In mid-2007, when Gaza’s crossings were closed in response to Hamas’ takeover of internal control in the Strip, one of the production lines to grind to a halt was that of the ice cream made by the Al Awda Factory. Prior to then, about 60 percent of the factory’s outputs – ice cream, biscuits of various kinds, and wafers – were sold in the West Bank and five percent in Israel. With two of its important markets closed off in one fell swoop, production was reduced. Rather than lay off workers, the owner of the factory, Mohammed Tilbani, tried to keep his hold on the local market with creative, new products and absorbed the rest of his losses.
A new animated film by Gisha explores the impact of restrictions on freedom of movement on life in Gaza, particularly since 2007, through the story of Noor, an imaginary character, who encounters the owner of Al Awda, Tilbani, the Strip’s real-life Willy Wonka.
The Gaza Strip is home to two million residents, including many young people like Noor as well as businesspeople and entrepreneurs like Mr. Tilbani. Despite numerous restrictions on movement of people and goods in place now for decades, and more stringently so since 2007, the story of the Al Awda factory is a testament to both the resilience and potential of the Strip. It has withstood border closures and airstrikes, and continues to bring sweetness to the lives of children and adults.
Despite some changes to policy since 2007, Israel continues to wield extensive control over the Strip and maintains significant influence over many aspects of the daily life of its residents through its control over movement and access. Restrictions on movement, of both people and goods, impede economic activity, let alone development, denying residents of the Strip access to opportunities and preventing them from fulfilling their dreams and aspirations.
Economic conditions in the Strip are no twist of fate, but rather a matter of policy. Given that some elements of policy have changed over the years, it’s clear that more can be done to improve the situation.
Gisha’s over-arching ask remains that individual security inspections be the only condition on which both people and goods transit through crossings. The right to freedom of movement is just that, a basic right which cannot be denied. Without it, a host of other rights are obstructed, including the right to livelihood. Absent sweeping reforms that must be made, these are 10 things that must be done immediately to improve economic activity in Gaza.
- Restore electricity supply to Gaza
Any business owner can attest that running a business with limited supply of electricity and water is impossible. We sometimes hear about the humanitarian implications of the situation, but the economic toll is overlooked.
- Allow a wider variety of agricultural produce to exit Gaza for the Israeli market
At present only eggplants and tomatoes can be sold in Israel. Why? Who knows.
- Remove restrictions on entrance of items necessary for industry
Israel maintains a long list of items it restricts for entry to Gaza on the pretense they are “dual-use.” The list contains basic items needed for industry like wood and lacquer for the furniture sector, as well as machinery and spare parts.
- Allow exit of processed foods and other goods to Israel and the West Bank
Processed foods (including ice cream and cookies!) and other goods manufactured can exit abroad and transit through Israel and the West Bank, but not be sold in Israel or the West Bank. Why? Who knows. At various points security and phytosanitary arguments were made about exit of goods in general and these then disappeared…it’s not clear why some goods can exit and others can’t.
- Allow travel of laborers
The last laborers to exit Gaza for work in Israel did so in April 2006. Despite the fact that local councils are pushing for laborers to be able to exit Gaza for work in agriculture near the Strip, this has not happened yet.
- Renew blocked trader permits and issue more
Currently there are only 703 valid trader permits, for those seeking to enter Israel and the West Bank for the purposes of trade. At one point there were some 3,600 permits valid and the quota remains for 5,000 permits but permits weren’t granted, and still many others weren’t renewed or were blocked for unclear ‘security reasons’ as part of a larger trend.
- Expand criteria for travel for professional opportunities
The criteria for who can request a permit to travel for professional opportunities are exceedingly narrow. They don’t take into account women and young people, who are more highly represented in the civil society sector or work as entrepreneurs and small business owners. It takes all kinds of economic activity and the participation of many to make a healthy economy.
- Improve conditions at Kerem Shalom Crossing
For years, Israeli and Palestinian traders have lobbied the authorities to improve conditions at the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the only commercial crossing for all of Gaza’s two million residents. They are asking for things like creating shaded and refrigerated areas to shield produce from the elements and to increase the allowed height of items stacked on trucks to improve cost-effectiveness.
- Stop the harmful practice of confiscations at Kerem Shalom Crossing
We have heard about a number of incidents in which goods purchased by traders to be brought into Gaza are confiscated for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the goods aren’t returned, causing devastating losses to Gaza’s already small and over-stretched business community.
- Remove restrictions to sea and land-restricted areas
Israel maintains control of areas within Gaza’s territorial waters, limiting fishing to six nautical miles (other than at certain times of year when it allows nine miles) from shore and to an area of land inside the Strip up to 300 meters from the border (though the exact area isn’t clear). The manner in which the restrictions are enforced harms lives and livelihoods: these areas are vital for the fishing and agricultural industries. Israel has also sprayed herbicides in the land-restricted areas, damaging crops.