WORLD> Middle East
War strains Gazans' survival skills
Updated: 2009-01-13 08:17

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- In 17 days of war, Hisham Abu Ramadan has fallen into a new routine.

He gets up before dawn and goes to his mosque, not just to pray, but to charge his cell phone, since it's the only place in the neighborhood with a generator. After prayers, he gets in line at a nearby bakery, where as many as 150 people are already waiting to buy bread.

"We've gotten accustomed to this life," said Abu Ramadan, 37.

Salwa al-Dali, 42, cooks food for her family in a house in Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Monday, Jan. 12, 2009. [Agencies]

Others face a tougher time.

In Khaled al-Dali's two-room shack in the Shati refugee camp, 21 people -- half of them relatives who fled the fighting -- take turns sleeping because there aren't enough mattresses to go around. Without fuel, the family cooks on fires made from trash. He has sold most of his furniture to buy food.

Gazans have become adept at coping with conflict, including curfews, street clashes and, most recently, severe shortages created by an 18-month border blockade by Israel and Egypt.

But Israel's unprecedented assault on Gaza's Hamas rulers -- with nearly 900 people killed, some 3,400 wounded and tens of thousands displaced -- has strained even their survival skills.

The massive bombardment has badly disrupted the flow of electricity and water, already stop-and-go before the start of the war. Israel has cut Gaza in half, cutting north and south off from each other.

During the short daylight hours, shoppers crowd the few open stores and outdoor markets in a hunt for scarce goods, from diapers to dairy. At dusk, streets quickly become deserted as civilians retreat indoors, for fear of being mistaken for militants by Israel's military.

"Everything is difficult now -- eating, drinking, moving," said Mohammed Saleimeh, 26. When electricity comes on in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, the women in his 20-member family rush to bake bread. When water comes on, they wash the cloth diapers they now use instead of disposable ones.

In southern Israel, Hamas rocket barrages have also severely disrupted life, sending people rushing into shelters when air raid sirens go off. Many businesses have closed and classes have been suspended, but residents have adequate supplies of food, electricity and fuel.

In Gaza, the ability to cope largely depends on how much of a buffer, in food and cash, families had going into the war, and in part on their ties to Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Mohammed Awad, a senior Hamas official, told the movement's Al Aqsa TV on Sunday that 25,000 people on the Hamas payroll, from police to civil servants, have received their December salaries.

Hamas members said the money is being paid in cash, with Hamas activists making the rounds to distribute it. A man with a trimmed beard was seen handing out money from a suitcase in the hallway of a building in one Gaza City neighborhood, then asking employees to sign a receipt.

Abu Ramadan is a former member of the security forces ousted during Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, and still draws his salary from Hamas' rival, the West Bank government of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He can still afford to buy drinking water and fill up the tank on the roof of his high-rise in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.

But electricity outages are constant -- power came on Sunday for the first time in eight days. So he heads to the mosque each morning to charge his cell phone, instead of praying at home as he did before the war.

His family of five eats lentils, beans and canned foods. Tomatoes are available, but have tripled in price, to 75 cents a pound. Only 20 of 47 bakeries are operating, according to the bakers' union, explaining the long lines for bread.

In the Shati camp, al-Dali, 33, was already broke at the start of the fighting, struggling to feed his wife and seven children, ages 5 through 14. A few days ago, he took in his sister, her husband and 10 children, who fled shelling outside their home close to the border with Israel.

They escaped with just the clothes on their backs. On Monday, al-Dali's sister Salwa, 42, was stirring a pot of lentils and rice on a fire of paper, cardboard cartons and other debris. The refrigerator was empty, except for a few onions and tomatoes.

Salwa said she added extra salt to the cooking water in the belief that it would help rid it of germs. Many Gazans have taken to boiling drinking water too, since local water authorities warned of deteriorating quality last week. She said she tries to feed the kids as late in the day as possible so they don't go to bed hungry.

Al-Dali said the food will last until Tuesday, and he doesn't know where the next meal will come from. "I have no other business but to secure something to eat, water to drink and some wood and paper to warm them during the night," he said. "I feel ashamed of myself. I can do nothing for them."

In Zahra City, a complex of high-rises south of Gaza City, school teacher Jihan Sarsawi said she now washes in a bucket because running water is scarce — but only if there's no shelling.

"I'm afraid they'll shell the building and I'll be undressed, which would be really embarrassing, so last night I slept in my clothes, without bathing," she said.

Sarsawi also abstains from food and drink from sunrise to sunset every Monday and Thursday. "It lengthens out the food rations," she said.

Israel has allowed some humanitarian aid convoys to enter, but the shipments and distribution are often disrupted by fighting. As many 88 percent of Gaza's residents now require food aid, and the three-hour lull in fighting that Israel allows for humanitarian aid to move around Gaza is not sufficient, said Helene Gayle, president of the international aid agency CARE.

Gaza economist Omar Shaban, who lives in the town of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, said his house gets six hours of electricity a day and running water twice a week, for about eight hours.

He has a small garden where he occasionally plays football with his sons, ages 10 and 16. Central Gaza has suffered less destruction than Gaza City, and Shaban said his family manages to get out of the house almost every day, for trips to the market or relatives in town. Most shops are closed, he said.

Supermarket owner Zaher Abdel Hadi in Gaza City said he's selling mostly on credit now because people are broke or can't get their money out of the bank because of a long-standing cash shortage.

"No one is leaving empty-handed," he said of his customers. "We have to be brothers in this war."