Lights Out

Powerless In Gaza

05.01.13 4:15 PM ET

For most PhD researchers, lack of laptop battery power is a minor inconvenience, solved by an awkward exchange with a stranger whose sweater is blocking all the power outlets at the local coffeehouse. Not in Gaza. For Mohammed Omer, a Rafah resident taking a critical eye to factional broadcasting in the Hamas era, the “low battery” beep represents something far more imposing: the decisions of governments near and far. Each day the power goes out across Rafah at some point, with one deeply disturbing exception: the morgue. When desperate enough, Omer pulls up a seat next to his recently deceased neighbors and borrows just enough of their generator’s power supply to continue the work he thinks will ultimately benefit his community.

Since 2007, Israel has placed restrictions on what can enter the Gaza Strip, at points going so far as to base food imports on daily calorie calculations for citizens. The list of items allowed into Gaza has increased steadily since 2010 and the cease-fire negotiated to end Israel’s “Pillar of Defense” assault resulted in further liberalization, at least on paper. Nonetheless, prices on basic goods remain inflated and energy in places like Rafah is no less scarce. According to sources in Rafah, much of the Qatari oil that was supposed to enter Gaza as part the agreement remains in limbo at Egyptian-Israeli crossing points. In any case, the materials and resources necessary for daily life, let alone the reconstruction of a space so recently demolished by war, remain scarce.

The fundamental fallacy found in much thinking about Gaza is that the restriction of resources harms the forces of autocracy. The opposite is the case. On the most obvious level, any material deprivation at this juncture will inevitably be associated by a majority of Gazans with the destruction wrought by Israeli bombs, as opposed to the failings of Hamas governance. There are more subtle concerns however. For example, it must be understood that it is Mohammed Omer, not the Hamas minister of information, who must sneak into the morgue to send an email.

I help advise Omer, a twenty-eight year old journalist, in his doctoral studies at Rotterdam University. He has a record of turning a critical eye on all political entities, including Israel, Fatah and Hamas. In 2009, bedridden at a Dutch hospital while recovering from injuries suffered at an Israeli checkpoint, he decided to pursue a PhD. Unable to make media from Gaza, he chose to study and critique it. It’s an important topic with relevance far beyond Gaza.

I eagerly accepted an invitation to advise Omer, believing his research could offer policy makers an important perspective on media in Gaza. His study was to be conducted with partial cooperation from Hamas. Some might worry about bias, but I see this as an important step towards normalizing public, critical investigation of the faction’s inner workings. Most importantly, the work not being done for a Gazan university. This provides a crucial advantage in writing honestly about the government. However, lack of local institutional affiliation only acerbates obstacles such as power outages and shortages of basic working supplies.

World attention only really focuses in on Gaza during times of direct warfare. In between cycles of violence, far too often the debate boils down to whether or not Gazans are literally starving to death. An exclusive focus on these sorts of difficulties allows Israeli, Egyptian and Western governments to defend the situation on the ground by pointing to the fact that it isn’t the same sort of humanitarian crisis found in other, truly impoverished parts of the globe. Of course, this isn’t the sort of approach that the U.S. and other powers have taken to the rest of the region. In Tunisia, America is putting $20 million towards building “civil society.” No one considers encouraging Tunisians to simply subsist.

Institutions that foster debate and critical inquiry are thought to be central to the democracy-building process of a nation. In Gaza, the system in place restricts access to even the most basic tools of civil society, not through internal censorship, but via externally sanctioned limits on resources. On many days Omer must turn to the black market, paying up to $15 he cannot spare for a light bulb in order to keep working past sundown.

No single dissertation will alter the status quo on its own. The idea instead is to help foster a culture more open to self-criticism. A situation that deprives independent citizens of resources beyond the most basic staples of life only serves the interests of those in charge. Mohammed keeps working, struggling and straining his eyes to help move things in the right direction. If only the world around him showed an interest in helping.