No holiday for Gaza’s labor sector

Palestinians hold a May Day rally in front of the UN headquarters in Gaza City, 1 May 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

“Closed because of the siege,” a sign reads on the front door of the Al-Yazji factory on the main Salah al-Din road in Gaza City. Al-Yazji, the largest producer of soft drinks in the Gaza Strip, and numerous other manufacturers were forced to shut down due to the Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip since June 2007.

In Gaza City, owners of 3,800 local factories recently established a symbolic cemetery for their devastated businesses. The graves do not contain dead bodies, but rather the remains of factories, canneries, workshops and other businesses.

More than 33,000 of Gaza’s laborers have been laid off recently as industries are now working at around 20 percent of their normal capacity.

“The garment industry, for example, used to employ more than 16,000 laborers, yet as long as the Israeli blockade goes on, the Palestinian garment sector won’t be able to convince any Israeli companies to weave clothes, thus the situation will remain worse for such a significant sub-sector”, stated Amr Hammad, the executive director of the Federation of Gaza’s Industries.

Hamad added that local industries used to import 95 percent of raw materials from Israel and abroad, and 80 percent of the equipment used in the factories was bought from Israel.

“As long as this situation persists, Gaza’s industries won’t be able to operate even at 20 percent of their capacities. However, we made many appeals to concerned bodies like the European Union to pressure Israel for lifting the siege, but it seems that the Israelis do not listen to anyone but themselves,” explained Hammad.

In the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of al-Bureij, the seven-member family of Nasser al-Btaran lives under extremely poor economic conditions. Like thousands of other families, the al-Btaran family used to rely on salaries provided by the garment sector.

“I am now staying idle, spending much of my time out of the house. You know why? Simply because I can not afford to meet my family’s basic needs. I prefer to stay away rather than being depressed every single moment,” he explained.

Al-Btaran has two sons and three daughters, and also suffers from cardiac complications after a stroke he suffered two years ago. Sighing, he added, “A few days ago, my daughter asked me for 10 shekels ($3 US), to take part in a school trip, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t.”

Nasser al-Btaran and two of his children outside their home in the al-Bureij refugee camp. (Rami Almeghari)

Voicing his frustration, al-Btaran appealed “to the Palestinian [Fatah] Presidency in Ramallah and the Palestinian [Hamas] Government in Gaza to pay attention to the laborers at a time when those employed by the presidency and those employed by the government get their monthly salaries, while laborers are abandoned. Can you imagine? One hundred dollars, that either the presidency or the government gives us once a year, would be enough to meet our needs, can you imagine?”

Since the Israeli government enforced the crippling closure of Gaza, the majority of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents have become unable to afford basic commodities. The World Food Program estimates that 80 percent of Gaza’s population is now dependent on food aid.

In the local market of the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, Mohammad Ibrahim Mohareb, a fish seller complains of the people’s inability to buy fish in Gaza, a region that has always had a rich fishing industry.

“The situation is so miserable. In the past we used to sell about 100 boxes of fish a day, but now we hardly sell less then 20. As you see, we are showing our goods while very few people come and buy. We now lose much more than we gain!” exclaimed Mohareb.

Israel’s closure of Gaza’s border crossings as well as the Hamas’s takeover of the coastal territory, have also impacted the public sector in Gaza. Following Hamas’ seizure of Gaza from forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, Abbas boycotted the Hamas government. This action left at least 40,000 government employees without any income, according to the Hamas-run Chamber of Employees, as those who did not follow the order had their monthly Palestinian Authority-paid salaries withheld. The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights considers the move as illegal and demands an investigation into this situation.

Mohammad al-Saftawi, 28, whose salary has been withheld for the past five months, complained of the move, arguing that he has nothing to do with any political affiliation and that he only belongs to the Palestinian Authority’s ministry of justice, where he works. “I’m a father of two children and my salary is my children’s sole source of livelihood. Actually, I have been suffering a lot because of this, especially since everyone knows I have no political affiliation,” stated al-Saftawi.

In addition, Israel has recently tightened its siege by further restricting the entry of essential supplies such as fuel and food items into Gaza. Hamas says the Strip is on the verge of exploding while at the same time maintaining that it is determined to break up the siege.

Israel, the United States and the European Union boycotted Hamas after its surprise victory in the January 2006’s parliamentary elections, demanding that it recognize Israel and adhere to previously-signed peace agreements. However, Hamas has refused to participate in peace talks as long as Israel maintains its blockade and continues to take military actions against Palestinian civilians.

Meanwhile, as the siege continues, Gaza’s civilian population remains trapped behind border-walls and the sea, with access to few of life’s basic necessities.

Rami Almeghari is currently contributor to several media outlets including the Palestine Chronicle, IMEMC, The Electronic Intifada and Free Speech Radio News. Rami is also a former senior English translator at and editor in chief of the international press center of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service. He can be contacted at rami_almeghari at hotmail.com.

Related Links