Siege brings Gaza’s garment industry to a halt

Equipment at the Hamdanco factory gathers dust. (Rami Almeghari)

Rami Almeghari

Near an abandoned sewing factory in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, Mohammad Khamis Hamdan runs a small travel agency dedicated to serving pilgrims to the Saudi Arabia city of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Hamdan opened the travel agency after being forced to shut down the sewing factory following Israel’s imposition of a devastating blockade on the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Hamdan, 50, a father of 14 children and married to two women, said he lost hope of returning back to the cycle of production at his Hamdanco garment factory, which he owned along with two of his brothers.

The five-story building housing the now abandoned factory is filled with machines gathering dust; it used to be the place of employment of 130 workers, including sewers and administrative staff.

According to Hamdan, the factory used to run on two shifts every day and it secured a good livelihood for himself and his two brothers.

“Now my brother is jobless, while the other has found a teaching job in the field of fashion design,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Our factory used to feed at least 130 families to the extent that we managed to help our workers financially sometimes. If I put the factory’s production in figures, I can tell you that each of us, the partners, used to get a monthly salary of $1,500 besides our net total monthly profit of about $50,000.”

The garment sector was one of the main contributors to the Gaza Strip’s gross domestic product. According to statistics by the Gaza-based chamber of commerce, the garment sector used to employ more than 20,000 laborers in hundreds of sewing factories across the Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud al-Ewaidat used to work with the Hamdanco factory before it was forced to shut down. Al-Ewaidat is responsible for feeding five children along with his wife, who all live in the nearby al-Bureij refugee camp.

Al-Ewaidat gave this reporter a tour at the abandoned factory. On one of the five floors, dozens of sewing machines are heaped with dust. Most of the machines are electric and each cost several thousand dollars before the siege, but now their prices in Gaza have decreased to the lowest level ever.

“May God help us to bear with such a loss. At this place, which used to buzz around the clock, myself and my fellow workers spent our golden times,” al-Ewaidat said. “I remember that the Hamadan family, the owners of the factory, used to be very generous and helpful to us. Once I wanted to buy a refrigerator and a washing machine and they helped fund that, in return for little monthly installments.”

According to Mohammad Hamdan, the majority of his former workers now rely entirely on food aid provided by the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA).

Prior to the Israeli blockade on Gaza, both the garment and furniture sectors constituted sixty percent of Gaza’s exports to Israel, the West Bank and Europe according to the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce. For the past four years, Israel has blocked exports from Gaza; despite its claims to have “eased” the siege, last year Israel only allowed the export of some agricultural products like flowers and strawberries.

Many sectors suffering

In the Gaza City area of al-Samer, Majesty Furniture Store owner Yasser Nejjim appeared silent as his shop was empty of customers on what should be a busy Sunday at midday. The many pieces of furniture in the store, including chairs, tables or cupboards, have been either brought in through underground tunnels on Gaza-Egypt border line or allowed in through Israeli crossings since the “easing” of the blockade last June. Nejjim also owns a private factory for furniture that used to distribute its products in Israel and the West Bank.

“Before the blockade was imposed, we used to send ten truckloads of furniture, mainly office furniture, once a week to either Israel or to the West Bank. My factory used to employ thirty workers, but for the past four years we have been forced to stop production and now we only have three workers,” Nejjim told The Electronic Intifada.

Because Israel has severely restricted the entry of raw materials, Nejjim resorts to selling imported goods rather than furniture manufactured in his factory.

“The Israeli closure has prevented entry of wood to Gaza and Israel only allowed some wood in starting from last June,” he explained. “Also, it is still difficult for us to manufacture properly. Some raw materials involved in the making [of furniture] are still lacking, for example, steel that we use in manufacturing chairs or tables is still missing in the local market.”

Economic siege

There is no question that Gaza’s economy is suffering because of Israel’s siege.

Trade policy officer Mohammad Skaik of the Palestinian Trade Center, an independent trade organization in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada, “Economically speaking, if Israel allows exports to various destinations like Israel, West Bank or Europe, Gaza’s GDP will definitely increase.”

“For example, in 2005 an annual total of exports reached about 11,359 truckloads, but if you look at 2010, only 183 truckloads were allowed out,” he explained.

While Egypt’s foreign minister told Al-Jazeera last week that the government was moving to open Rafah crossing to travelers, Israel continues to impose closure and severe restrictions on Gaza’s commercial crossings. And this doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Palestinian traders in Gaza have complained that the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing, the only one currently in operation, is inadequate for the amount of goods they would like to import and export and that more Gaza crossings should reopen in order to allow broader commerce in the tiny coastal territory.

“As you see, the machines are scattered in this place while dust covers them,” said Mahmoud al-Ewaidat at the Hamdanco factory. “Hopefully they will run again so that myself and my colleagues can earn a living in dignity.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.