In a bizarre twist with Israel, Gazans are getting an economic injection of adrenaline from the virus

GAZA CITY — Ziad Qassem’s 25 years as a tailor seemed worthless in the gridlocked Gaza Strip’s cruel economy: Unemployed for eight months, racking up debt, he sat idle in his apartment, worried about how he would support his wife and five children.

The coronavirus came to the rescue.

As demand for face masks and protective gear soars around the world, garment factories in Gaza have been inundated with new orders since early March from merchants from – from all places – Israel, usually considered by a large part of the Palestinian population of Gaza as the enemy.

The Zahara clothing company in Gaza offered Mr. Qassem, 42, about $12 a day to put his mastery of the sewing machine to good use.

“I can breathe now,” he said. “I can buy things for my family. When I didn’t have a job, I felt psychologically exhausted. I didn’t have an extra shekel to give to my children.

Around the world, the pandemic has decimated economies and sent unemployment rates soaring. But in the garment industry in Gaza, where unemployment, poverty and dependence on international aid were already reaching epidemic proportions, the coronavirus has strangely been a boon.

Clothing was once a mainstay of the local economy, with 900 factories employing 36,000 Palestinians. But the industry all but collapsed in 2007 when the militant group Hamas took control of Gaza and Israel banned the export of clothing from Gaza to Israel or the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Factories suffered devastating losses. They have been virtually decommissioned,” said Muhammad Abu Jayyab, editor of Al Eqtisadiah, a Gaza-based business publication.

It was only after Gaza’s war with Israel in 2014 that Israeli authorities allowed Gaza’s garment manufacturers to resume their exports, the basis for a modest recovery. In 2019, more than 200 garment factories employed around 6,000 workers, according to the Palestinian Federation of Garment, Textile and Leather Industries, although workers and owners said daily wages were just $8, $50.

Today, a dozen factories have started making masks and protective clothing, with several hiring new employees, expanding their hours or even contracting out excess work to smaller stores.

In Gaza City, the all-male Zahara factory was bustling this week as some workers painstakingly sewed light blue face masks, while others quickly cut nylon fabrics and used old sewing machines to stitch them together in protective clothing. Most were at least a few feet apart, but only some employees were wearing masks. Owner Muhammad Odeh, 42, said he had increased his staff from 30 to 55 and stretched their shifts from eight hours a day to 12.

“The virus has brought our factory to life,” he said. “Masks and coveralls have not only given us more work, they have allowed us to stay open during this crisis.”

A larger company, Unipal 2000, based in Gaza City’s industrial zone, produces 50,000 masks and 15,000 protective gowns and suits a day, and has increased its workforce from 850 to 1,250, a co-owner said. Bashir Bawab.

“I much prefer everyone to be healthy and the virus gone, but making these products has provided us with a significant opportunity,” said Mr Bawab, 61.

Rotem Cohanim, 37, a merchant from the West Bank Israeli settlement Beit Horon, said he used factories in Gaza to make the protective gear he sells because “their work is very good, and they quickly and inexpensively”.

Factory workers show up regularly for their shifts. The virus itself has largely spared Gaza, an enclave of 2 million, due to Israel’s strict controls on border crossings and Hamas’ decision to isolate all returning residents in quarantine facilities. , now for three weeks. To date, only 17 people have been infected and no deaths have been reported.

In total, factories in Gaza have produced millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns and protective suits, according to garment industry executives, usually working with raw materials from Israel and exporting the finished products there or, to a lesser extent, to the West Bank.

Masks range from inexpensive models costing less than 50 cents to high-quality models that fetch $50.

Some factories have also been quietly fulfilling orders from their Israeli partners with politically risky designs in Gaza – to say the least. Some display Israeli flags, the logo of a popular Israeli football team or “Made in Israel” labels.

Several tailors interviewed said they had no qualms about making masks to protect people in Israel, which has fought three bloody wars with militant groups in Gaza in the past 12 years, as well as several small battles.

“At the end of the day, we are all human,” Raed Dahman, 42, told Hassanco in Gaza City. “We should try to make sure everyone is safe, without exception.”

Gisha, an Israeli rights group that closely monitors Gaza, said Israel needed to lift restrictions on movement to and from the territory to help the economy function.

“The factories in Gaza that are repurposing their production lines to manufacture personal protective equipment show what is possible when the Strip has access to markets and materials,” the group said in a statement. “In the post-coronavirus era, there should be no place for unnecessary movement restrictions that thwart the livelihoods and health of entire communities.”

As successful as the protective gear boom has been, leaders in Gaza’s garment industry say they fear it may end too soon.

“Coronavirus will be temporary, which means the need for masks and protective suits will also be temporary,” said Fouad Odeh, an official with the Palestinian Federation of Garment, Textile and Leather Industries. “We will ultimately have to rely on garment manufacturing.”

Some factories have already felt a drop in demand for masks, which their owners attributed mainly to the arrival of large Chinese shipments in Israel. Hassan Shehada, the owner of Hassanco, said he was still trying to find a buyer for 120,000 masks packed in boxes at his factory. And Bahaa Madhoun, director of Noor al-Bahaa in Gaza City, said his company only had outstanding orders for 20,000 masks, down from hundreds of thousands just a few weeks ago.

It leaves workers worried that the happy new normal of paid employment could give way to the return of hard times – just as the rest of the world is recovering from the pandemic.

“I’m afraid I’ll suddenly be told to go home,” said Raed Attar, a tailor in Hassanco, who had struggled to find steady work for a year before being hired there recently. “My life would be very complicated again.”

Iyad Abuheweila reported from Gaza City and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv.

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