Istanbul Café. Photo by Mohammed Azaiza
Istanbul Café. Photo by Mohammed Azaiza

Every year, about ten days before the holy month of Ramadan commences, the entrance and front windows of the Istanbul Café in Gaza, situated along the beach promenade, are adorned with festive decorations. This year, two days before the month of fasting begins, Gisha’s field coordinator, Mohammed Azaiza, finds the restaurant closed and empty. The owner, Othman Adas, says he normally looks forward to the warm nights of Ramadan, when locals come out in groups to dine and spend time together after the hours of fasting. Now the café has been closed for more than a month, its 13 staff members, most of them with families to support, without employment. “In the past few days, the employees reached out to me and asked for 200 ILS (about 57 USD) each to buy groceries, and I had nothing to give them,” Adas said. “My other business is also closed right now, the employees there also asked for loans, but I can’t say yes to everyone. Even 200 ILS per employee is a lot for me with no income.”

Like other commercial sectors in Gaza, the restaurant, leisure and tourism industries rely almost entirely on the purchasing power of the local population. “When people work and the economy is flourishing, we flourish,” Adas explains, “But what can you expect the state of tourism to be like when the Strip has been closed for 13 years?”

Twenty-one-year-old Mahmoud Nahed Abu Rabia has worked at the Istanbul Café for the last five years. Even though the place is shuttered, he has stayed on as a security guard. Abu Rabia, who lives with his family of eight, comes to the café every day to make sure everything is in order. “When you came in and asked about the situation, I thought for a minute you were a government representative coming to announce that restaurants in Gaza were reopening,” he told Mohammed Azaiza. “Every year we wait for business to pick up again during Ramadan. This year I’m very worried. As my family’s sole provider, I make only 30 ILS (8.5 USD) a day. I don’t know how we’ll get by this year.”

This year, Gaza welcomes Ramadan amid a severe economic crisis brought on by 13 years of closure by Israel, the disastrous impact of which has become clearer as Gaza braces for the corona pandemic and the ensuing global financial crisis. Now, after the first panic-filled weeks when Gaza’s streets stood all but desolate, many residents are beginning to gradually return to their daily routines, but workplaces like cafes and restaurants, many of which rely on the busy traffic of Ramadan to survive, remain bolted.

“There is no comparing people’s purchasing power this year to that of last year. People really have no money, certainly not for anything considered a luxury, and it’s largely because of the corona crisis,” says Moudin Abu Hamid, the owners of the Abu Hamid company that supplies high-quality specialty products for Ramadan in Gaza. “Most people who are employed in the Strip received their wages almost 20 days ago and have since spent them on basic commodities. This year won’t feel like Ramadan.” Abu Hamid adds that his company has had difficulty ordering merchandise this year due to lockdowns imposed in India, China, Sri Lanka, and other countries. “You can still see people on the street, but we can see there is no demand. We haven’t received any orders from our usual shops and grocery stores,” says Abu Hamid.

Yousef Abu Yousef, who owns a food importing company, says: “We have vendors who usually buy wholesale from our company. They depend on foot traffic in the main markets, which are closed now.” A vendor who normally purchases 6,000 shekels’-worth (1,700 USD) of products every day during Ramadan from Abu Yousef’s company now hardly has any work. “He buys 800 shekels’-worth (230 USD) of our products every other day and has a hard time selling that too.” Abu Yousef fears that as long as the coronavirus crisis goes on, people will prefer to only purchase the essentials. “Now, with Erez Crossing closed, even the few who had managed to get permits before the pandemic to go out and work in Israel, after many years where they were unable to, have again rejoined the ranks of Gaza’s unemployed.”

Salah Abu Hasireh, Chair of the Palestinian Restaurant and Hotel Association in the Gaza Strip, told Gisha that 265 tourism and leisure businesses were shut down in the past month due to the coronavirus closure, including hotels, restaurants, wedding halls, social clubs, and recreational facilities. The collapse of these businesses has also harmed employment in related lines of work such as transport and sanitation. “Our sector is 100 percent shut down. Hotels have been turned into isolation facilities, coffee shops are all closed,” and during what should be one of the strongest seasons of the year. Abu Hasireh says the Restaurant and Hotel Association in Gaza has called on local authorities to loosen restrictions and allow businesses to reopen under increased social distancing measures.

“We’re suffering like others are suffering around the world at the moment, but in Gaza, the damage is two-fold,” explains Abu Hasireh, “because there’s no economic infrastructure to protect workers from such a recession. We’ve been holding on for 13 years in an impossible economic reality. It has eroded our ability to face the additional crisis brought on by the coronavirus. We hope this global crisis passes quickly.”

Ramadan Kareem.