Wadah Bassiso, a prominent businessman in the furniture industry who lives in Gaza, was granted a rare opportunity. He was to be the first person to export furniture from Gaza since the year 2007. But the opportunity came and went. Shortly before he was to begin exporting his furniture to the Czech Republic, Bassiso’s factory burned to the ground. The cause of the fire is still being investigated.
Bassiso’s tragedy is Gaza’s tragedy, as he was the only merchant who was able to secure a work order for furniture from abroad. Export of furniture from Gaza, touted as an expansion of export generally, was actually reliant on the export of a single merchant. One factory burns down and with it furniture export from Gaza.
It is no coincidence that there’s just one merchant wishing to export furniture. Furniture export to the Czech Republic, an operation in which the army already took great pride, is not a viable solution for Gaza furniture makers who have traditionally sold their wares to the West Bank and Israel. Gaza manufacturers do not make furniture for assembly which can be transported over long distances, but rather pre-assembled furniture which has to be loaded onto trucks. Shipping furniture to Europe would require major changes to the manufacturing process, which cost money, entail the development of new skills and take time, and all for export which is barely profitable considering shipping costs and international competition. Under these conditions, it is difficult to see how export to the Czech Republic – if another merchant rises in the place of Bassiso – would bring real improvement to Gaza’s economy.
Sealing up the fate of the dangerous potato
How do you allow export without actually allowing it? By imposing restrictions that make it impossible. Case in point: potato export to Jordan, the export that could not be. In principle, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories allows export of potatoes to Jordan and other places, provided those places are not Israel or the West Bank. Allows, that is, as long as a number of minor demands are met. In the case of the potatoes, they were to be transported in closed containers and inside specially-sealed trucks which have the capacity to transport 8 tons of produce (as opposed to the 20 ton-capacity of a standard truck).
As always, shipping is key. Israel’s demands increased the shipping costs to Jordan so much so that the entire project was cancelled. Yes, Palestinians are officially allowed to export potatoes to Jordan, just like they are allowed to export furniture to Europe. Officially. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said in the past: “Now the Gazans must develop their export markets abroad”. Unfortunately, Israel isn’t making their job easy.
The run-away cherry tomatoes
|In the past|
|For perspective, it’s helpful to look at Gaza’s external sales figures for 2007, before the closure. In that year, 57% of all goods sold from Gaza were agricultural products. Less than 15% was export destined for Europe. Ten percent were citrus fruit sold in the West Bank and Israel, and 32% were vegetables, which were also shipped to Israel and the West Bank.|
So what’s left? Exporting agricultural products to Europe. There’s not much to write home about. First of all, export is limited to the winter season only. It does not include summer fruits and vegetables and of course, it does not include any non-agricultural products. The quantities in question are also negligible, relatively speaking. In 2005, before the closure, the Gaza Strip exported 904 tons of cherry tomatoes – more than five times the quantity designated for export this season. Past experience shows that it is doubtful that this year’s export plans will actually materialize in full.
Why do Europeans suddenly have such a great interest in Gaza’s cherry tomatoes? The real story is in the fine print. Agricultural export from Gaza is funded by the Dutch government. How can export be funded? The answer is simple – when it’s not profitable. All agricultural export from Gaza currently forms part of a joint Dutch-Palestinian project which is meant to help rehabilitate Gaza’s economy. In other words, even shipments of vegetables and flowers to Europe – small as they may be – resemble a humanitarian project more than actual economic activity.
In summary, we had furniture export that hinged on the luck of a single merchant, export to Jordan which became unfeasible because of a few impractical restrictions and agricultural export to Europe, which is so tenuous that it requires external funding. This is the story of Gaza’s export – export that is meant to support the economy of a population of over 1.6 million people.