Abdullah Abu Zir is the crazy old uncle of the neighborhood at the Nuseirat refugee camp, in the Gaza Strip. The wiry 56-year-old spends his days tinkering away on his many inventive projects that he keeps hidden away in his rooftop “office” filled with old wood, metal, and plastic scraps.
His most prized invention is a motor he’s repurposed to be powered by compressed air. Because both gas and electricity are in short supply in the besieged Gaza Strip, his idea is to fit it for use in a car or to use it to run a small electricity grid. A few years ago he tried to hook it up to the neighborhood’s power line. It worked–for a few minutes. “Then it caused a fire,” he says, with a laugh.
Abu Zir lives in the middle of the Gaza Strip, the tiny strip of coast between Israel and Egypt that has among the highest unemployment and density in the world. For the last decade, Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza on security grounds after Hamas–designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the EU, and the U.K.–violently seized control from the more moderate Palestinian Authority (PA), based out of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
In the last nine years, Israel and Hamas have fought three bloody wars that have devastated much of Gaza’s infrastructure, health network, and economy. Hamas has imposed an extreme version of Islam and restricts everyday freedoms. Israel blocks the import of materials like cement, making construction and development nearly impossible.
This summer, the already dire situation for Gaza’s 2 million residents deteriorated further when electricity was cut from an average of eight hours a day to a sporadic two or three. The crisis began when the PA stopped paying Israel for Gaza’s power bill, in an attempt to squeeze Hamas out. Israel, which facilitates the electricity and controls nearly all land crossings, consequently cut the daily supply. The electricity crisis has further polarized Palestinian politics and made every aspect of Gazan life even harder. It’s also seriously drained people of hope that help is coming–even as they try to help themselves.
But Abu Zir is still tinkering away to increase the voltage his invention can supply. He uses it sparingly in his own home, so as to not arouse the neighbors’ suspicion or a punitive government tax. One of his niece’s friends, a driver, teases the uncle every time they meet: When is Abu Zir going to install the motor in my car already, he asks?
Around Gaza there are many entrepreneurial Palestinians with smart and sustainable solutions to their resource and electricity shortages. Many have access to the internet and university degrees in sciences and engineering, and have responded to the universal impulse that necessity is the mother of invention with their own creative alternatives. There’s the 29-year-old engineer who devised a local sand-based alternative to cement, the 16-year-old female student who created her own candle-run generator to recharge smartphones, and the university students who made a model for stoves powered by organic waste.
But they are also up against a maze of political and social pressures all working to disempower their alternative ideas.
“Because of the political problems we are facing, we need alternatives,” says Abu Zir. The father of 11 never formally studied engineering; instead, he used to work at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel, back when he was younger and the border was open. “But there is no one [with power] who supports these kinds of inventions. They don’t want alternatives.”
Gazans have long blamed Israel, as well as the PA and international aid agencies, for the siege and suffering. Today, many are also increasingly critical of Hamas, which was once considered less corrupt than the PA, for imposing taxes on seemingly everything, all while its people profit amid the acute shortages.
“If there was a real government in Gaza and they cared about the situation, especially the poor people, I could have given them the idea and electricity would be so cheap,” says Abu Zir. “They should have used the money to help people. But this is our government, unfortunately.”
A recent United Nations report concluded that after a decade after Hamas rule and siege conditions in Gaza were becoming “more and more wretched” as the Strip faced an alarming rate of “de-development.”
Ahlam Abo Thaher was trying not to have that happen. Two years ago the 25-year-old engineer co-developed a kind of “green” asphalt made out of rubber and other local resources as part of her graduation project for an engineering degree. She faced many hurdles, including people telling her not to try–as she would just fail.
“People are afraid to try new things,” she says. “[They say], why do it new in Gaza when it’s done better outside?”
She persisted though, and using a small grinder that her similarly inventive brother made, successfully created a workable mix. “The problem is that we can’t afford to put it in practice on the ground,” she says.
To mass-produce the material, Abo Thaher needs a much bigger grinder: She can’t afford one locally and doesn’t have the money or connections to import her own. No one in the government, or from other companies or NGOs, has stepped up.
Others, like Abdullah Abu Hajer, 26, are still finding ways to make it work and, tentatively, turn a profit. On a recent hot night in July, much of Gaza City was quiet and dark amid the usual blackout. But the large house of one local sheikh was glowing because of Abu Hajer’s homemade generator.
The bearded and self-taught engineer is working to perfect locally produced generators tailored to the particular needs of people in Gaza. Because of the power shortages, people who can afford to commonly buy imported generators to power lights and fans during the off-hours. So, using the internet, Abu Hajer taught himself how to wire cables in order to make his own version of battery-operated generators–with added perks. They prevent the power from cutting off when the electricity goes out and before the generator kicks in, solving annoying generator issue. The next version he’s working on will be stronger and warn when the generator is running low and how much power each item plugged in is using.
For a fee, he’s installed several different versions at the houses of friends around Gaza to test them out. The one at the house of the sheikh, whose teachings he follows, includes a motion sensor for the light at the door to preserve energy.
Abu Hajer has big ideas, but he has no way to grow outside Gaza. He’s not afraid, though, of competition, he says: The ideas are all out there, it’s just in the implementation.