Deaths and debts
Juliana died in 2012, aged 17, after she accidentally took the wrong medication for a severe stomach ache. Just over a year later, Lina, 14 at the time, died when she fell from the fourth floor of a building. Jumana says her son, Qusai, inhaled smoke from Israeli shells fired during the December 2008 to January 2009 hostilities, and developed respiratory problems that contributed to his death in 2014 at the age of six.
This year, Jumana grieved the loss of her 19-year-old daughter, Jasmin, who died from complications of kidney failure.
Medical bills left the family in greater debt.
All told, the family owes NIS 2,900 (Israeli shekels, equivalent to USD 825) for groceries, prescriptions and rent. Unpaid promissory notes (a written promise to pay an agreed sum by a certain date) to landlords have landed Jumana’s husband, Adel, a tailor by profession, in prison since July 2018.
Thousands at risk of eviction
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Public Works and Housing, some 2,000 families in the Gaza Strip were at risk of eviction in 2018 over their inability to pay rent. As of August this year, the Palestinian Ministry of Social Development pegged the number of families in the Gaza Strip under eviction risk at 9,356.
The two different sources make it difficult to verify the increase in families facing eviction, but the numbers suggest a significantly worsening situation.
Other indicators, such as the Palestine Monetary Authority’s data of a 6 per cent increase in returned cheques over two years and an associated 5 per cent rise in prosecution of cases against debtors last year, point to a growing number of families defaulting on loans and rental payments.
Spiralling economic descent
Out of 522 vulnerable households, comprising 3,366 individuals, surveyed by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in the northern Gaza Strip between February and March this year, 381 reported struggling to pay their housing rent.
Unemployment among the 522 households stood at 61 per cent, while a further 21 per cent had unreliable work, and 83 per cent reported debts ranging from NIS 200 (USD 57) to NIS 6,600 (USD 1,875).
“Gaza’s spiralling economic descent sees human distress reaching a breaking point,” says NRC's Palestine Country Director, Kate O'Rourke. “A devastating – and preventable – humanitarian crisis has emerged out of years of siege, cycles of hostilities, and internal disputes, with rising poverty and unemployment levels, and declines in access to basic services, food, clean water, and safe housing.”
Origins of the crisis
Israel’s severe restrictions on access, movement, and trade have prevented the private sector in the Gaza Strip from assuming its natural role as the main driver of job creation and economic growth.
The Palestinian Authority has forced thousands of its public employees in Gaza into early retirement and reduced the salaries of others, which has left the coastal enclave cash-strapped and with deteriorated coping capacities.
A fiscal crisis during much of 2019, further precipitated by declines in foreign aid and a dispute over Israel’s transfer of taxes and import duties to the Palestinian Authority, has forced additional severe public spending cuts, including a rollback in social assistance.
As a result, more Palestinians in Gaza have become dependent on loans, forcing them into mounting debt, with a growing number of families facing legal action for defaulting on loans and rental payments.
Forced to sleep on the street
Evictions have become routine for Jumana and her family, who live in Al-Shati refugee camp near Gaza City. Over the past few years, they have found themselves sleeping on the street, or at the port, several times.
“When we were in the tent in the street, we felt very embarrassed whenever people walked past us,” Jumana recalls. “We tried to cover ourselves with plastic and carton sheets. We did not have water, so we could not shower, and our poor personal hygiene caused us skin problems.”
While living on the street, the family relied on the owner of a nearby restaurant and goodwill from other people for food. Jumana’s boys also scavenged the local market for leftover vegetables to supplement their diet of bread and tea.
Dropped out of school
All five of Jumana’s surviving children have dropped out of school because of the number of times they have been forced to move after being evicted. They also lack funds for education-related expenses, such as uniforms and transportation.
Ali, 21, and Mohammad, 15, completed first grade only, while their siblings Jenin, 17, and Saed, 16, made it to the second grade, and Diana graduated from fifth grade.
In principle, Jumana’s family receives NIS 1,600 (USD 453) in cash assistance from the Ministry of Social Development every three months. In fact, this support is often delayed or incomplete.
Jumana also receives food vouchers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), but often uses them to repay grocery debts. This is commonplace among poor families in Gaza: more than half of the households in our survey resorted to selling the assistance that they received.
16 per cent have no income
Out of the 522 households we surveyed, 70 per cent receive support from a combination of the Ministry of Social Development, UNRWA, or the World Food Program (WFP). A staggering 16 per cent, or 84 households, however, reported receiving no assistance and having no source of income.
According to a report by aid agency Action Against Hunger (AAH), the Ministry of Social Development cut support to 1,000 families in April 2018 and a further 200 in August of that year. Other families saw their assistance reduced by 30 per cent.
A fiscal crisis in 2019, precipitated by progressive reductions in foreign aid and an unresolved dispute over Israel's transfer of taxes and import duties to the Palestinian Authority, has forced severe public spending cuts, including a rollback of social assistance.
Since May, Jumana’s family has been receiving cash-for-rent from NRC, as part of a project funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project aims to support 280 vulnerable households to stave off the threat of eviction.
“We are terrified of living on the street after the cash-for-rent assistance from NRC finishes,” says Jumana. “We always think about what we are going to do after the end of the project. I dream about having a room to myself one day.”
A psychological toll
The loss of the children, “one after the other,” as Jumana says, has taken its toll, physically and psychologically, on the surviving family members. Adel, and Jumana’s oldest son, Ali, both have psychological problems and require expensive prescriptions.
According to NRC’s survey, 542 out of 1,863 individuals of working age do not work due to sickness or disability, whether physical or psychological. Of that number, 57 per cent, or 299 individuals, are heads of their households and primary breadwinners.
Ali was only 15 when he witnessed his sister plummet to her death. A four-month stint in a psychiatric hospital barely scratched the surface, and he increasingly turned to drugs and crime. Now 21, he has been serving a seven-year sentence for robbery since 2017.
The prison has granted Ali furlough at weekends, and he has used the time, together with his family, to participate in the Great March of Return mass protests on Fridays along Gaza’s perimeter fence with Israel. Without hope or prospects for the future, Jumana says her children attend the demonstrations for a sense of stress release from their daily lives.
Injuries and loss of income
Unfortunately, Ali, his sister and father were unable to escape injury.
Ali was shot twice in the leg in separate incidents in 2018, sustaining serious nerve and artery damage. His latest injury occurred in January this year, when a rubber-coated steel bullet fractured his nose.
His sister Diana, 18, sustained shrapnel wounds to her left arm and thigh in 2018. Then in March this year, a tear gas canister struck her in the right shoulder. While Diana’s father looked for her amid the crowds, he fell to the ground with a bullet wound to the leg. Complications arising from diabetes and kidney problems have stalled his recovery.
Fatalities and injuries in the context of these mass protests have resulted in many families losing their breadwinners. According to the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, between 30 March and 31 December 2018, Israeli forces killed 189 Palestinians and injured a further 9,204 with live ammunition, bullet fragments or shrapnel, rubber-coated metal bullets, and direct tear gas canister hits.
Too many mothers in Gaza, like Jumana, have to make impossible choices, often with life or death consequences, every day. More than 1 in 5 of the households surveyed by NRC are headed by women. Most have minimal opportunities to generate income and many have the added responsibility of caring for injured family members on top of their home duties.
Bearing the responsibility
In the city of Jabalia, 4 km north of Gaza City, we meet Eitidal, 30, a wife and mother of two daughters, Layali, 11, and Rimas, 7. Eitidal often bears the responsibility for the family, as her husband, Medhat, 33, suffers from epileptic seizures and psychological problems, and has been unable to find reliable employment.
Eitidal and her family have been renting their home in Jabalia for the past year, where NRC is supporting them with cash-for-rent. Less than half of the surveyed households have lived in the same place for more than one year, due to their inability to pay rent.
“Just before NRC’s support arrived, the landlord warned us that we had to quickly search for another house, as we had four months of unpaid rent,” says Eitidal. “We remain worried about what will happen when the six months of cash-for-rent assistance ends, and we fear eviction.”
A quarter live in sub-standard homes
The apartment’s poor condition, limited ventilation, mice and cockroaches are still better than living on the streets. Out of the 522 households we surveyed, 23 per cent live in homes that fail to meet the minimum standards set by the Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency body that coordinates the humanitarian shelter response. Four per cent live in informal shelters such as storage units, which lack running water and sanitation.
The family has been evicted twice before over accumulated rental debts. Their previous landlords cut off their electricity, threw their furniture away, and submitted a complaint to the police.
Of the half who responded to questions about actions taken against them by landlords, 62 per cent reported eviction threats, 20 per cent had cuts to electricity or water supplies, 8 per cent signed promissory notes, and 5 per cent landed behind bars.
Food and water hard to come by
Too often, Eitidal says, she finds herself without food for her children. In May, her daughter, Rimas, tired and hungry after school exams, ate leftover food thrown away by a nearby restaurant and had a nasty bout of food poisoning.
Since hearing of the story, the restaurant owner has given the family cooked rice for free, and whenever Eitidal has nothing to feed her kids, she sends them there to eat.
Even drinking water can be hard to come by.
“We do not have either a water tank or a jerry can,” says Eitidal. “I send my daughters to the supermarkets to fill ten water bottles at a cost of one shekel [USD 0.28]. Sometimes we do not have one shekel and must hope for the goodwill of neighbours.”
Selling food to buy medicine
According to the 2018 food security survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 68.5 per cent of Gaza’s households are food insecure, with 47 per cent severely affected.
Eitidal’s family receives cash assistance of NIS 1,000 (USD 284) from the Ministry of Social Development every six months and UNRWA food vouchers every three months. Eitidal has had to sell the food items she purchases with these vouchers for half their worth to have money for medicine, gas, and other basic necessities.
Around six months ago, Eitidal, in desperate need of money, promised the same food items she was due to receive to two different people. When she was unable to provide the second person with the items, he made a complaint to the police.
“The police came to take my husband to jail, and my daughters started to cry,” says Eitidal. “Since then, they have become terrified every time they see a police officer.”
Eitidal’s husband spent 19 days behind bars.
More recently, Eitidal signed a promissory note for outstanding debts of NIS 220 (USD 63) to a supermarket owner, who involved the police to force the family to pay the full amount in instalments.
“The day we receive the cash assistance from the Ministry of Social Development is the worst ever,” says Eitidal. “All the lenders come asking for their money.”