Gaza at risk of becoming totally aid-dependent, agencies warn

Maan News, Jul 16, 2007 / IMEU

This article was originally published by Maan News and is republished with permission.The estimated 1.5 million inhabitants of the overcrowded and embargoed Gaza Strip are rapidly becoming totally aid-dependent, the international humanitarian agency Oxfam, the Israeli human rights group Gisha, and Palestinian Gaza-based businessmen warned on Sunday.

Opening all of Gaza’s crossings, principally the Karni commercial crossing for imports and exports between Gaza and Israel, is vital in order to prevent the complete collapse of Gaza’s economy and the end to a dignified existence for the beleaguered Gaza population, the three groups warned.

Some 87% of the Gaza population lives below the poverty line, according to UN statistics, meaning that many already rely on food handouts for their basic nutritional needs.

In a press conference in Jerusalem, Oxfam’s Jerusalem spokesman, Michael Bailey, explained that preventing a humanitarian crisis involves much more than solely providing essential food and medicines to survive. Humanitarian assistance means ensuring the local population can live in safety and dignity, he said.

Karni Crossing has been closed since June 12. Israel claims that the reason is a lack of security following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, particularly at the crossings.

At the press conference, the participants argued to the contrary, saying that Israel is deliberately strangling the Gaza Strip, in violation of international law. Sari Bashi, the director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, charged Israel with conducting a policy of “collective punishment.

“They pointed to the fact that Israel was quick to reopen Kerem Shalom and Sufa Crossings, in the south of the Gaza Strip, in order to prevent starvation and allow the essential foodstuffs and medicines in. If a solution could be found for Kerem Shalom and Sufa, despite ongoing security concerns, then so could a solution be found for Karni, the conference participants urged, calling on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make this issue a top priority in their talks on Monday.

Bassim Khoury, the chair of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, revealed that the Palestinian private sector had approached Turkey with the suggestion that Turkish forces could provide security guarantees on the Gaza side of the crossings. Stressing that this idea is still merely a suggestion, Khoury explained that Turkey would be acceptable to both the Palestinians and the Israelis as an armed mediator, being a Muslim nation and a defence ally of Israel.

Bashi stressed that the major responsibility lies with Israel. Israel remains the occupying power, despite its claim of having ‘disengaged’ from Gaza, as it maintains tight control over all the borders and crossing points, she clarified.

“Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, and it exercises significant control over Gaza’s border with Egypt, where the passage of goods is prohibited,” Bashi added. “The only way for residents of Gaza to send and receive goods is through its border with Israel. Israel owes an obligation to re-open the commercial crossings – and Palestinian leaders must cooperate in coordinating their re-opening.

“Until a solution is found, the population of Gaza continues to suffer. Khoury stressed that it is the private, entrepreneurial sector that bears the brunt. With all exports currently prohibited by Israel and only essential items entering, Gaza’s industry is dying. Without raw materials, some 80% of the strip’s factories had been forced to close, as of the beginning of July. Khoury said that now, ten days later, only 40% of the remaining 20% of open factories remained functioning, and at a limited capacity. Between Hamas’ election victory in early 2006 and early June 2007, Khoury clarified that only some 200-250 industrial establishments had closed. Over 1,200 factories have closed in the last month alone, Khoury said.

As a result, at least 65,800 employees – breadwinners for hundreds of thousands of dependents – have been laid off. Unemployment in Gaza currently stands at 30-35% but Khoury warned that, if the current situation continues, this will rocket to 70%.

Muhammad Al-Talabani, the owner of Al-Auda biscuit factory, spoke emotionally about the shame he feels when his workers beg him for work at any price but he has nothing to give them, as he does not have the materials to process.

“My future as a factory owner is bleak,” Talabani said. “I have already lost all my customers in the West Bank, 50% of my business. In Gaza, people are begging to work for 10 shekels [$2] per day, but I can’t hire them because I have no work to give them. It is a mistake to think that choking Gaza economically will work against Hamas. Quite the contrary – the economic stronghold is driving people to extremism. In Gaza, people receive food assistance from Hamas, and they are blaming Israel for the closure.

“Ms. Bashi also warned that killing the Gaza economy represents a severe threat to Israel, both economically and politically.”Seeking to weaken Hamas by punishing 1.5 million women, men and children is illegal and counterproductive,” she warned, adding that such restrictions are likely to push the population further to radicalism.

In Gisha’s report, ‘Commercial Closure: Deleting Gaza’s Economy from the Map,’ the chairman of Israel’s Association of Industrialists, Shraga Brosh, is quoted as saying that “the economic boycott of the Gaza Strip… will result in a humanitarian disaster, fueling flames and leading to deterioration of the security situation – a situation that will be destructive to the Israeli economy.”

Following the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israel erased from its computers the customs code used to identify goods entering Gaza. “Cargo intended for the Gaza Strip will not be released until further notification,” a letter from the deputy head of the Israeli customs administration, Reuven Meltzer, is quoted by Gisha as stating. “Requests to clear goods intended for Gaza will be blocked by the computer system,” Meltzer continued.

“The Gaza Strip has been economically removed from the map and from Israel’s agenda,” the general director of the Palestinian Shippers’ Council, Majdi Khalil, says in Gisha’s report.

As a result, Gaza companies are set to incur US$3 million in demurrage fees -something that few, if any, can afford – for goods that are stuck at Israeli ports, prohibited from entering Gaza, the Palestinian Shippers’ Council has warned.

Tax-exempt donations, including the vital ‘humanitian supplies,’ can apparently still enter the Gaza Strip, the Gisha report clarifies.

Khoury, of the Palestinian Federation of Industries, said that, on 4 July, there were already 850 containers of goods waiting for transit at Israeli ports, valued at US$65 million, while another 450 containers – valued at an estimated US$35 million – were en route to Israel.

Already, the private sector in Gaza records an estimated US$20.6 million in losses. This figure does not include the US$160 million in UNRWA construction projects that were forced to halt a week ago due to a lack of basic building materials, as a result of the closure of the crossings.

If exports continue to be blocked into the autumn, the cash crop sector – including carnations, strawberries and cherry tomatoes grown for the export market – will face a 100 percent loss, Khoury and PalTrade have warned. These crops are also 100% dependent on imported fertilizers and other chemicals, seeds and packaging, making them particularly vulnerable to collapse.

The garment sector in Gaza, which in 2005 employed 16,000 people but whose workforce now numbers only 5% of this figure, according to PFI, would also suffer severe losses. 90% of the Gaza garment sector’s output is destined for the Israeli market, and, furthermore, the clothes are fashion, and thus time, dependent.

Time is running out to prevent a total collapse of Gaza’s economy, the conference partipants warned. Khoury warned Israel that if preventative action is not taken soon, such as opening Karni Crossing, Israel will find itself with a “Mogadishu” on its doorstep.

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