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Gaza jobs meltdown: an ice-cream firm's tale

Some 68,000 jobs have been lost since Hamas's takeover spurred an Israeli blockade of the struggling area.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2007

Gaza City, Gaza

When the mercury soars and the cloying humidity of the Mediterranean coast makes heading outside a shirt-drenching ordeal, Mazen Masri is usually one of the few Gazans wearing a smile.

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But today, Mr. Masri casts a dejected look around his mostly idle ice-cream factory. "This should be the best time of our year," he says. "But I go into the factory and my heart almost breaks."

The Al-Arusa Ice Cream Factory is one of Gaza's oldest industrial-scale businesses. But its prospects are melting under an Israeli economic blockade that has denied it access to its main market, the West Bank, and to the dairy products and chocolate needed to churn out ice-cream sandwiches and Popsicles.

The woes of Al-Arusa are being replicated across dozens of businesses in Gaza, destroying jobs in a society where 80 percent of residents rely on foreign aid. The US and Israel hope that economic pain will translate into frustration with Gaza's governing Islamist Hamas – which the two countries consider a terrorist group – and kill its political support.

Whether that will happen is uncertain. But for now, the policy is increasing anger at Israel and the US among an already radicalized population and feeding the poverty that some analysts say contributed to the rise of Hamas, which took full control of the territory in June after a brief battle with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah Party.

A business class with generations of ties to Israel is also feeling increasingly powerless. "The Israeli policy is to add to our suffering," says Akram Mushtaha, a recently laid off Arusa employee who has stopped by to see about a loan. "They want Hamas to change? They want Fatah to change? Well, they aren't punishing them. They're punishing me."

Mr. Mushtaha, a former amateur body builder whose parents were driven out of a village near Bersheeba and into the Gaza strip in 1948, has worked at the factory since 1991. He was making a little more than $300 a month when he was laid off. He's come in this day because he still needs money to buy new clothes for his five kids – the oldest 15, the youngest 4 – before school starts in September. His wife has already sold all her jewelry.

"I try to think about the politics of all this, but it makes no sense to me. Our ice cream business has become a threat to Israel? It wasn't a threat before?"

Musthaha says he was one of the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who voted for Hamas in its landslide electoral victory last year, more because he was angry at the perceived corruption and failures of Fatah than because of a commitment to the Islamist ideals of Hamas.

Now, he says, he won't vote again – for anyone. "Sure, I voted for Hamas. But why would I participate in politics again? We had Fatah for years, now we've had Hamas, but the economy just always seems to get worse."

Israeli officials say they are letting in humanitarian food and medical aid, though many Gazans report shortages of medicine. But they say they will restrict movement in and out of Gaza as long as Hamas is in control of the strip and does not end rocket attacks against Israel.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a symbolic boost to the government of President Abbas by visiting the West Bank town of Jericho.

The meeting was one in a series meant to prepare for an international Mideast conference in the US in November. The Palestinians hope the leaders will sketch the outlines of a final peace deal, to be presented at the conference, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday.