JERUSALEM, July 16 /Standard Newswire/ -- International humanitarian agency Oxfam and Israeli human rights group Gisha today warned of dire humanitarian consequences if Gaza's commercial routes are not re-opened and called upon Israel, the international community, and Palestinian leaders to cooperate to open the crossings and allow Gaza to resume an economic life.
The near complete halt of commercial imports – and especially exports – has led to an immediate wide scale shut down of Palestinian industry. If action isn't taken soon, the ripple effect of economic collapse and job loss will lead to complete humanitarian dependency across the Gaza Strip.
The continued closure of Karni, the main commercial crossing point in and out of Gaza, is choking 1.5 million women, children and men who already heavily rely on aid from the outside world to survive. The closure is in direct violation of an agreement signed in 2005 by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority which identified Karni as the main crossing for commercial goods. Since the current crisis began, only basic humanitarian items such as food and medicines have entered Gaza through the smaller Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossings, which do not have the capacity to receive the truckloads of supplies necessary for economic life. All exports remain blocked from reaching outside markets.
Raw materials, non-humanitarian commercial goods, and even some essential equipment for urgent sewage system and water network repairs have not been allowed to enter Gaza since June 12. Israel's Customs Authority has also cancelled Gaza's customs code from its database, meaning that Gazans cannot receive goods ordered from abroad. Gaza residents have not been able to get their products out of Gaza for profitable markets in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.
According to fresh data just released by the Palestinian Trade Center and the Palestinian Federation of Industries, 80 percent of industrial establishments have been temporarily shut over the past month and at least 65,800 employees have been laid off. Remaining establishments are only operating at 60 percent capacity. On top of the freeze of US$160 million in UNRWA construction projects, there has been an estimated private sector loss of US$20.6 million. If exports continue to be blocked, the cash crop sector will face a 100 percent loss in sales during the key November harvest.
The result of these massive blows and potential further losses is a near total breakdown of Gaza's economy and the livelihoods of its people.
Along with Gaza business owners who travelled to Jerusalem to ask that the crossings be re-opened and laid-off factory workers who joined the press conference from Gaza by video link, representatives from Oxfam International and Gisha urged Israel and Palestinian leaders to immediately re-open Karni crossing. They also appealed to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, envoy Tony Blair and all members of the Middle East Quartet – the EU, US, UN and Russia – to put the economic crisis in Gaza at the top of their agenda during their meeting in Portugal later this week.
According to Oxfam International Jerusalem Spokesman Michael Robin Bailey: "Under occupation and related travel restrictions, the people of Gaza have faced joblessness and stifled development for years. Since 2000, there's been an increasing trend of dependency on humanitarian aid with some 85 percent of Gazans already dependent on partial food aid for basic nutritional needs. Now, if Karni's doors aren't re-opened soon and custom codes re-instated, the slide into all-out dependency on humanitarian assistance will be swift and inevitable. Israel's real and continuing security concerns will not in any way be resolved by pushing the people of Gaza to the brink of total dependence on aid.
"Agricultural production has become economically obsolete because farmers cannot export their crops. Food security problems in Gaza due to closures at Karni are not new. What is different now is that the policy of closure is likely to become permanent without a push by the international community on Israel and Palestinian leaders to re-open the crossing.
"Because exports are forbidden, local markets have been flooded with Gazan produce and as a result, along with diminished purchasing power, prices have crashed. Many farmers have no money to buy the supplies needed to plant further crops. In the long term, without a productive private sector, the people of Gaza will be entirely dependent on food aid. Even if food imports come in, they will be too poor to buy them. These devastating effects on Gaza's commercial economy and self-sufficiency will take years to reverse," Bailey added.
According to Bassim Khoury, Chair of the Palestinian Federation of Industries: "An economy cannot survive on food and medicine alone, without raw materials for industry and construction, and without the ability to export goods. If we don't re-open the commercial crossings, the economy in Gaza will die out."
Thousands of businesses like the Al-Auda biscuit factory in Gaza have had to temporarily shut their doors, either partially or completely. A female employee at the biscuit factory who supports four younger brothers now only works a couple of days per week and is no longer able to meet the needs of the family. Its owner says that the factory, which normally operates 26 days per month, has only been able to work a handful of days since mid-June due to a lack of imported raw materials needed to make his biscuits.
According to Muhammad Al-Talbani, owner of the dramatically down-sized Al-Auda biscuit factory, which used to employ 350 workers: "My future as a factory owner is bleak. I have already lost all my customers in the West Bank, 50% of my business. In Gaza, people are begging to work for 10 shekels [$2] per day, but I can't hire them because I have no work to give them. It is a mistake to think that choking Gaza economically will work against Hamas. Quite the contrary – the economic stronghold is driving people to extremism. In Gaza, people receive food assistance from Hamas, and they are blaming Israel for the closure."
Gisha has issued a report, "Commercial Closure: Deleting Gaza's Economy from the Map," warning that Gaza's factories have been paralyzed by the shortage of raw materials, throwing tens of thousands of people out of work (available at www.gisha.org).
According to Sari Bashi, Director of Gisha: "Denying Gaza residents the ability to live in dignity, to lead normal lives, to work and support themselves and their families violates Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law, human rights law and its own national law. Normal life is not just food and water. It is also a dignified human existence and the possibility to continue to earn a livelihood. Seeking to weaken Hamas by punishing 1.5 million women, men and children is illegal and counterproductive. It is the ordinary people who are suffering from this policy of economic strangulation."
"Israel controls Gaza's airspace and territorial waters, and it exercises significant control over Gaza's border with Egypt, where the passage of goods is prohibited. The only way for residents of Gaza to send and receive goods is through its border with Israel. Israel owes an obligation to re-open the commercial crossings – and Palestinian leaders must cooperate in coordinating their re-opening."