Brand names back on Gaza's shelves

Israeli and foreign goods brought through the crossings from Israel are again flooding Gaza's markets but economic hardship endures.

GAZA CITY // Saqer Supermarket, the largest supermarket in Gaza City, was buzzing with customers on Monday. Abundant deals greeted shoppers, who tended, however, to ignore the many "buy one get three signs" and go straight for the many goods they have not been able to get for a while. The deals are for Egyptian goods smuggled through the tunnels in the south. But customers do not want those anymore. The most popular goods are cornflakes and chocolates, "the brand names, not the knockoffs", explained Ziyad, one of the supermarket staff.

With the easing of Israel's blockade on Gaza now formalised, Israeli and foreign goods brought through the crossings from Israel are again flooding Gaza's markets, much to the relief of Shawqi Saqer, the store manager. "The quality is better, the products are cheaper and the packaging is undamaged," Mr Saqer said, comparing the goods he is now getting with those he has had to bring through tunnels from Egypt. "In the last 10 days, we have seen more customers than for many months."

But Mr Saqer said the current rush of customers will only last so long. "People still don't have jobs. So they don't have money. We are only a small part of the whole." Indeed, the easing of the blockade is just that, an easing. So-called dual-use goods are still banned, construction materials will be allowed only for internationally overseen projects and export is still not allowed. Although there may be more and better products in the supermarket, industrialists and analysts say that until there is a complete end to the blockade, economic activity will continue to be severely circumscribed.

"Gaza needs free movement," said Omar Shaban, head of Pal-Think, a Gaza-based think tank. "We need to export. People need to be able to travel, to make business, and people need to be able to come to Gaza. Banks need to be able to operate normally and cash needs to be injected ? Sustainable development needs a complete lifting of the siege." At a Top Jeans textile factory, only four workers were bent over their machines on Tuesday. Like other industries in Gaza, the textile industry was debilitated by the Israeli blockade, and the easing of the blockade, such as it stands, is set only to make things worse.

"The siege ruined our export market, mostly to the West Bank, but at least we could produce for the local market by importing materials through the tunnels," explained the factory owner, Mohammad Taha. "Now with the opening of borders to imports, the local market is being flooded with cheaper Chinese clothes." Mr Taha said he was still unable to import textiles through the Israeli borders and the added cost of bringing material through the tunnels, as much as 70 per cent he said, meant he could not compete.

"We can't export and we can't rely on the local market. For us, it will only get worse." Mr Taha's company used to employ more than 100 workers in 10 factories throughout Gaza City. Now, he said, only 20 are still employed and only two factories are working. It is a picture that is reflected in the overall industry. Where the textile industry once employed between 35,000 and 40,000, no more than 1,500 now work in it today, according to Mohammad Abu Shannab of the Textile Industry Association. In monetary terms, an industry that once generated about US$84 million (Dh309m) a year is now reduced, in the words of Mr Taha, to "work for food".

Indeed, the outlook for the industry overall remains as it has been for years: grim. Palestinian data estimate that as much as 90 per cent of factories had to close as a result of the Israeli blockade. And although construction may receive a small boost from the international projects, as long as the import of raw materials for private industry as well as any export are still banned, little is likely to change.

Moreover, the one industry that flourished during the blockade, smuggling, is now severely ailing. In Rafah, where 1,200 tunnels, which at their peak gave work to as many as 15,000 people, were dug under the border to Egypt, dozens of trucks stood idle this week on the approach to an unusually quiet border strip. The once-constant whirring of electric motors pulling goods through tunnels has all but stopped. Labourers have all but ceased coming to Rafah, with little work on offer.

At one of the few tunnels in which there was still some activity, Abu Anan, 43, was resting in the shade. One of his workers was still bringing bags out from the tunnel, but, explained Abu Anan, not his real name, this was only for repairs. "There's nothing happening here," he said. Six months ago, he estimated, about 70 per cent of tunnels were operational. Now, he said, "maybe 50 tunnels" still work.

He was not, however, too unhappy. A plasterer and decorator by trade, if Israel ended the blockade fully, he would leave Rafah "in one minute". "I don't like this work, I never did. But what choice do I have?"