The nightmare that is online shopping (in Gaza)

 My first package ever!

Since 2010, consumers around the world have increasingly shopped online. Whether we want to replace our weary guitar strings, try new flavors of coffee or snag the current best-selling books, online shopping is now the go-to option. Simply surf, click and get it delivered.

Not for us, though. Living in Gaza means nothing is easy and online shopping is no exception. Here are just a few examples of what we must tolerate to make and receive an order:

I’m in love with traditional divine music. My love for music led me to become obsessed with collecting my own set of CDs. (Even now, with Spotify, I still have a fondness for old-fashioned CDs. One of my favorite performers is Sami Yusuf, and his albums are packaged with booklets that describe the lyrics. Sometime, a rosary is included. So, I often choose to support my favorite artists by purchasing the “real thing.”) Since his albums aren’t available in retail stores in Gaza, I decided in 2012 to order Yusuf’s "The Centre" album from his official online store.

The online transaction was processed flawlessly and I received a confirmation email saying my delivery should take no longer than two weeks. I waited and waited, but it never arrived. I heard from other fans around the world that they received their copies on time. How frustrating! It never did arrive; it was no match for the Israeli blockade. On the bright side, I managed to get a refund after several weeks.

In 2014, I decided to study English language and literature at the al-Azhar University of Gaza. That major requires students to read many literary works (such as novels and poetry) not available in our local bookstores and libraries. After my experience two years before, I wasn’t eager to try online shopping again, but I was desperate.

This time, I decided to spend $76 I’d saved on books I needed. Via Amazon, I ordered "Merriam Webster’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary," "The Complete Works of Shakespeare," the "Longman Pocket Phrasal Verbs Dictionary" and "Merriam Webster’s Vocabulary Builder." On the site, I was asked for my shipping and payment details, and I used my dad’s credit card. Although Palestine was listed in the country list, many of my friends who had already purchased from Amazon recommended selecting Israel for the shipping details and adding Palestine next to the city.

As a Palestinian, I was insulted, but I took their advice because I desperately needed the books. I completed the order. After 40 days of anxious waiting, I received a text message while I was deep sleep. It was from the post office, informing me my package had arrived. I could not believe my eyes! I had just received my first package ever! I rushed out of bed and grabbed a taxi. I didn’t wait to wash my face or eat breakfast. I was even still wearing my pajamas.

Shakespeare made it into Gaza!

I sat in the back seat, imagining how my package would look. I entered the Rafah Post Office with a wide smile on my face, saying “hello” to everyone. I showed the post office employee the text message. He asked for my mobile number and ID card and asked me to have a seat while he retrieved the package.

God! The package was so big and was sealed with “Amazon Primetape. I slipped out the door and, without thinking, ripped open the package. I couldn’t wait. I touched the covers gently with my fingertips. I unblinkingly stared at the package for a minute or two and then held it close to my chest and went home. When I arrived, the first thing I did was put the books on my empty bookshelf and pledged to fill it soon. I stored the now-empty box under my bed. And it’s been there ever since. (I keep all of the boxes I receive; each arrival is so special.)

Receiving my order came as a relief after the first disappointing experience. Some of the book covers were slightly damaged, but I could live with that; to receive slightly damaged books is better than not receiving them.

In an attempt to make this arduous process smoother, Mersal—a Palestinian company specializing in logistics and mail service—contracted with the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications to manage processing and notification for a small fee ($1.25). Once a package clears customs (a process in which your items could be seized or partially or even completely damaged), it informs you by SMS to pick up your package. The post office had done that too, but Mersal appeared much more organized. I decided to give it a try.

One of my work colleagues asked me to purchase the “Game of Thrones” book set for him, and this time the experience was horrible. We waited over 40 days, but the order never arrived. The shipping information I received showed that the item was on its way. Since our order was covered by Amazon’s guarantee (receive your order in time or your money back), we were eligible for a refund, but, of course, we really wanted the books. They never came.

The book that can't make it into Gaza

A few months later, Seyyed Hossein Nasr published his long-awaited work, “The Study Quran” (a translation and study version of the holy book) and I really wanted it. Again, I purchased it from Amazon and after waiting a month, the book never arrived. I contacted Amazon customer support, which offered me two options: get a refund or request a replacement. As I desperately wanted the book, I went with the second option. 

Amazon support was very helpful; not only did it ship the book using the fastest available method, DHL Express, it also refunded the shipping costs, so the book was sent for free. Using DHL Express meant I could track the package. This information revealed why I didn’t receive my previous orders. They were stuck in Ashdod waiting for customs clearance. I contacted Amazon support again. The staff recommended I contact DHL Express and gave me the contact information. So, I contacted DHL Express.

DHL’s answer: “Only official documents, such as IDs, birth certificates and passports, are allowed to be shipped into Gaza using our service.” If we wanted books, we were out of luck. I was shocked. On the other hand, Israeli settlers, who live on illegally seized Palestinian land, receive their packages on time, often in less than a week! More importantly, they don’t have to select Palestine or any other country when entering their shipping details and their packages don’t get damaged or opened.

We, however, have no control over our packages, since they arrive at the port of Ashdod, Israel, and are delayed, sometimes for over a year, by the Israeli occupation.

What hurts me the most is that Palestine is often not found in the country list on online stores. Even if it is, we Palestinians need to select Israel as our shipping address; otherwise, we won’t receive our packages. Israel is busy erasing us, even when we order online.

I have friends all over the world who receive their orders in a timely manner. Why does it have to be different for us? The Israeli occupation has deprived me of one of a basic human right: to read a book I can actually hold in my hand.

Yes, we can read ebooks, but I want to fill my bookcase with books I can touch, smell and open. I have always wanted to idly flip through the pages of the books I yearn to own.

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Mentor: Greta Berlin

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