Nothing to be done in Gaza
People of Gaza have to break up old cement and pulverize it to get anything to repair or build with.
By Rasha Abou Jalal [trans. Kamal Fayad], Palestine Pulse, Al Monitor
March 03, 2014
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — “You must be by the Bahloul station west of Gaza City at precisely 10:30 p.m. Bring a truck to transport the merchandise. Do not forget to come alone, and make sure that no one sees us!” Such were the instructions received by Qassem via a telephone call from one of Gaza City’s dealers.
At first glance, it might seem that the merchandise to be delivered might be drugs or hashish, but in reality the 22-year-old man only sought to purchase bags of cement, to complete construction on his marital home. This is a scene indicative of the extent of suffering that has permeated Palestinian society as a result of the worsening crisis engendered by a lack of construction material.
Israel ceased exporting cement to the Gaza Strip in October 2013, following the discovery of the Ein Hashlosha tunnel built by Hamas east of Khan Yunis, in the south of the Gaza Strip.
Qassem desperately wants to finish building his house, otherwise his marriage will remain on hold until cement is once more allowed into the Gaza Strip.
“I have searched for cement in most trade stores, but I was unable to find a single bag. One of the merchants told me that he had a few left, which he wanted to sell for 120 shekels [$34] each, despite the fact that the usual price is around 26 shekels [$7.50],” Qassem told Al-Monitor. He indicated that the merchant asked for delivery to be made in secret, to avoid prosecution by the government, which had been going after merchants monopolizing the cement market. Qassem added that his urgent need for cement compelled him to accept the merchant’s demands and maintain secrecy about the latter’s price gouging. “I have to buy cement at this exorbitant price because prolonged engagements usually cause many problems in our society, leading to divorce,” he added.
A report by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) issued in February indicated that the Israeli occupation forces, during the month of January, allowed the import of extremely limited quantities of construction materials. These included 1,406 tons of cement and 9,063 tons of gravel — or 6.1% and 9.1% respectively of the Gaza Strip’s monthly needs — while no construction steel was allowed in at all.
Furthermore, in its report about the movement of goods through Gaza’s border crossings, the PCHR stated that the Gaza market was witnessing a significant rise in the prices of all building materials, with some being completely unavailable. The report also said that the number of trucks entering Gaza since last January represented 7.72% of their numbers prior to the imposition of the blockade in June 2007.
As a result, the cement crisis has led to hundreds of millions of investment dollars being tied up in building projects that remain unfinished, as well as to 30,000 workers being sent home, according to Gaza economist Omar Shaaban.
“Cement is a key material for the Gaza Strip. The lack thereof not only affects the construction sector but is also reflected upon most other supporting sectors, such as transportation, that heavily rely on that material alone; as well as other segments such as restaurants and tourism,” Shaaban told Al-Monitor.
Fayed al-Hajjar, a construction worker who supports a family of eight, sits for long hours watching local news channels, as he waits for news that Israel is lifting its ban on the import of cement and other construction materials into the Gaza Strip.
Hajjar told Al-Monitor that his employer was forced to discharge 15 other workers as a result of the lack of raw materials needed to manufacture masonry blocks. “My unemployment renders me incapable of providing for my family’s needs, forcing my eldest son Saeed to postpone his entry into university, as I am unable to secure his expenses. Furthermore, my eight-year-old son Motaz was unable to take part in a trip organized by his school, because I could not afford to pay the small fee,” he noted.
Hajjar added that he was forced to borrow money from a relative a few days ago to buy food for his family, and said that he would not be able to borrow any more until he repaid old debts.
Ashraf Abu Aida, owner of the Abu Aida Construction Material Factory, said that he had to send around 150 employees home since Israel stopped allowing cement into Gaza. He noted that some of his machinery has rusted as a result of the long work stoppage.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Abu Aida clarified that this crisis not only affected construction workers but also negatively affected more than 50 other professions, such as blacksmithing, carpentry, plastering and tiling.
According to the president of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, Sami al-Omsy, those workers remaining without work raise Gaza’s employment rate to 45%.
During a solidarity protest organized by trade and labour unions and attended by Al-Monitor’s correspondent at the Rafah border crossing on Feb. 26, Omsy stressed that the Israeli blockade had caused an unprecedented level of economic stagnation. He also pointed out that the construction sector was at a standstill, with thousands of companies and industrial workshops shut down.
He warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip if the import of cement remained banned, and called on Egypt to positively contribute in solving this crisis.
Furthermore, during the same solidarity protest, Mohammed Fuju, a spokesman for the Gaza Engineers Syndicate, said that close to 30% of the Gaza Strip’s engineering firms were out of business as a result of the cement import ban. Fuju also indicated that the Israeli blockade had completely paralyzed Gaza’s construction sector and highlighted that the sector’s contribution to the gross domestic product was 27%.
Abdul-Fattah al-Zeri, the director-general of the Consumer Affairs Office at the Ministry of Economy, stated that the occupation authorities used to import only 700 tons of cement per day prior to the discovery of the Ein Hashlosha smuggling tunnel. He indicated that this quantity only satisfied 20% of the inhabitants’ needs.
