Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Picking Pebbles to Live Somehow

Eva Bartlett

GAZA CITY, Mar 2 2010 (IPS) - They come by the hundreds every day to sand dunes and rubble sites to sift for pebbles, stones and sand that can be used in making concrete blocks. They lean into trash bins across the Strip, and wade through piles of rubbish scavenging for plastics, metals, and any bits worth reselling.

Gathering gravel for a living. Credit: Eva Bartlett

Gathering gravel for a living. Credit: Eva Bartlett

They venture dangerously close to the border fence to unlock metal and steel rods from their demolished home heaps. They are Gaza’s recyclers, and in a Strip where unemployment hovers at nearly 50 percent and poverty soars over 80 percent, environmental considerations are far from their minds. They do this work out of necessity.

Yousef, 14, leads two of his younger brothers in their daily hunt for concrete materials off the highway between Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah.

“We live in Khan Younis and it takes about 30 minutes to get to this site. But we stop anywhere along the road to look for gravel,” he says, stooping to sort rocks. One of his brothers works in Gaza’s tunnels, another has no work. “I’ve got five sisters, too. There’re 12 of us altogether, and my dad has no work.”

Like many unemployed men in Gaza, Yousef’s father used to work in Israel, until Israeli authorities closed Gaza’s borders. Now, he infrequently works day labour for farmers when there is work, but the pay is low.

Moatassan, Yousef’s three-year-old brother, piles pebbles onto the donkey cart, adding his bit to the family income. “Each cartful is worth about 30 shekels (eight dollars),” Yousef says. “We can usually do two carts a day.”

He is characteristic of Palestine’s children who become adults all too quickly. “Al hamdilliah, thank God, this is at least some sort of work,” he says, never breaking from his rock sorting.

A few hundred metres south along Salah el-Din road, the soft sand hills are crowded with the day’s sorters. Children jab shovels into the sand, pile it into buckets, and laboriously haul the buckets to piles a hundred metres off. They do this every day, morning to night.

Older women sit, makeshift sieves dancing as they sift the finer sand, likewise piling it into buckets to be carried away. Abu Majed, a man in his late forties, works with some of his children digging and bucketing sand.

“I worked as a fisherman all my life. But after the Israelis started attacking us more on the sea, and prevented us from going out very far, there was no longer any point in fishing,” he says.

Under the Oslo accords, Palestinian fishermen should be allowed to fish 20 miles off the coast. Israeli gunboats impose a limit of three miles, firing and shelling on fishermen who venture near or beyond three miles, or even on those nearer in.

“We were sardine fishers, but sardines aren’t found next to the coast, you need to go out beyond six miles. What could I do? I have six children to feed. So I started selling sand and gravel. This is hard work and I only earn around 30 shekels a day. But it’s better than starving.”

Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s industry has been decimated by the combination of the siege – imposed shortly after Hamas was elected in 2006, and tightened in June 2007 – and by Israel’s winter 2008-2009 war on Gaza which destroyed or badly damaged 700 factories and businesses, according to Oxfam.

The nearly 4,000 industrial establishments which formerly operated in Gaza have ground to a halt, leaving a mere 5 percent of factories operating, reports the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), noting that even those operating do so at greatly reduced levels of activity.

The combination of siege and the war on Gaza led to a loss of roughly 120,000 private sector jobs since mid 2007, according to OCHA.

And while the full closure of Gaza’s borders and trade has become most severe in the last three years, Israeli journalist Amira Hass points out that Israel’s debilitating policy of Gaza border closures has been in place since the 1990s.

But to those scavenging off the roads and in garbage dumps, it’s the stark contrast between just years ago when there was some work and now, when there is none, that is the hardest.

Near central Gaza’s Deir el-Balah, just off the main north-south road, five men work what used to be a 12-man job at the scrap metal yard.

“We work from 7 am to 7 pm, and another shift takes over,” says Mahmoud. “We earn at most 50 shekels a day. It’s not enough – we have to take taxis here and home and are trying to meet the expenses of our families.”

Prior to the siege, working from 7 am to 4 pm the workers would earn 100 shekels. The metal was exported, sold outside of Gaza. Now, the factory owner waits, collecting metal in heaping piles, waiting for the time when exporting will be possible again.

