to 80 percent—forcing even more to sell whatever they can wherever they can. They are found on Gaza’s beaches, in the main markets during special occasions like Ramadan and now on the border with Israel during the protests.

While the Turkish journalist talked to a protester in English, I chatted with a few of those vendors.

Mohammed Ettwan, 29, pushed a small, wooden cart carrying a small freezer full of colorful ice cream sundaes. Mohammed, surrounded by three kids waiting to buy, was sweated profusely under in the intense heat despite his hat.

"I come here daily with this small cart I made to sell what I can to all of the kids I find here," Mohammed told me after the children ran away. "I graduated from university in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in history and tried to get a job, but I couldn’t. I begged a lot of people to let me work with them, but no one could hire any employees, so I made this cart and started taking it to the beach, weddings, parties, schools and now the border."

A vendor at Gaza's Great Return March

He is very aware, however, of the danger. On May 26, Hussain Abu Oweida, 41, was shot last month by Israeli snipers while selling his own supply of ice cream and other frozen treats hundreds of meters away from the border. He was shot in the spine and died a few days later. 

"Every day I come here I believe I might not come back home safe since I see people shot beside me and around me," said Mohammed.

Another vendor, Hamdan, didn’t want me to publish his last name but was willing to talk about his efforts to sell cigarette packets. His forehead was deeply tanned and sweating from the sun and the flames of the tires set afire to obscure the vision of the Israeli snipers. He said he arrives at the border before iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan (around 8 p.m.) and stays until midnight to sell his cigarettes.

"I am 34 and I have achieved nothing so far! I couldn’t pay for university, I can’t find a job and I can’t afford to marry. To try to overcome these conditions, I started selling cigarettes on Gaza’s streets and the borders," he said, wiping his brow. Hamdan earns only 15 shekels a day (about $4 US) and must help support eight siblings. His only other income is a small welfare payment every three months.

Reporting that at least 53 percent of Gaza families live under poverty line, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics stated that the average wage in the Strip is just 1,680 shekels ($416) a month for full-time jobs—insufficient to pay daily expenses for families that typically number five to six.

Shaker, another vendor who had taken a break that day, came forward to tell his story.

"I used to come here before Ramadan, selling a lot of things for kids like toys and sandals. But that didn't last for long," he said. "A week ago, I was selling closer to the border and Israeli soldiers threw tear gas canisters at me and the protesters around me. I was injured and now I can’t stand that long."

If the Israeli violence keeps up, Shaker, Hamdan, Mohammed and the others will have to give up on this new source of income. And then what?

Posted: June 5, 2018

Mentor: Pam Bailey


Get updates to your inbox. Subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter.