• Iyad Al Attar has lost his farmland to the conflict, so now grows fruit and vegetables in water without any soil. (SBS Dateline)
Gaza will be unliveable by 2020 according to the UN, with daily life already a struggle to find food and shelter, but Dateline finds the people bringing innovation and inspiration to the fight for survival.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

With my eyes closed, I can hear the crash of waves and feel the wet sand and warm sunshine so familiar from beaches at home in Australia.

But when I open my eyes, reality snaps sharply into focus: this is Gaza.

The sand is strewn with dense layers of rubbish, nearby buildings have bullet and rocket holes and the breakwall framing this harbourside sunset is a messy mass of rubble – repurposed remnants of three wars in six years.

A group of young Gazans giggles on the beach nearby, posing for a selfie stick held together with masking tape.

“As-salamu ‘alaykum!” they wave, meaning "peace be on you", before quickly warning me not to wade any deeper: the city’s sewage is pumped – untreated – straight into the Mediterranean Sea.

“Welcome to the best worst place in the world!” one prominent local grins, telling me resilience is what sets Gaza apart from other wartorn nations, not the adversity of a decade-long blockade, controlling who and what is allowed to enter and leave.

This is the only life Sari Ibrahem has known. He describes the home he loves as “a big prison” from which he has never been able to escape, even momentarily.

“It’s our culture to be positive!” he enthuses.

Known best by his stage name, MC Sari, he raps about life as a young Palestinian.

“Ten years ago I got three bullets – my chest, my back, my stomach,” Sari tells me.

But his first songs weren’t about his misfortune of becoming collateral damage or the pain and anger of adapting to his new life in a wheelchair.

They were about his first true love. “There’s always a girl!” I laugh. “Love is life, right?” he smirks.

When I ask MC Sari his dream, he answers without hesitation. “I want to live in peace.”

1.95 million people are crammed into this 360 square kilometre sliver of land.

It is one of the most densely populated places on the planet, also home to the world’s highest unemployment rate.

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent here, the United Nations warns Gaza is in freefall - an unsustainable, spiralling state of “de-development”.

It’s feared the city’s aquifers will ultimately be irreparably damaged by pollution and a staggering 900,000 people here rely entirely on food aid to survive.

“I think there’s a strange perversity in Gaza,” the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) boss Melinda Young tells me.

“I actually don’t like the word resilience here for Gaza, because it’s almost like people can continue,” the Australian says. “People can’t really continue… Gaza can’t be expected to continue to manage.”

Israeli response to Dateline's story
Dateline asked the Israeli Government to respond to 'The Survivor's Guide to Gaza'. This is the full reply from the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

The situation has become so grave the United Nations believes that “without any economic or effective political outlet”, Gaza will become “unliveable” by 2020.

Resilience and determination alone will not be enough to save it.

“To think that in a few years Gaza will actually no longer be a viable place for humans to live with any kind of dignity, it’s actually quite heart-wrenching,” Melinda tells me.

Explainer: How does Gaza feed itself?
Its most fertile farmland is lost in a no-man’s-land, its fishermen can’t work freely and its imported food is blockaded, so how does Gaza feed itself?

Even in a place where the locals talk of time in wars not years - “my house was destroyed two wars ago”, “I haven’t worked for three wars” - this is a reality no one I’ve met here is willing to accept.

“Palestinian people are ambitious and they take risks,” third generation farmer Iyad Al-Attar explains.

His family’s prized paddocks were bulldozed in 2009, his land now sits barren. Swallowed up as part of the deadly no-go ‘buffer zone’ wedged hard against the border with Israel.

Gaza’s most fertile land is also the most dangerous, monitored by automatic machine gun towers that detect movement and shoot without warning. Like so many here, Iyad has had to adapt to feed his family.

He spent three years building an impressive fish farm in his backyard, cleverly developing a system of pumps to recycle the nutrient-rich tank water to grow bountiful soil-less crops of lettuce and other fruit and vegetables.

The hydroponic business grew, but the large greenhouse roof protecting the crops below made the family’s home a target. His elaborate set-up was demolished - twice - by drone strikes in the 2012 and 2014 wars.

But with the help of his sons, Iyad has rebuilt. And he knows that with tensions rising, he probably will again.

“There is no alternative”, he tells me. “If people stopped working, they will die from hunger… despite all the destruction and our hard lives, we are still alive after all”.

As my producer and I make the long, two-kilometre walk through the imposing caged no-man’s-land linking Gaza to the outside world, Hamas fires rockets at Israeli military positions.

The IDF retaliates with a series of air strikes on Hamas strongholds, detecting and destroying a series of tunnels along the border.

The Jerusalem Post describes the skirmish as “the most significant escalation since the August 2014 ceasefire.”

“Conflict might not be immediate here, but it’s inevitable,” Melinda Young tells me. “All the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed, it’s just a matter of time.”

“People here almost look at their watches and say, it’s almost two years since the last conflict, when is the next one going to come?”

A giant, colourful mural booms ‘Gaza Love Life’ – but according to the United Nations, this is a city - and a culture - fighting for survival. And it’s a battle they don’t appear to be winning.

See the full story at the top of the page, and read the Israeli authorities' response in full.

More

The Intern Diaries: The Survivor’s Guide to Gaza
When Dateline went to film a story on the lack of food, water and power in Gaza, how did reporter Brett Mason and field producer Will West manage to look after themselves?
'No one is giving you water': the fight for water in the West Bank
Water shortages in the West Bank have left residents struggling to find supplies for Eid.
Comment: Life in Gaza - two years on from Operation Protective Edge
PHOTO ESSAY: Australian photojournalist Darrian Traynor travelled to Gaza and met with some of the families caught in the middle of the fighting.

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Credits

  • Camera/Producer: Will West
  • Editor: Simon Phegan

Transcript

It's an incredibly soothing sound, listening to the sea. It brings a welcome calm to many of us. It's early morning and the swell pulls local surfers out of bed.

SURFER (Translation):  I only have freedom when I am surfing, to me surfing means freedom.

But their lives are far from calm. This beach is actually the Gaza Strip, a home they love and hate at the same time.

SURFER (Translation): We live in a prison. In the sea, we forget our sufferings. Coming out, we remember them.

It's hard to forget about war when you've lived through three in six years.

SURFER (Translation): When I’m surfing, I think of the drones. Their sound means only death. The drones will kill a boy, a girl, a woman and so on.

And so begins another day in this besieged city, where 1.9 million people are trapped in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. I haven't come here to speak to politicians or soldiers. This is a story about everyday families and how they cope in what some call "hell". And this is their hell - wars that have left thousands dead and many more injured.

The violence was triggered in 2006. Hamas took power with an election promise to destroy neighbouring Israel. Israel retaliated, sealing the borders, controlling who and what can come and go. The economy is crippled and Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world.

MELINDA YOUNG, UNRWA:  Conflict might not be immediate here, but it is inevitable because all the root causes of the conflict haven't been addressed. It's just a matter of time and people almost look at their watches a bit - it's almost two years since the last conflict, when is the next one going to come?

Gaza is a place where locals talk of time in wars not years. This is a place where four gun rounds can go off and a small child doesn't even pause or look up. It's a place where people are losing the ability to do the most basic things, like feed themselves.  57% of Gazans don't know where their next meal will come from, with their once-fertile farmland stolen by war.

REPORTER:  So this is a buffer zone, yeah?

AHMAD ABU TAIR, FARMER (Translation):  Without question or warning, they can shoot. True, this place is dangerous, people work on normal days but when there is a risk of danger, they might leave the season’s crops. The wheat, the crops, might be destroyed, better than the person getting killed.

I'm travelling to meet a man whose family has farmed here for generations. But now their land lies on the baron border, the deadly kill zone between Gaza and Israel. Iyad and his boys show me the lonely ruins of what used to be their family home.

IYAD AL ATTAR, HYDROPONIC FARMER (Translation): When the IDF got inside, they started shooting everywhere. They fired live bullets into the walls.

It's destroyed by the conflict. Looking around his house, I learn how lucky he was to escape.

IYAD AL ATTAR (Translation): The strike hit this unit, the whole family was in this room. We were lucky, just five minutes after we left the place was hit. Had we been five minutes late, we would have been martyred.

Iyad is a man who finds little to smile about.

IYAD AL ATTAR (Translation): Our life is harder than that of our fathers and grandfathers, our life today is a life of siege and destruction, closures, a life full of suffering. There are no indications to suggest a better future for our children the next generation will have an even harder life.

But I also learn that Iyad is determined. In Gaza, 900,000 people rely on food aid but not Iyad. His land was stolen by war, taken in the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel but farming runs in his family, so he was not about to give up. He's found a way to grow his lettuce without his farm.

IYAD AL ATTAR (Translation): Palestinian people are ambitious and they take risks. You can’t leave a whole nation, a city of almost two million, without food security. If people stopped working, investing, they would die of hunger.

Here is how it works: Instead of the soil that once cultivated his crops, Iyad set up a simple, yet clever system. He recycles nutrients from these aquaponic fish living in his backyard. Their waste water fertilizes and harvests soil as crops. It means these lettuces don't actually need any land to grow.

IYAD AL ATTAR (Translation): The Gaza Strip is in dire need of this kind of farming, because of the lack of fresh water, urban sprawl and the scarcity of agricultural land.

But despite Iyad's efforts, life here is getting worse. Experts call it "de-development". Basically it means this place is going backwards. Before the blockade, freshly caught fish were one of Gaza's biggest exports. These families have been fishing off the coast for generations, but now they're trapped inside a nine-mile inclusion zone.

As we set off from the sea port, we pass a flotilla of protesters. They're rallying in support of political prisoners in Egypt. Our camera doesn't go unnoticed. Hamas wants to know who we are.

HAMAS (Translation): We’ll keep this.

MAN (Translation):  No.

HAMAS (Translation):  Take it and go.

Soon we're crashing through the swell surrounded by a fleet of trawlers keen to show us how dire their catch has become. But our voyage is short lived.

To be looking forward to seeing what it's like for the fishermen here in Gaza and we've been turned around by police. We just left the harbour and three police in a speedboat actually chased us down and flagged us back to port. We're not really sure what's going on.

We're escorted back to the harbour and the trawler is impounded. Despite having the right paper work, I'm told Hamas are wary of us filming in the port because it's rumoured that weapons and contraband are often smuggled through here.   Back in port I meet some fishermen, auctioning off their meagre catch.

FISHERMAN (Translation): 19, 20. Mahmoud Abu Hasira, one at 20.

It's another slow day at the market.

GHAZAL BAKIR, FISH MARKET PRESIDENT (Translation): When they get paid, there’s some activity. Some people buy groupers, others buy sardines, it depends on their income. There are people in the Gaza Strip who have had no money for years. I don’t know how they are managing.

As Hamas brigades march down the street outside, I'm reminded that even when you're filleting a fish, conflict with Israel is always simmering.

MAN (Translation): What’s up? Spying on us for Hamas?

Many resent Hamas' intrusive presence. I keep getting told by the UN that if nothing changes here, Gaza will be unliveable by 2020. That's only a few years away. But could that really happen? Ahmad is a mushroom farmer, he's converted his roof and part of his house into a small factory. He uses rain water and a homemade culture to grow all of these mushrooms. I ask him what he thinks about the grim UN prediction.

REPORTER:  The UN says if things don't change here Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Do you think that's true?

AHMAD ABD ALHADI, MUSHROOM FARMER (Translation): Life will continue by the grace of God Almighty, not by the UN deciding whether it should continue or not. 

Ahmad is what resilience looks like in Gaza. He started this project as a way to provide food for his family. It's now become a full-time job.

AHMAD ABD ALHADI (Translation): I think this project could guarantee the main necessities, the main needs and necessities for families enabling them to live with dignity and to have freedom. Take me as an example, it can help the family to live well - it’s better than having no work. As the saying goes “Don’t give me a fish, teach me how to fish.”

As the sunsets, I randomly stumble across a group of young guys who've taken over a building site. It's pretty amazing how much fun you can have with some building sand, and an old tyre. These kids have been smiling and laughing all afternoon. You wouldn't know across the road all these buildings are riddled with bullet holes. They don’t have much but they are making the most of what they do have.

ABD ALRAHMAN ALKHALDI, PARKOUR INSTRUCTOR (Translation): Because of the siege in the Gaza Strip, limited supplies get into the Gaza Strip. We try to be innovative and to do things ourselves.

Playing in the sand, it's easy to get caught up in the infectious energy and optimism of Gazans, but it can distort the reality of living in a war zone, a reality that you can't escape, even on your wedding day. Nothing makes that clearer than a visit to the UN warehouse, few can afford to shop in the supermarkets here. Over 500,000 Gazans live in refugee camps. This is how most in Gaza survive.

MELINDA YOUNG:  We're providing food assistance to over 900,000 people. That's over half of the entire population of Gaza.

Everyone receives the same parcel. Inside there's rice, sugar, lentils, chickpeas, flour, and sardines. Meet Muin, he's come to collect the family's 3-month supply of food. I travel home with the father of three, he invites me inside where I meet Muin's wife Nada and his mother Usara. Muin tells me how desperate they find their lives in Gaza.

MUIN JA HJOUH, FATHER (Translation):  There are no job opportunities, without the UN’s food provisions, we would die of hunger. We can’t afford to buy these products. If I am short of anything… if I’m short of flour, I can’t afford even a single packet.

Let me help. What is this for?

NADA, MUIN’S WIFE (Translation):  This is for the salad. Use the spoon to add some. I made lentils using the provisions.

Food is scarce, but it's still a big part of family life.

NADA (Translation):  Of course when you have it all the time, you have had enough of it.

Everyone has a favourite cooking show, even here in Gaza. The ingredients are the same every week.

NADA (Translation): Children get bored eating the same food every day, I like the UN’s TV channel, it presents simple dishes.

The show is produced by the UN, it aims to bring back some dignity and creativity to food rations.

NADA (Translation): You can easily make these dishes at home. Excellent cooking Oum Saher. The lentils are delicious.

Their daily struggle comes down to unemployment. Even with a university degree, it's hard to get a job. But one determined group hasn't given up. They've built Gaza's very own version of Silicone Valley. Inside I meet members of the Gaza Sky Geeks. They get around the blockade through the World Wide Web.

REPORTER:  Some countries people say the internet is making the world smaller but for Gaza it's making the world bigger.

MAN:  So, so big.

There are 16 hardware and software developers in this building, who, despite their situation, are trying to make their way in the tech worlds. Power shortages are an everyday occurrence. So Omar Badawi has invented a way to charge your phone any time through an invention called "walk and charge".

OMAR BADAWI, WALK AND CHARGE INVENTOR:  Okay, it is a small device. You can hold it and when you are walking, you generate an amount of electricity that can help you to recharge your mobile anywhere, any time. I think it will be the next revolutionary device in the world.

As Omar walks off to charge his phone, he leads us to the city's main square, there I meet budding entrepreneur Tamer, a teenager who charges younger kids 20 cents for a ride in his push car.

TAMER JARAS, PUSH CAR OPERATOR (Translation):  I help my family, I also want to secure my future. I buy basic needs for the home. It’s our right to live like the rest of the world. Like other children, we want to live.

I spot a crowd gathering around a young man in a wheelchair. Turns out he's a rapper, who goes by the name of MC Sari. We chat and he tells me he's paralysed from being shot three times by Israeli soldiers.

SARI IBRAHEM, MC SARI:  In the Palestinian area, I got three bullets, my cousin got six - five in the left leg, one here. Just kids, you know. 16 - it's nothing, you know. I'm not a terrorist, I’m not a bad guys. We didn't have guns, anything, no. Just playing, messing around, you know.

It would be easy for him to be frustrated or angry, but instead he clings to hope.

REPORTER: What would you like to do, what's your dream?

SARI IBRAHEM:  To live in peace.

I came to Gaza to meet everyday Palestinians and they taught me it's ingenuity and resilience that makes this place feel so alive, despite the war.

SARI IBRAHEM:  This is how I always see you. You are like the butterfly moving between flowers, don’t deprive me of seeing you.

The surfers I met earlier are cooking up a freshly caught meal. At first it looks like a social gathering, but I realise this self-sufficiency is out of necessity. They work as life guards during the day, but because of the situation in Gaza, they haven't been paid for months.

MOHAMED ABU JAYAB, LIFEGUARD (Translation): Sings....because we work in the sea as lifesavers, we also have fishing nets. This helps us to increase our income and to feed our children with the small fish. When we catch no fish, we cry.

Despite the optimism, it's hard not to be cynical, like everyone here. I'm unsure about Gaza's future.

MELINDA YOUNG:  To think in a few years time Gaza will be no longer actually viable for humans to live with any kind of dignity. It's actually quite heart wrenching.

The very morning after this beach meal, Hamas and Israel exchanged fire, followed by air strikes. One local proudly told me, Gaza's resilience makes it the best worst place in the world. But if the UN is right, this battered, narrow strip could be living on borrowed time.

 

Reporter
Brett Mason

Camera/Producer
Will West

Producers
Georgina Davies
Ana Maria Quinn

Fixers
Mamoun El-Shawwa
Oren Rosenfeld
Shams Odeh
Raed Athamneh

Editor
Simon Phegan

Translations
Dalia Matar
Yahya Alburai

Original Music
Vicki Hansen

12th July 2016