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Israel-Gaza tensions: Pilot program to expand Gaza exports falters

Israel promised earlier this year to allow Gaza to export garments and furniture after a five-year blockade. But delays are damaging sales – and hope.

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Concern about instability in Egypt

Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which was aided by Egypt under former President Hosni Mubarak, began in 2006, when militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It was tightened in 2007, when the militant Islamist group Hamas took control of the territory after violently ousting its rival, the secular Fatah party. Israel and the US consider Hamas a terrorist organization. The blockade, limiting the movement of goods and people in and out of the territory, decimated Gaza’s economy.

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After an international uproar last year when Israel stopped a flotilla of activists trying to bring attention to the blockade, killing nine, Israel eased import restrictions. The smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt, which had previously focused on bringing in consumer goods, subsequently became devoted mostly to gasoline and building supplies like cement and steel. With the influx of supplies this year, a building boom began.

But Niveen Al Hallaq, head of architecture at El Ajrami Company for Engineering and Construction, one of Gaza’s largest building companies, says everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. “This situation is not stable. If anything happens in Egypt, prices will go up and people won't be able to afford to build. It's not stable,” she says.

Most of those who can afford to build right now are Hamas government employees or members of the Islamist movement, she says – because they are among the few with regular income.

Israel blames Gaza exporters for delay

In the manufacturing sector, meanwhile, factory owners are holding out for open borders. Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), said in a written statement to the Monitor that a request for approval of furniture and textile exports had been approved July 19, and any subsequent delay was the fault of Gazan businessmen.

“All the export applications were approved, therefore the reason for the lack of implementation of any export applications is the Palestinian exporters' inability,” he said in the statement.

Palestinian businessmen say that while the political approval may have come through at the top, it took months to be translated into practical approval from Israel to get their goods through the crossings. They also had to have contracts to sell the products in Israel or abroad, and many have lost their relationships with buyers in the last five years.

Mohamed Mushtaha, one of the owners of Mushtaha Furniture Company, says he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold on without being able to send his products abroad. He used to sell most of his furniture in Israel and the West Bank. Now, after rebuilding his factory, which was bombed during Israel’s offensive on Gaza nearly two years ago, the factory is open again, but only for special orders. He’s losing money by operating, but says he can’t afford to lose his name recognition in the market, or his skilled workers.

“I have to remain working. Even if I'm losing money, I have to go on,” he says. “I have to keep the workers, I have to keep the company, and I hope I can survive.”

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