Palestinians hope deal spells end of hardship

By Kate Shuttleworth

Talks between Hamas and Fatah seen as good news for businesses in Gaza.

Work may be grinding to a halt on many projects in Gaza but that hasn't stopped people enjoying themselves on Gaza City's beaches. Photo / AP
Work may be grinding to a halt on many projects in Gaza but that hasn't stopped people enjoying themselves on Gaza City's beaches. Photo / AP

Moussa Mattr's impeccably furnished top-floor apartment sits high above the coastline of golden sand framing the Mediterranean ocean, framed by the yet-to-be paved dirt road of Gaza's main beach-front street - Beach Rd.

Old wooden boats with their faded green and yellow, or blue and yellow, paint sit peeling in the intense sun. It's a view that Mattr is now used to. Since 2007 he has been mostly confined to Gaza City and its surrounds as his clothing business connections with Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Europe all dried up when Hamas took control.

His business producing up to 20,000 items of clothing a month and earning $500,000 a year was reduced, quite literally, to nothing.

It's this same story of economic strangulation that characterises the business people of Gaza - those who have clung on to some form of business and others who have lost everything like Mattr.

The economy is in bad shape, the textiles industry bearing the brunt of not only an Israeli siege on Gaza, but also an influx of cheap Chinese clothing into Gaza as the Hamas Government has no restrictions on imported clothing to protect local producers.

Before 2007 there were 35,000 workers in the textiles industry; now that has been reduced to just 3000 workers.

Mattr's factory had only 150 of those workers but supplied seven companies outside Gaza and now he has no work, however he told the Weekend Herald he planned to start a laundromat if efforts to open a clothing factory in the West Bank failed.

In the eyes of many local business people, a deal signed between Palestinian political rivals Fatah and Hamas at the end of April could be the hope they need for economic revival. Mattr is encouraged by the prospect of renewed trade between the West Bank and Gaza.

A unity government is due to be set up and elections held within six months.

Palestinians have been divided since 2007 when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Reconciliation efforts have been attempted since 2011 with several similar accords, but they were never carried out.

There's a sense among Gazan people the reconciliation deal has to go ahead this time out of Hamas' sheer economic desperation, or because of mounting pressure from the struggling people of Gaza.

"It's only the beginning, there is a long path to recovery but what we're asking for is hope to return workers to their jobs and to get on with our businesses," said Mattr.

"It's not Fatah and Hamas that pay the price, it's the Gazan people, the West Bank people, they are paying the cost of this conflict."

Since the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt last year, the relative good times for the people of Gaza have come to a standstill. Egypt's border patrol and army engineers have destroyed as many as 1200 tunnels between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, causing Hamas to lose $230 million in tax revenue from the tunnel operators.

The further isolated coastal enclave has been reeling after the closures and the general population has been grappling with a loss of fuel and the shutdown of Gaza's only power plant, causing power outages that sometimes last as long as 12 hours.

The tax the Hamas Government once levied from the tunnel trade paid the salaries of up to 47,000 people who worked directly with the movement.

These workers have been receiving only half their pay since the end of last year. Isra Almodalal, a spokeswoman for the Hamas Government, said she had been paid half her salary since September. Almodalal, whose father is senior Hamas member Tareq Almodalal, said there had been no direct news on whether she and colleagues would lose their jobs or be folded into the Palestinian Authority workforce.

"Until now we haven't had any news about losing our positions, but we are ready for it."

Beach Rd is one of just 20 construction projects out of 300 that have been able to continue since the closure of the tunnels.

Materials for those 20 projects have come in dribs and drabs through the Rafah border which is open at the most twice a month.

Chairman of the Palestinian Contractors Union, Nabil Abu Muaileq, represents the 300 construction companies in Gaza.

"We started having big problems with our tenders and our contracts, plus the unemployment rate rose from 34 per cent to 45 per cent.

"Seventy thousand people are without work - 30,000 of them work directly with the contractors union, another 40,000 work indirectly, either with heavy trucks, bulldozers and various other workers. It's created a huge problem for our people."

One of Gaza's wealthiest men, Jawdat Khoudary, runs a $15 million a year construction company, Saqqa & Khoudary, and has been building two hospitals with money from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

He told the Weekend Herald that since the destruction of the tunnels to Egypt only 50 per cent of his work is possible. One of his main projects, a Turkish/Palestinian friendship hospital, has been on hold since October. He believes he will be able to get the materials signed off in the coming weeks to carry on with it.

"At the peak of the hospital construction I could have 250 workers, but since October last year I've had less than 20 and this is just for one project," said Khoudary.

The reconciliation deal is of direct economic benefit to many of the unemployed in Gaza. In the construction industry alone, Muaileq predicts that of the 70,000 workers sitting at home without work, half of them will have a job as soon as Fatah and Hamas work together.

In the north of Gaza, near the Erez border crossing, you can see the high chimneys of Israel's Ashdod port from Mansour Albudi's strawberry farm.

He is direct about how he feels about the Hamas-led Government. "I hate Hamas" he said, not at all nervous to be on the record saying so.

Since 2006, sales for Albudi's strawberry export business have nearly dried up.

"When Hamas came the situation became terrible, particularly for the farmers, because the ban started for all the markets. If I could change one thing I would change our Government, because they only live for themselves," he said.

Before 2006, Albudi was exporting 30 tonnes of strawberries to Europe and significant amounts to both the West Bank and Israel. Last year he was able to export only 200kg to Europe.

He sold a small amount in Gaza, but they only sell for one Israeli shekel (33c) a punnet, which he said was less that the cost of the plastic punnet they are packed in.

Many important political, administrative and security questions remain unanswered about the recently signed deal between Fatah and Hamas. How the security forces will be dealt with is just one area to be resolved.

No decision has been made on whether Hamas will dismantle its forces or fold them into the Palestinian Authority's security forces, which continue to co-ordinate with Israel.

- NZ Herald

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