“We didn’t all work this job before. Some of us studied in university, some worked construction. We all had jobs or lives better than this,” says Mahmoud.

“But we take the work because there’s no other option. We need to live.”

The steel, gravel, sand and metals Gaza’s poorest now scavenge for a pittance of shekels used to come from Israel, at a cheaper rate than what it currently sells for.

According to OCHA, one ton of cement now costs 3,400 shekels versus the 350 shekels it cost prior June 2007.

Whereas construction materials made up over 50 percent of pre-siege imports, according to the Palestine Trade Centre, since Israel’s war on Gaza, only 0.05 percent of the monthly average prior to the siege had been allowed into Gaza as of December 2009. The siege prevents cement, piping, wood, glass, steel and metals, as well as all but less than 40 items into Gaza.

Even if there were enough cement, 20 of 29 concrete factories were damaged in the Israeli war on Gaza, along with 39 other factories related to construction, reports OCHA. With over 6,400 houses destroyed or severely damaged, and nearly 53,000 with lesser damages, the need for these materials is great. And the wait has been long. Displaced families continue to rent apartments most cannot afford to pay for, crowd into relatives overcrowded homes, or live in tents.

At a concrete factory using recycled rubble, hand-gathered gravel, and tunnel-imported cement, the prices are high and still at a loss.

“One cement block costs four shekels now. Before, it was one shekel,” says factory owner Abu Fadi. “Now we wait for one week for a pile of pebbles and rocks like this to reprocess into concrete blocks,” he gestures at the mound ready for processing.

“The cement we buy from Egypt is over three times as expensive since it comes through the tunnels,” he explains. “It’s absurd. Now, we pay 150 shekels per ton of gravel. But before, we used to pay people to take the gravel away.”

Gravel and cement quality, availability and prices are just some of the issues.

“Gaza has an electricity crisis now. So that means we can only run our machinery when the power is on. But there are usually cuts for eight hours a day. Twelve hours now. So we sit and wait.”

Down the lane is a small steel recycling shop. Donkey carts unload the rubble-scavenged steel and workers clamp and hammer it straight.

“It’s ironic. The demolished homes create a demand for building material. But at the same time, they provide the rubble and iron needed to re-build,” says Abu Fadi.

Ahmad, 23, quit university to work in the tunnels, bringing roughly 100 shekels a day when there is money. Some days his tunnel brings cement. This day’s cargo is gravel from Egypt. “A 50 kg bag of gravel will sell for 100 shekels in Gaza,” he says.

Sameh finished university and worked for two years before he became unemployed. “I joined my friends finally, gathering rocks and rubble near the border. We can sell one ton for 150 shekels, that’s 50 shekels per person. It’s hard, backbreaking work. I’m sore all over.”

Workers in the border regions suffer more than the strain of their efforts. Since mid 2007, at least 33 Palestinian civilians have been killed by Israeli soldiers, including 11 children, as of August 2009. Over 61 civilians, including 13 children, have been injured, according to OCHA.

Shahin Abu Ajuwa (17) still has shrapnel in both his legs after an Israeli tank fired a dart bomb at him and his cousin Saber, 15, as they collected rocks and scrap metal east of Jabaliya, at the end of November 2009.

“We were over 600 metres from the border. We were in an area where many people go daily to collect metal and stones,” Ajuwa said. “The Israelis always see people working here, it’s normal.”

One of eight sons, Ajuwa has five sisters, and the 10 or 20 shekels he might have earned that day would have gone towards his family income.

“The doctors removed one from my leg, but there are still six more left.”

Some are abducted and detained by Israeli soldiers. Every week, news reports announce more rubble workers have been abducted by Israeli soldiers from within Gaza, including children, many of whom were beyond the 300 metres designated by Israel as “off-limits” to Palestinians.

The Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights reports such an incident on Feb. 10, when Israeli soldiers fired on youths gathering rubble 350 metres from the border. One of the three workers, 17-year-old Mohammed Suboh, was injured in the hand and chest by Israeli gunfire. All three were taken to Israeli detention. Suboh was released four days later.

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