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Food and water shortages hit Gaza hard as prices spiral

Anticipating harder days ahead Gazans rack up credit on what little food they can find, shopkeepers lament their limited resources are rotting on the shelves
The bombing has left most in Gaza too terrified to leave their homes (AA)

As the war on Gaza continues, various aspects of life are becoming deeply impacted.  People’s freedom of mobility is seriously reduced and everyday necessities, including water, basic food stuffs and fresh fruits and vegetables, are becoming more inaccessible and unaffordable.

“The streets of Gaza remain mostly empty and almost all shops are closed,” the UN’s Office for Humanitarian affairs warned in an emergency report released Friday.

Osama al-Jarwsha, a noticeably slim 21 year-old, is one of the very last shop owners to have kept his doors open in the face of the Israeli aerial onslaught. His vegetable shop lies on a street that was until recently, one of the busiest parts of Gaza City, where he caters to at least 30 residential towers, housing hundreds of families.

On an average day, he sells hundreds of shekels-worth of vegetables, but in the last few days, his shop has been all but deserted, despite the fact that Jarwsha is the only vegetable vendor on the street.

“We are in a war - people are frightened to step outside to do grocery shopping,” Jarwsha told the Middle East Eye.

Abu Fouad, a 51-year-old working as taxi driver, is one of the few brave shoppers to come in to Jarwsha’s store. But, as father of six sons, he says that sitting at home with so many hungry mouths is just not an option.

"I want to get anything I can get from lentils to whatever is left so that we can have a meal," says Fouad.

He says he’s lucky it’s Ramadan as this means he only needs to get enough for one family meal. At other times he would need the usual three meals.  

"Whatever it is, the prices are now outrageous, and I no longer get the fresh cucumbers that are planted few hundred meters from here" he told MEE.

Behind him there are several agricultural houses, but with Israeli drones and jets it requires an iron will to go out into the open and pick what might be right in front of your nose.

Infecting the whole chain

And it is not just shoppers and shopkeepers who are feeling the pain, almost the whole agricultural industry and supply chain have been broken by the ongoing hostilities. From the farmers, whose land and produce is being bombed by Israel, to the customers who hesitate to shop, and the tens of thousands of Hamas/Palestinian Authority employees who are still waiting to be paid for months of work, everyone is having a hard time meeting their bills, buying food and paying for gas.

As the constant barrage of Israeli F16 cruise missiles continues, the banks remain closed.

During Israeli wars, most banks and official organizations remain shut, which means a total halt to family activities. This is what Gaza economists see as a deliberate obstacle laid down to sabotage Gaza’s economy, public services and disrupt family routines.

“The Ramadan and Eid season is already dying, as our market usually relies on seasonal goods that are needed by the population,” says Maher Tabaa, a Gaza economist and public affairs officer at the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce.

Tabaa believes that even if the border crossings into Israel or Egypt are opened soon, many perishable foodstuffs, such dairy products, will be expired by the time they arrive to the markets.

Another vital product that relies on daily bank transfers is fuel. “If there is no transfer, then no fuel will come,” says Tabaa. “If that leads to something, then it leads to further recession of the Palestinian economy.”

A businessman, dealing with Israeli merchants, who wished to remain anonymous said: “We are not in the luxurious position to order from Israeli merchants without payments.”

“Without payment, there are no supplies coming through, meaning that my ability to import basic products, like milk, is jeopardized.”

“Israeli service providers don’t care about wars. They want payment in advance before they deliver. If milk for our children runs out in the coming days, we will have more of a crisis,” he adds.

Runaway inflation

After days of bombardment, all products are now scarce in Gaza. Farmers daren’t harvest their crops, for fear of being targeted by Israeli missiles, which are ravaging large swaths of agricultural land as well as urban residential areas.

The Ministry of Interior announced that damage was estimated at around $2.5m in Gaza’s agricultural sector alone, but worse could yet be to come. Back in 2012 when Israel launched, what by all accounts was a smaller action than the current Operation Protective Edge, some $20m worth of damage was inflicted on Gaza’s farmland, according to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees.

Jarwsha says scarcity has pushed up prices in just a few days, wreaking havoc on a civilian population which was already hard-hit by unemployment, that in February, was creeping up toward 40 percent.

Osama al-Jarwsha struggles to keep his shop open (MEE / Mohammed Omer)
Osama al-Jarwsha struggles to keep his shop open (MEE / Mohammed Omer)

“Even those who can afford something find the price increase expensive,” says Jarwsha.

“Prior to the war, seven kilos of potatoes cost 10 shekels ($3). Now it’s four kilos for the same price. Onions were eight kilos for 10 shekels ($3), now it’s down to five kilos,” he says.

After power cuts and being forced to close for a few days, the produce on his shelves is now starting to go bad. He had stockpiled before the crisis, but with few customers and limited refrigeration capacity, not to mention long power blackouts that make refrigeration even harder, his extra supplies are also on the verge of spoiling.

Some of his customers are willing to risk their lives by coming to the shop, but many have to ask for credit, due to lack of funds. His debt book is now full of the names of customers who have promised to pay him back. Jarwsha estimates he is owed tens of thousands of shekels (thousands of US dollars), and is unsure how much of it he will receive.

Other sellers, however, are taking a different approach. 25 year-old Hamza al-Baba, who runs a butcher’s shop in Gaza, says he is trying to sell everything as fast as he can, even if many of his customers are unable to pay.

“Selling meat now, even as debt, is better than having it rot, when refrigerators are off,” says Baba, while explaining that he’s scared of working and opening up his shop.

All shopkeepers are worried that they too may become a target for Israeli strikes, which have so far killed more than 120 Palestinians in Gaza since Monday and show no sign of abating.

But Baba says his troubles started long before Israel decided to start its latest aerial attacks early on Monday. 

“This recession has affected us. After all, not many people are buying meat anymore, they use chicken-flavor stock instead,” he says.

Some in Gaza have developed the habit of walking around during the last bit of daylight - just an hour before iftar - to buy whatever fresh fruit and vegetables they can. With Israel’s F-16’s targeting private and public transport, however, most of those who don’t live within walking distance are choosing to stay at home rather than take their chances.

Baba believes that this has left most people using canned foods and preserves to survive. The lucky few who have money are holding on to it, and relying on debt as best they can, in case the situation gets even worse, and Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza intensifies further.

“There are worse days ahead, and they’re saving whatever they can for that,” he says.