Gaza businesses shutter in mass strike to protest economic crisis

Gaza businesses shutter in mass strike to protest economic crisis

Citizens and officials say power blackouts, undrinkable water, declining earnings and a 46% unemployment rate putting enclave on brink of disaster

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Palestinians take part in a protest outside a United Nations (UN) distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 21, 2018. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
Palestinians take part in a protest outside a United Nations (UN) distribution center in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 21, 2018. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Gaza’s entire private sector was due Monday to mount the biggest strike in years to protest a worsening economic crisis that is forcing many businesses into bankruptcy.

The strike was planned to last until 2 p.m.

A flurry of recent reports have warned that the enclave is on the verge of collapse, its 1.8 million inhabitants plagued by frequent electricity blackouts, undrinkable water and an outdated cellular network.

Although the Palestinian Authority has been controlling the Kerem Shalom Crossing — the main entryway for humanitarian aid and commercial goods into the strip — since earlier this month as part of a deal reached with Gaza’s rulers, the terror organization Hamas, consumer buying power is in constant decline, Hadashot News reported Monday.

“I’m 80 years old and I’ve never seen days like this,” a woman told the TV station.

Maher al-Ta’ba, a spokesman for Gaza’s trade ministry, said, “The economic situation in Gaza is on the brink of collapse. All the economic indicators point to this. Above all, the unemployment rate has already reached 46 percent. More than a quarter of a million people are without jobs.”

On Sunday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin warned after a tour of the Gaza border area, “The time is coming near when the infrastructure in Gaza will collapse, leaving many civilians in distress, with no sanitary conditions, exposed to pollution, impure water, and epidemics.”

He added, “The people who are preventing the rehabilitation of Gaza are the people of Hamas.”

A Palestinian man waits for customers at the Fras market in Gaza City on January 21, 2018. / (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

Some Gazans have also criticized Hamas, though Israel’s blockade of the Strip and efforts by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to squeeze the terror group are also seen as major contributing factors to the economic malaise. On Sunday, several Palestinians demonstrated outside a distribution center of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA to protest US funding cuts.

“Once we thought about returning to Haifa and Jaffa and liberating Jerusalem. Today we dream that there will be electricity and water and medical treatment, we dream there will be food on the table,” said local comedian Adel al-Mashuchi.

Another Gazan posted a video of himself shouting in anger, “You who are in charge in the West Bank and you who are in charge of Gaza, you drive a car worth $100,000 and in Gaza people have nothing to eat! People are living in hell!”

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade for a decade, and its sole crossing with Egypt on its southern border opens only occasionally.

Hamas, a terror group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since seizing control of the coastal area in 2007. It has since fought three wars with Israel, firing thousands of rockets into its territory and digging a network of elaborate attack tunnels.

Palestinian workers inspect trucks carrying supplies after their arrival in Rafah through the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on November 1, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weapons to Gaza or the materials needed to make them. Goods heading for Gaza are first shipped to Israel for inspection and then trucked into the Palestinian territory after items considered a security risk are removed.

At least 70 percent of Gazans are dependent upon international aid. The UN’s Relief and Works Agency plays a major role in the Strip, with the same percentage of the population classified as refugees.

At least four out of every 10 Gazans are unemployed, compared with two out of 10 in the West Bank. (Israel’s unemployment rate is approximately 4.3%).

Palestinian refugees collect aid parcels at a United Nations food distribution centre in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2018. (AFP/ SAID KHATIB)

The enclave’s population is growing so fast that by 2030, the Palestinian territories would need 1 million new jobs just to keep unemployment at the rate it is now, a recent UN study found.

“We are on a downward spiral, especially in Gaza, and things are getting worse by the day,” said Anders Thomsen, director of the UN Population Fund’s office in the Palestinian territories, when the report was published. “If that continues, you can of course only imagine that this will be an environment ripe for radicalization and for the conflicts, so I think that should be avoided.”

Gazan households are supplied with just four to six hours of electricity a day, and are forced to drink bottled water because the Strip’s water infrastructure is in an advanced state of collapse.

Monthly salaries for those who do have jobs are low on average — NIS 1,600 (a little over $400), compared to NIS 2,000 ($550) in the West Bank. Poverty is everywhere.

Palestinians sell fish at the Fras market in Gaza City on January 21, 2018. (AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS)

Despite the lack of services, Gazans are forced to pay multiple taxes on goods — one tax goes to the Palestinian Authority and another goes to Hamas’s treasury.

Just under a week ago, the prospects of the Palestinians took a further turn for the worse when the United States withheld $65 million from the UN relief agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), arguing that the organization needed a “fundamental re-examination.” On Friday, Washington announced it would hold back a further $45 million, this time meant for food aid as part of the West Bank/Gaza Emergency Appeal led by UNRWA last month.

Explaining the decision to withhold the cash, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday that the $45 million was not guaranteed.

“At this time, we will not be providing that, but that does not mean — I want to make it clear — that does not mean that it will not be provided in the future,” Nauert said.

“Money coming in from other countries needs to increase as well to continue paying for all those refugees,” she said, adding that the UN agency needed to reform.

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