On May 10, 2021, Israel launched a large-scale military assault on the Gaza Strip; 261 people in Gaza were killed, 67 of them children, and 13 people were killed in Israel, including two children. Everyday life in Gaza was extremely difficult even before the air strikes that damaged essential civilian infrastructure, toppled residential towers and businesses, and displaced thousands. People are still grappling with the physical and mental toll of the war, and fear of another is constantly looming.
Almost a year after we first spoke to him, Gisha checked back in with Abdallah Abu Halima, a Palestinian resident of Gaza whose one-of-a-kind hydroponic farming project was badly damaged in Israeli bombings in May 2021. Abu Halima, a 35-year-old married father of three founded the hydroponics project in 2019 to provide solutions for the challenges faced by farmers in the Strip. The special greenhouse he built maximizes land use and reduces water consumption. On May 19, 2021, the greenhouse was hit during air and artillery strikes by Israel. Entire crops were destroyed and the structure and equipment inside it were damaged.
For months after the attack, Abu Halima filed applications for funding to reconstruct his business with several international and local organizations. None came through. Abu Halima realized he had no choice but to try to adapt to the new reality. He decided to build ordinary greenhouses on his plot, hoping he would at least be able to make ends meet, but his debts piled up too high.
“This has been the hardest time of my life,” he tells us. “There is no income, no horizon, no political or financial stability. Every attempt comes up against the lack of funding.” Decimated by 15 years of closure enforced by Israel, Gaza’s job market left Abu Halima with few ways forward. “I had three options: I could try emigrating from Gaza and going to Turkey to look for work; I could stay in Gaza and end up in prison because of debt I can’t repay; or I could apply for a work permit in Israel,” says Abu Halima.
In early 2022, Abu Halima received a “financial needs” permit to enter Israel for work. Now he works as a laborer doing house renovations in Israel. “I’ve started paying back my debts, at least. There is always a chance that Israel will close the crossing due to the security situation, but I have no alternative in the Strip.”
Over the years, as well as placing insurmountable obstacles on entrepreneurship and business development in Gaza, Israel has also deliberately harmed the Palestinian economy and contorted it to meet Israeli interests. The permits for “trade” and “financial needs” that Israel allocates for Gaza residents are not nearly enough to sustain the hundreds of thousands of unemployed individuals in the Strip, and even for those who receive them, the permits are only valid for up to six months.
Like Abu Halima, many small business owners in Gaza continue to grapple with the ongoing impact of last year’s offensive.
With a business degree from the Islamic University in Gaza and several medals from international cooking competitions under her belt, Saja Abu Shaaban opened her own restaurant. She named it Beitna, ‘our house’ in Arabic. By May 2021, Beitna employed seven women. Abu Shaaban speaks with pride about how professionally the business was run and recalls working around the clock to make it a success.
“As a married woman, I felt pride and responsibility at having a source of income of my own; at being self-employed, able to face the difficulties of running a business and to prove to myself and the women working with me that we can make a change.”
On May 12, 2021, Israel bombed the Al Jawhara high-rise in Gaza city, where Beitna was located. The restaurant was destroyed. Abu Shaaban had been planning to hire more women and dreamt of opening a second location. When we spoke to her a year after the attack, these hopes seemed further away than ever. “We used to make food for people. Today, my staff and I hope someone will provide food for our kids,” she says.
Funding sources for reconstruction in Gaza are scarce, and projects involving infrastructure development are especially obstructed by the obstacles of Israel’s permit regime. Tensions between Palestinian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank add more complication. Most of the rubble left in the wake of the May assault has been cleared, and a slow trickle of rebuilding has begun, but reconstruction is stalled. International donors hesitate to invest resources into repairing the damage given the possibility that another Israeli assault could reverse their efforts.
“The truth is I hate being around that area, where the Jawhara building once stood,” Abu Shaaban told us. “All that’s left is a vacant lot waiting to be reconstructed. It reminds me that behind every wall and inside every room of this tower were people’s stories, dreams that are now gone.”