Poverty is not the full picture

By Tim Marshall, August 5, 2010
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The Israeli air strikes were down the Gaza City beach road, but I went shopping.

This was not a dereliction of journalistic duty, nor hedonism in a war zone. The bombed out Hamas building was taped off, the media prevented from getting there, and anyway, while air strikes are news, shopping malls are newer news.

Everything in Gaza is political. The opening of the Gaza Shopping Mall is, according to the extreme ends of the anti-Israel/pro-Israel spectrum as follows: either a rare chance for the long-suffering Gazans to have something of a normal life during the despicable Israeli siege, or proof that the dastardly international media has been overstating the levels of poverty.

Both views seize upon any shred of “evidence” to bolster their argument; this is especially true in the blogosphere. For example, there has been a spate of online articles recently about Gaza’s new “Olympic-size swimming pool”. This was contrasted with the plethora of Israeli towns which lack such luxurious facilities. Great story — except, it isn’t true.

I went to see the pool. It was 17 metres by 17 metres.

Such is the ferocity of deeply felt prejudice, that any attempt to correct inaccuracies is met with a volley of abuse. Last year in Gaza I reported on a mass Hamas wedding involving 400 Hamas men and their brides, complete with 400 young bridesmaids aged from about three years old to ten years old. The accompanying footage of the bridesmaids was subsequently used by dozens of bloggers to “prove” that Hamas men were marrying children. My posting on the sites explaining that I had attended the wedding, and that the girls were bridesmaids, only provoked insults of the “lying Hamas apologist” standard.

So reporting on the moneyed classes of Gaza runs the risk of the information being used to “prove” that the Gazans are not suffering. This would be a little like taking a report about detached houses in Didsbury to argue that there is no poverty in Manchester, but you can already find such examples. Google ‘Roots Gaza’ for more details.

Nevertheless, a full picture of Gaza needs to include the showrooms selling cars smuggled through the tunnels, the swimming pools, water parks, boutique hotels, excellent restaurants and the new Gaza Mall. They are doing well out of those lucky enough to have jobs, and the media, diplomats and aid workers who also frequent them.

The middle class of Gaza may be small, but it is wrong to depict all Gazans as if they spend their lives in abject poverty scrabbling through the ruins of buildings bombed by the IDF. The poverty levels seen here can be found in many parts of the Middle East — what is different is how widespread it is, and that it is made worse by the fact that the few who escape poverty still cannot escape Gaza.

What does need more reporting is the role that Fatah and Hamas play in the people’s suffering as well as that inflicted by Israeli actions. Here are three examples.

Israel has lifted the blockade on the import of cars. But Fatah and Hamas cannot agree on who controls the business and so the cars still come through the smuggling tunnels, doubling their price. It’s the most expensive “delivery charge” in the world.

Passports are controlled by Fatah in the West Bank and they send very few across to Gaza because they don’t want Hamas to be able to issue travel documents.

There are power cuts in Gaza because Israel doesn’t supply enough electricity for everyone’s needs. But that’s because Fatah pays Israel for electricity for both the West Bank and Gaza, then collects money from Hamas for its share. Hamas hasn’t paid Fatah, so Fatah hasn’t paid Israel for Gaza’s share, so Israel cuts the power for Gaza reducing the shops, offices and hospitals to relying on generators using smuggled fuel. Whose fault is that? The politicians. Who suffers? Everyone.

Tim Marshall is Sky News Foreign Editor

    Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010

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