The donkey carts of Gaza

donkey cart with child passengers
Palestinian school children ride a donkey cart in alMaghazi
refugee camp market, central Gaza strip. Photo by Suhair Karam

The donkey cart may be slow, but it’s cheap, and it’s essential for survival in this part of the world. It’s definitely something that you won’t find in the streets of cities in the U.S. or Europe. All it takes to make one of Gaza’s “exclusives” is four wheels, a stack of wood, and a donkey.

Donkey carts are to be found everywhere in Gaza; you can’t go a single day without coming across one or at least notice a hint on the ground telling you that one has recently passed by. And, if you’re a homebody and don’t get out much, don’t worry that you’d miss them, for you’d surely be able to hear them! 

Donkey carts serve several purposes. First, and perhaps most important, the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza, and the repeated outbreaks of hostilities, continue to severely disrupt basic services, including those provided by Gaza’s various municipalities. These municipalities face challenges in meeting their responsibilities for the well-being of their 2 million residents, who are crammed into one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

donkey cart at garbage dump
A garbage collector loads trash into
a dumpster in Gaza City. Photo by Sami Haven

One of the challenges relates to trash collection. The lack of motorized vehicles, spare parts and fuel has forced many municipalities to deploy donkey carts to provide help in collecting the tons of solid waste produced daily in Gaza. The workers’ jobs begin before dawn, and by the time daylight arrives, the disturbing noise of megaphone-enhanced announcements emanating from the donkey cart drivers begins to echo in all the streets. By noon they'll be done both with the collection and with the removal of all the garbage they can find.

Donkey carts have become a fixture in the Gazan landscape because they have proven their usefulness in many other ways as well. For example, municipalities use donkey carts with water tanks to water the trees and flowers on the streets of the Gaza Strip.

Donkey cart owners can also be found lining up outside the United Nations food distribution centers in Gaza, waiting to load and then deliver UN food rations, including at a minimum, sacks of rice and flour. For heavier cargo, for example, construction materials like steel and cement, sometimes the carts are pulled by horses, which are stronger than donkeys.

Donkey carts are also used as mobile markets throughout the city. From them owners can sell goods like fruits, vegetables and sometimes fish. Many Gazans buy from donkey carts to save themselves the effort of paying a visit to the market. In addition, the carts can be used as mobile markets, selling swimming gear for kids near the beach or as a source of income to transport materials like gas cylinders.

Another factor contributing to the large numbers of donkey carts is unemployment, caused by the paucity of needed supplies due to Israeli control of the borders, the frequent damage to buildings which would otherwise be able to provide space for employers to set up their businesses, and many other politically caused limitations on life in the Strip. Employing hundreds of workers with their donkey carts serves to help solve some of these many problems.

With the varied uses of the donkey cart, and the solutions it provides for crucial problems like garbage collection and unemployment, it has become a potent symbol of the Gazans’ ability to adapt to their harsh circumstances. 

A sadder purpose for donkey carts

In contrast to many of the constructive uses of donkey carts in Gaza, described above, there is another relatively recent additional use that is the result of the terrible, repeated attacks by the Israeli air force on houses, hospitals, schools and other buildings. This sad use is to remove stones and damaged steel from the Shujaiya neighborhood east of Gaza, an area which had been heavily bombed in 2014, and from the many other neighborhoods that have been targeted and destroyed by Israeli air attacks. It is sadly necessary yet again to remove the rubble left after the most recent aggression on Gaza of May 2021.

The damaged steel is reworked so that it can be sold as new building material. Stones are also recycled in inventive ways. Donkey carts do much of the work of transporting the materials and hence contribute to Gaza’s ability to expand its port facilities with these not-so-raw materials. 

Are donkey carts on their way out?

A Palestinian man loads flour bags onto a donkey cart outside the
United Nations World Food Programme distribution center
in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. Photo by Khalil Hamra

Some people think it's weird to still be using donkey carts in the 21st century, and they see them as not fitting in with today’s modern Gaza Strip. Such folks would prefer that they only be used in farming or for other nonurban purposes. They also complain about the noise donkey carts make, particularly in the early mornings. Others view donkey carts as a wonderful and practical source of income and employment opportunities for the poverty-stricken people of the Gaza Strip.

An alternative could be the tuk-tuk, a cross between a motorcycle and a mini-pickup. The tuk-tuk may be a good choice for those donkey cart owners able to make the upgrade. They are found in growing numbers in Gaza and are also used for a variety of delivery services, but are not yet a real threat to the carts. What’s likely is that the donkey carts’ days are numbered, but we still don't know when the changeover will happen, how they would be edged out or what the replacement might be.

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Mentor: Lynn W. Huber

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