Secondhand boom for Gaza traders with no alternative

Woman inspects pair of jeans in open air clothing market

Gaza’s economic woes mean that new clothes have become a luxury.

Majdi Fathi

Samer Abu Ziada’s secondhand clothes shop in al-Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip attracts a lot of customers. And the shop’s stock of reasonable quality used clothes at affordable prices is proving ever more popular.

People in the impoverished strip are increasingly turning to shops like Abu Ziada’s. It is a response, said the merchant, whose store has been open six years, to need. Most Palestinians in Gaza, he told The Electronic Intifada, can no longer afford luxuries — and new clothes are now a luxury.

“A jacket might cost 25 Israeli shekels [$6.5] here, where it is 60 shekels in other shops,” said Abu Ziada, who receives fresh merchandise — everything from clothes to toys and electronics — weekly from his supplier, Raed al-Jid, who in turn imports from Israel via the commercial crossing at Kerem Shalom. “A secondhand shirt will not cost more than 5 shekels,” he said.

Mother-of-nine Um Sameh (who did not give her full name) is a frequent visitor to Abu Ziada’s shop. The 42-year-old cannot afford new clothes for her children.

“I have to prioritize. I buy used clothes and save my little money for more urgent demands, like paying the tuition fees of my daughter’s college,” she said.

Her husband used to labor in Israel, but work dried up a decade ago when Israel banned entry to workers from Gaza. He then secured work digging cross-border smuggling tunnels at Rafah, a once-thriving industry in Gaza, besieged for nearly a decade.

That too ended after an Egyptian clampdown that began in earnest after Abdulfattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, and which, from September last year, included flooding tunnels with seawater, rendering the work far too dangerous for most.

“We do not have a regular income,” said Um Sameh. “That’s why I shop here.”

A growing phenomenon

Um Sameh said she sometimes fears that her children might be teased because they wear secondhand clothes, even though she sees plenty of neighbors shopping at Abu Ziada’s. She tends to scrub and clean the clothes after buying so they appear new.

She held up a pair of tattered blue jeans that she thought would fit two of her four sons, both in primary school. “These,” she said, appraising the pants carefully, “should last for the academic year.”

The increasing popularity of secondhand shops is an “inevitable result” of Gaza’s growing poverty, said Hatem Oweida, deputy minister at Gaza’s Ministry of National Economy.

Gaza’s 43 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the world, according to the World Bank, and youth unemployment has soared above 60 percent.

A rack of used clothing in an open-air market

The increasing popularity of secondhand shops is an “inevitable result” of Gaza’s growing poverty, says a government minister.

Majdi Fathi

“People in Gaza are becoming more austere in their lives as they lack opportunities to work,” Oweida told The Electronic Intifada.

Israel’s devastating 2014 assault on Gaza also injured industry there.

“More than 150 local factories were partially or completely destroyed in Gaza during the last Israeli aggression, and thousands of workers lost their jobs,” Oweida said.

In total, according to the Palestinian Economic Council for Development And Reconstruction, more than 350 industrial buildings, factories, workshops and dairies were destroyed in the 51 days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014, resulting in a total loss to the economy of $200 million.

In other words, Oweida said, not only are people poor, they have no prospect of securing jobs at the moment, and manufacturing in Gaza is all but halted. There is no alternative to a secondhand market.

Decimated black economy

The clampdown on the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt also contributed to the current used-goods boom, said Oweida.

As Israel’s siege grew ever tighter, local merchants increasingly turned to smugglers to secure their wares. The tunnels, a crucial lifeline for seven years, flowed with cheap goods from China and Egypt, affordable in Gaza.

This unofficial economy was decimated by Egypt’s determined clampdown on smuggling since 2013. Merchants lost their ability to trade, smugglers, diggers and engineers their livelihoods and consumers access to reasonably priced goods.

For many, there is nowhere to go but the secondhand market now.

Imad al-Jid, 35, is a janitor at government health clinic. He takes home less than $300 every 50 days, the period employees and the Hamas-run authority in Gaza have agreed salaries can be made in a bid to overcome the strip’s acute cash crunch. It is hardly enough to feed his five children, he said.

“I have to clothe my children from secondhand shops. They are everywhere in Gaza and people are no longer embarrassed to be seen there. We all have our financial troubles,” he said.

Firas is a large market in eastern Gaza City. There are at least 35 shops and dozens of sidewalk stalls which sell secondhand items. Ahmad Khalil owns one of the shops and also has — a rare distinction this — a merchant’s permit that allows him to pass the Erez checkpoint and enter Israel.

“The permit allows me to go to the Israeli side where I can buy the merchandise by the ton,” Khalil said.

Israeli clothes

Bulk buying like this has its downside. Secondhand merchandise measured by weight tends to be hit and miss, and Khalil — who pays between 3,000 to 3,500 Israeli shekels per ton (between $780 to $900) — complained that a significant proportion is often unsalable.

“About a quarter of the clothes can be totally faded and of no use. I pay the cost, but I cannot sell them to customers,” he said.

Khalil sells some of the clothes in his own shop and distributes the rest to other merchants across Gaza. The clothes, he made sure to emphasize, are not always Israeli: European labels can be found among the merchandise.

It’s a point worth emphasizing for the trader. Rummaging through the piles at Khalil’s store, Ahlam Isleem was not impressed by the thought that the clothes might previously have been worn by Israelis.

“I don’t think it is dishonorable, but I don’t like the thought,” said the 25-year-old, who was looking for clothes for her 2-year-old son. Ultimately, however, price ruled for the young mother.

“The prices here are really good. All I need is to look a little to find some good quality,” she said.

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist based in Gaza.