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With power crisis, out-of-work woodcutters see opportunity in Gaza

Tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade, weak ties with PA have resulted in unreliable power, driving up demand for wood in winter

A Palestinian man cuts wood using a chainsaw in a traditional charcoal production site in the town of Jabaliya, Northern Gaza Strip, January 7, 2021.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian man cuts wood using a chainsaw in a traditional charcoal production site in the town of Jabaliya, Northern Gaza Strip, January 7, 2021.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

With a chainsaw in his car, Ahmed Abdelal tours the Gaza Strip, asking around for people wanting to cut down trees, regrow orchards or make way for construction.

One of the few remaining woodcutters in the Palestinian territory, Abdelal, who learned woodcutting from his father, is struggling to scratch out a living in a traditional job that is less and less in demand.

Job opportunities are rare in this Palestinian enclave wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, and so are green spaces. Rapid population growth — more than 2 million people are crammed in a 360-square-kilometer (140-square-mile) strip — comes at the expense of arable land.

Israel maintains a 300-meter (330-yard) wide buffer zone along its frontier with Gaza. At the height of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, its military bulldozers leveled large swaths of citrus groves in the border areas in order to prevent shooters taking shelter.

Israeli military bulldozers are pictured clearing the buffer zone on Israel’s border with Gaza, opposite the Palestinian city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 13, 2021. (Said Khatib / AFP)

In more recent years, Gaza has suffered under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic terror group Hamas seized control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Israel says the restrictions are needed to prevent Hamas, which openly seeks to destroy Israel, from upgrading its weapons.

The blockade and the rift between Hamas and the PA, which holds sway in the West Bank, have weakened Gaza’s energy sector. As a result, residents are put on a rotating electricity schedule of eight-hours on, followed by an eight-hour blackout.

Here, woodcutters like Abdelal find an opportunity.

The unreliability of the power supply drives up the demand for wood in winter. So Abdelal and other Gaza woodcutters look to expand their clientele from the traditional buyers of logs, residents of rural areas who bake bread on woodfire ovens and tribal councils who keep the Arabic coffee pots warm near a woodfire.

A Palestinian woodcutter strikes a log as he prepares wood for sale, in front of his workshop in Gaza City, January 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Among Abdelal’s favorite clients are small kitchens that cook food in ovens dug under the ground. In these pits, the wood is burnt to coal before chicken, lamb shoulders and shanks are tossed in and left to cook for hours. The cooking technique is getting popular.

The olive and citrus wood logs also go to a burning site in east Gaza City where they are turned into charcoal.

Abu Ashraf al-Hattab, who has been a charcoal burner for decades, says the business has declined in recent years because the local supplies of wood have shrunk and people have turned to cheaper, imported charcoal.

In his gift shop, Muhanad Ahmed wanted to offer environmentally friendly items and drop the excessive amount of plastic that’s seen on the shelves of other shops, he says. So, he buys the logs and shapes them into wood sculptures.

Abdelal says that as long as he can find customers, he will continue. “Cutting the wood is an old profession for us, and despite development and modernity, it still exists,” he said.

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