Marking another holiday in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic

Gaza has been spared the worst of the health crisis, but not the economic one. Families in Gaza can celebrate the upcoming Eid al Adha together, but they have little else to celebrate

Mohammed Al Khadri, head of sales at LaMirage International, a company selling sweets. “It’s impossible to predict how much we’ll see in sales this year because people put off buying the essentials until two or three days before the holiday. We hope to sell, but the economic situation was bad even before, and has now been made worse by the delays and reductions to [public sector] salaries, as well as the constant fear of an outbreak of the coronavirus.”(Photos by Asmaa Elkhaldi)

At first glance, it might seem like the coronavirus pandemic spared the Gaza Strip. With just 76 verified cases, one death, and no documented community spread, the Gaza Strip indeed might be considered lucky. It might even seem like the closure, enforced by Israel and Egypt, which normally strangles the population, has for once been advantageous. Schools stayed shuttered after closing in March like much of the rest of the world, but the beaches and restaurants are now open, and families and others can gather for the holiday.

But in Gaza, like in Israel, and around the world, the economic repercussions of the pandemic are making a deep mark. Even if the closure of the territory can partially be ‘credited’ with the low number of cases, it’s this same closure, in its 14th year, not to mention three devastating military operations, that left Gaza more vulnerable to the economic shocks of the pandemic. Gaza already had high rates of poverty and unemployment, and the majority of its two-million strong population relied on aid to keep its heads above water.

First quarter labor statistics, which only include a few weeks of the post-pandemic era, already revealed that more than 26,000 people lost their jobs compared to the previous quarter. As many as 64% of Gaza’s young people, who make up 70% of the population, were already unemployed. In February, close to 6,000 individuals in Gaza held permits to trade or work in Israel. They accounted for 80% of the exits via Erez Crossing that month (16,997 exits). Since the start of the coronavirus lockdown on Erez in early March, not a single one has been permitted to cross for work, with estimated losses of millions of dollars to Gaza’s economy. In all of June, just 218 exits were recorded, mostly of urgent medical cases and their companions.

On top of all this, around sixty-thousand Palestinian Authority employees did not receive their May and June salaries on time and they, like employees of the de facto government in Hamas, have been receiving irregular and partial salaries for years. Public sector employees account for about a third of the workforce but their salaries drive the local economy, amounting to more than half of the total purchasing power in the Strip. Delayed, unpaid or partially paid salaries have dealt another blow to commercial activity.

Wael Al Nakhala from Chance, a women’s clothing shop in Gaza City. “A 2,000-dollar loss is still better than a 10,000-dollar loss. Sales are down by about 90 percent compared to last year. People don’t have any money, not even our regular customers. Other than the drop in income, we are also having trouble covering basic costs like electricity, water, and rent. Retailers are falling one after the other. If the situation continues like this, I’ll be next in line.”

Around the world, governments are making hard choices to try to strike a balance between public health and their economies. Both in Gaza, under the de facto rule of a Hamas-run government and in the West Bank, under the Palestinian Authority, control over movement is almost entirely in Israel’s hands. Israeli officials are fond of saying that “Israel left Gaza” and therefore owes it nothing, but it’s the one making choices about whether workers can get to their jobs, which goods can exit and enter the Strip, and whether farmers and fishermen can access their trades and access them safely. The pandemic, which has laid bare so many truths, is exposing (again) the depth and breadth of Israeli control over Palestinian lives, but also its unwillingness to take responsibility for that control. Much more can be done to facilitate access and movement while still preserving public health.

Jihad Jerada from XMAN, a men’s clothing shop in Gaza City. “We heard that the public sector employees in Gaza just received their salaries, but we don’t see it reflected on the ground. People took loans from banks that they need to pay off, and other bills to keep up with, and the partial salaries don’t leave them with enough left over for shopping.”

 

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