In blockaded Gaza, making gas masks with jars and paper towels

13.09.2013 16:40

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — When Gaza
resident Nafez Nayef first heard that
the United States might attack Syria —
which Gazans fear will prompt a
retaliatory chemical attack against
neighboring Israel — he says he knew
he had to get gas masks for his family
right away.
But because both Israel and Egypt limit
the goods that enter the Gaza Strip, a
small, isolated territory on the
Mediterranean, only a handful of
journalists and riot police has been
able to obtain masks.
So Nayef took to YouTube to figure out
how to make them — convinced it was
better than nothing if Syrian rockets
landed near or in Gazan territory.
There was one YouTube video he
preferred: a three-minute tutorial
uploaded by an al Qaeda fighter in
“All you need is an empty, 2 liter soda
bottle, paper towels, vinegar, a plastic
jar and ground coal,” Nayef said.
He uses the jar as the filter, stuffing it
with paper towels soaked in vinegar to
absorb the gas.
Opening the body of the soda bottle,
he attaches it to the jar to cover the
“All the materials I need are available in
Gaza,” he said. But still, “everything is
rare here and prices are skyrocketing.”
Already isolated and struggling
economically, Gaza was hit even harder
when Egypt’s military ousted former
president and Muslim Brotherhood
leader, Mohamed Morsi, in July. The
government that replaced Morsi partly
blamed Palestinians and the Islamist
Hamas movement, which controls the
Gaza Strip, for some of the violence
that had gripped the country.
In addition to shutting its passenger
crossing with Gaza, the Egyptian
military moved to close the tunnels
that ferry goods under the Gaza-Egypt
Gaza’s Hamas-run government says
Egypt has destroyed more than 90
percent of the tunnels, which are used
to smuggle fuel, construction materials
and other goods to the territory’s 1.7
million residents.
The head of Gaza’s chamber of
commerce, Maher Attabar, says Gazans
are finding it nearly impossible to buy
Israeli goods — at nearly double the
Construction on new homes and
buildings — which was booming in
2011 and 2012 — is now completely
stalled as materials from Egypt are
blocked. In Gaza City, residents wait
for hours in long lines at gas stations
for expensive Israeli fuel.
Without allies, an ailing economy and
acute shortages, Gazans say they feel
stranded in the region.
Now the specter of war — after the
U.S. threatened Syria with military
strikes in the wake of a chemical
weapons attack in the Damascus
suburbs Aug. 21 — is making
Palestinians here feel even more
“The unrest in Egypt has affected us
badly, the problems between Hamas
and Israel have made our lives
unbearable. And the conflict in Syria
may also affect us if the US attacks
Damascus,” he said.
The likelihood of a U.S. attack on Syria
decreased in recent days, when the
U.S. and Russia announced talks to put
Syria’s chemical weapons under
international control.
The U.S. had moved several naval
destroyers into the Eastern
Mediterranean over the past couple of
weeks to ready for a strike, which
President Barack Obama said would be
aimed at deterring Assad from using
chemical weapons.
The United Nations says more than
100,000 people have been killed so far
in the two-year-long Syrian conflict,
pitting the regime of Syrian President
Bashar Assad against a largely Sunni
Muslim opposition.
Hundreds died in the Aug. 21 poison
gas attack on rebel-held
neighborhoods outside Damascus,
which the U.S., Human Rights Watch
and other Western countries say was
carried out by Assad’s forces.
"We are affected by everything
happening in the region," said Mazen
Maarouf, a vegetable seller from Beit
Lahiya, in north Gaza.
Nayef remembers when in 1991, Iraqi
dictator Saddam Hussein fired ballistic
missiles at Israel after the U.S. and
other troops pushed back an Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait. He also threatened
to hit Israel with chemical weapons,
prompting Gazans to seal their
windows with plastic sheets, Nayef
This time, Nayef, a former policeman,
is doing the same — and also making
masks for his friends and other
Nayef’s brother, 35-year-old Nael, says
he is less worried about a chemical
attack from Syria that eventually
reaches Gaza.
He says it’s more likely that Palestinian
militant groups like Islamic Jihad —
which have strong ties to Syria’s main
patron, Iran — would fire rockets at
Israel to avenge a U.S. strike against
Israel could respond to the rockets by
launching another offensive on Gaza.
And Nael says he is worried Israel
could use white phosphorus on Gaza
like it did in the 2008-2009 war here,
Operation Cast Lead. White
phosphorus is used in incendiary
munitions and produces an instant
blanket of smoke. International law
prohibits its use on civilian areas.
"It's protective enough,” Nael, an
unemployed car mechanic, said of his
mask. “It’s better than having nothing
at all.”
At Nayef’s house, he is preparing for
chemical war, but there are also more
pressing concerns.
Right now, Gaza’s power is out for
roughly 12 hours each day — and
Nayef has eight children to take care
"I can barely get fuel for my
generator,” he said.