Israel Allows Shipment Of Clothes, Goods Into Gaza
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's go next to the Middle East, where this past weekend for the first time in years Israel allowed a shipment of clothes and other goods into the Gaza Strip. Since Hamas militants crossed the border and seized an Israeli soldier three years ago, Israel has restricted what comes in and out of Gaza. That has forced residents to rely on tunnels under the Egyptian border for basic supplies. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro traveled to the Gaza Strip.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A Palestinian smuggler talks to his colleagues 80 feet deep underground through a walkie-talkie.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He inches up a load of Egyptian carpets that have been dragged through the half-a-mile-long tunnel. He then piles them in the corner of the plastic tent which shields the entrance to the underground passageway from prying eyes. Thirty-five-year-old Abu Mohammed owns this tunnel and four others like it here in the Palestinian town of Rafah on the border with Egypt. He says Israel's announcement that it will allow in goods that it had previously restricted won't affect his livelihood.
Mr. ABU MOHAMMAD (Smuggler): (Through translator) It doesnt impact us at all. All the goods which they say they're letting in, it's the stuff that belongs to Palestinian importers thats been stuck in storage in Israel since 2007, when they started the siege.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Jewish state allows dozens of trucks filled with humanitarian aid into Gaza every day. But trade and the import of many products, including buildings materials like cement, have been prohibited for years now. Egypt too restricts the legal import of goods into Gaza that has spurred a roaring black market.
Here in Rafah, there are almost 1300 tunnels bringing in everything from cars to cigarettes, to the one and half million Palestinians who live in the tiny coastal strip.
So the tunnels have become a lifeline but they have also gravely distorted Gaza's economy. Prices and the availability of key items are often based on random events.
For example, says Abu Mohammad, recent fears that a wall that Egypt is building along the border would hurt the smuggling business caused traders to overstock.
Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) And that made prices cheap for some items. Store owners ordered a huge amount of goods but it ended up that the wall has had no affect on our smuggling operation. So there was an over supply.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cars, though, are exorbitantly expensive in Gaza because only a few tunnels are big enough to transport them. Also, when Israel bombs the tunnels, which it frequently does in response to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel communities, it disrupts the transport of goods, making some items temporarily unavailable.
(Soundbite of vehicles)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All this has meant it's difficult for both consumers and sellers, says Rami Sherab(ph) who owns an appliance store in Rafah.
Mr. RAMI SHERAB (Appliance Store Owner): (Through Translator) At the beginning of the siege, having the tunnels was good for us because we were short of everything here in Gaza. But lately, what we have is trade chaos.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He stands outside his empty store where dusty washing machines and DVD players are stacked.
Mr. SHERAB: (Through Translator) Right now, most of our goods are dirt cheap but no one is buying.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And thats the other problem. Omar Shaban is an economist in Gaza. He says people have no money.
Mr. OMAR SHABAN (Director, PAL-Think): There are many items that in the market and people dont find the money to buy it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says thats because people have lost hope and they now feel the blockade will continue, so they are saving what they have instead of spending.
Israel's war in Gaza, last year, only made matters worse. Gaza's already moribund economy was decimated. Shaban says at least 250 legitimate factories and businesses were leveled. Shaban says that Israel's recent move to allow in a few truckloads of imports at the crossings or border terminals is, at best, cosmetic.
Mr. SHABAN: Gaza has been under siege three years. So we need full operation of the crossing for a year, at least.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Rafah, Mohammad Sagar(ph) is out shopping. A teacher by training, he says the situation for Gazans is desperate.
Mr. MOHAMMAD SAGAR (Teacher): I want to buy sometimes milk for my children. I dont find. Sometimes I want to make coffee. I move nearly two or three or four kilometers looking for coffee at shops, and I dont find. This is very big disaster here.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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