'We reject all the violence...So why should we be punished?'

‘Poverty begets violence’: Gaza businessmen rue border crossing restrictions

Disavowing attacks on Israel, Palestinian merchants slam fresh Israeli restrictions at Kerem Shalom over wave of incendiary devices launched from coastal enclave

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Palestinians sell used clothing shipped through the Kerem Shalom crossing, between Israel and the town of Rafah, in southern Gaza Strip on October 13, 2010. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Illustrative: Palestinians sell used clothing shipped through the Kerem Shalom crossing, between Israel and the town of Rafah, in southern Gaza Strip on October 13, 2010. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Palestinian merchants and business leaders in the Gaza Strip expressed frustration on Wednesday over Israel’s new restrictions at the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing, warning the clampdown on imports and exports could significantly damage their business interests and undermine the economic welfare of other Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

On Monday, the IDF announced that only humanitarian aid would be allowed into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing in response to dozens of airborne incendiary objects that Gazans have launched into the Jewish state, incurring extensive damage to Israeli farmlands, and other violent activities in the border region between Israel and the coastal enclave.

The army also said that it would no longer permit Gazans to export goods through the crossing.

Kerem Shalom is a commercial passageway between Israel and Gaza, which facilitates the movement of the vast majority of goods that enter and exit the coastal enclave.

“We reject all the violence and have taken no part in it. So why should we be punished?” Taysir al-Ustaz, the chairman of the Clothing and Textile Industry Union in Gaza, told The Times of Israel. “We also think that poverty begets violence. If we want to prevent violence, we need to make sure people can work and have a livelihood.”

In early 2015, Israel permitted Gazans to export clothing and textiles to the Jewish state and West Bank for the first time since 2007, when Hamas took over the Strip in a violent coup.

According to Ustaz, since Israel approved clothing and textile exports, the industry has grown significantly.

“In the past few years, we have exported $10 million in goods, employed 2,000 additional workers and rehabilitated several factories,” he said. “We hope that Israel’s decision to ban exports is only temporary because we don’t want to lay off workers and close our factories. We want to continue to work with our Israeli partners and develop our businesses.”

Palestinians load kites and balloons with flammable material in order to fly toward Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip, on June 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/ Mahmud Hams)

Muhammed Abu Nahla, the owner of Computer Connect, which imports and sells computer and networking hardware, expressed a similar sentiment about the incendiary objects and violence in the border region.

“We do not support violence. We are against it,” he said in a phone call on Wednesday. “But why are they taking measures against us and not the people who are causing the trouble?”

Abu Nahla said his company had been expecting thousands of dollars of equipment to arrive through Kerem Shalom on Tuesday.

“Our company was planning to receive network and telecom equipment to complete a project that we have been working on for the government of Qatar, but we then found out about Israel’s new measures,” he said. “Without the equipment to finish the project, we will not be paid for the work we have been doing on this project for the past year.”

Israel has allowed Gazans to import computer and networking hardware for several years, but has also developed a stringent oversight process on such imports.

Palestinian trucks loaded with supplies enter the southern Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Rafah, on November 1, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

According to Abu Nahla, who also serves as a board member of the Palestinian Information Technology Association, his company must apply to both the ministries of economy and communications for permission to import computer and networking hardware.

“Before I can get a hold of the goods, I need to prove that I have sold them, provide details on who bought them and how they intend to use them,” he said. “The process usually takes several months and I, unlike other merchants, have no stock of goods. That is why we hope the crossing will reopen for all imports soon because my business depends on it.”

Abu Nahla also warned that a long-term ban on computer and networking hardware imports could lead to the creation of a black market.

“When Israel banned imports through the crossing in 2007, it made room for a tunnel economy,” he said. “There are people who will find a way to bring goods into Gaza illegally and profit from our suffering.”

After Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel only permitted a limited number of goods into the Strip. During that time, smugglers brought millions of dollars of merchandise into the coastal enclave through tunnels connected to the Sinai Peninsula.

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a field caused by incendiaries attached to kites flown by Palestinians, from the Gaza Strip, June 27, 2018. (Flash90)

Maher Tabaa, an official at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, also warned that if Israel does not lift its new restrictions on imports, certain goods could expire.

“There are containers piling up on the Israeli side that are supposed to come to Gaza,” he said on Wednesday. “Some of those containers have products, such as batteries, that will lose value as their expiration date approaches.”

On Monday, the military said the restrictions at Kerem Shalom would continue so long as Palestinians persist in launching incendiary kites and balloons into Israel.

“In light of this situation in which the Hamas terror group is taking advantage of the residents of the Strip and launching incendiary and explosive kites and balloons at the communities in the Gaza periphery… these steps are being taken,” the army said.

“If this phenomenon continues, these steps will continue and even get worse,” the IDF added.

Tabaa said a worried merchant had contacted him about $100,000 in batteries for solar panels he was supposed to receive on Tuesday.

“These measures are unjust. The businessmen are the ones working to hold Gaza up,” he said.

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