Zeri also added, in a news release published on the ministry’s website in February, that his ministry had opened the door for citizens to apply to receive cement based on their needs. He stressed that most of the cement available at the ministry was imported through border tunnels with Egypt.
Commenting on the dire situation, Qassem said, “So, receiving cement for construction now requires registering and standing in long lines as well? Must I justify my need for cement to be allowed to buy it? What a joke.”
By Nidal Al-Mughrabi, Reuters
February 21, 2014
Voices of construction workers and the noise from their tools used to ring out in Gaza’s streets. Now hulks of unfinished buildings stand in eerie silence, and the idle builders are left to worry how to make ends meet.
An Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, run by the Hamas Islamist movement, has left industry and construction gasping for resources, pushing unemployment to dizzying heights and deepening suffering for impoverished residents.
The problem intensified after a campaign begun in July by Egypt’s military-backed government to close cross-border smuggling tunnels that used to provide Gaza with basic goods including food, fuel and building materials.
Joblessness jumped to 38.5 percent at the end of last year from 32 percent in the third quarter of 2013, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
The downturn has put Hamas, deemed a terrorist organisation by many Western states, in a financial and political bind.
Buoyed by the Arab uprisings which brought its Muslim Brotherhood allies to power in Cairo, Hamas shunned its old patrons in Iran and Syria. But when the Egyptian army ousted the Islamist government last July, Hamas was left isolated.
Determined to cling to the weapons that have made it a pariah in the Western world, it is being forced to explore economic reforms, including possible privatisations, hoping to alleviate the woes that are everywhere to be seen.
Sitting beside a huge apartment building he has been unable to finish because of the lack of cement, businessman Mohammed Abu Izz sips his tea and smokes a cigarette.
“Forty families have been waiting for five months to move in. Most them paid the price of their apartments in full and I could not deliver,” he said glumly.
Gaza is wedged between Israel and Egypt on a 40-km (25-mile) stretch of the Mediterranean coast. Israel tightened a blockade when Hamas, sworn to its destruction, seized control of the strip in a brief 2007 civil war, ousting the forces of the Western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Goods from Israel used to account for between a third and half of imports to the enclave, with the rest coming through the tunnels on the border with Egypt.
Over the past six months, an angry Egypt has caved in many of the underground passages, once a lifeline to Gaza’s 1.8 million people, taking the economy down with them.
Egypt accuses Hamas of backing al Qaeda-linked militant groups which have stepped up attacks against Egyptian security forces in the neighbouring Sinai peninsula over the past few months. The violence has spread to Cairo and other cities.
Hamas leaders deny this, saying their arms are aimed only at arch-foe Israel.
Looking to lessen friction with both Egypt and Israel, Gaza’s deputy prime minister, Zeyad al-Zaza, told Reuters Hamas had proposed that control of key crossings with its neighbours should be transferred to Gaza’s private entrepreneurs.
Such a move would need to be coordinated with numerous parties, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and there is no guarantee it will be approved.
“The issue is now being studied by the businessmen,” said Zaza, who is also finance minister. “We have told them ‘Go and have your discussions with Israel and Egypt’.”
Economist Maher al-Tabbaa, who is also director of public relations at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, said the suggestion reflected Hamas’s appreciation of how bad the situation had become. But he wondered how it could be implemented.
“I would say it was more of an attempt to find a solution to (the government’s) crisis rather than a practical exit from the current difficult situation,” Tabbaa said.
Since 2007, Israel has eased some of curbs on exports to Gaza but maintains a ban on construction materials and a list of items it deems have “dual use” – both civilian and military.
The list looks set to stay in place for the foreseeable future regardless of who operates the crossings.
Resourceful Gazans had managed partially to offset Israeli restrictions by sucking in goods via the tunnels, allowing the economy to grow nearly 15 percent in 2011 and 7 percent in 2012. By the end of last year, growth was put at just 3 percent, Zaza said, with a possible recession looming.
With the population growing at about 3 percent a year, that level of growth represents effective stagnation.
Many factories in Gaza have stopped, others have lowered their output or laid off workers to stay in business.
Naeem al-Siksik, owner of the largest plastics plant in the enclave, said the trade restrictions and tunnel closures were piling pressure on his business, which he valued at $5 million and which used to produce more than half of Gaza’s plastic.
Total production output had fallen by almost half over the past seven months, Siksik said.
“We have had to lay off 15 percent of our 150 workers and lower salaries by 20 percent as we try to tackle this crisis, but the situation is becoming worse all the time,” he added.
Gaza industries’ problems are not limited to import restrictions – power shortages that forces residents to live with up to eight hours of blackout a day means Siksik spends over $100,000 a month on fuel for his own generators.
In an apparent effort to boost efficiency, finance minister Zaza said Hamas was also open to privatising power distribution in Gaza and was in contact with business leaders, although once again, no quick fix was in sight.
“I do not claim the situation is rosy,” he said. “But we are seeking by all means to give our people a dignified life.”