Gaza's Dangers Complicate Businessman's Struggle

A last report on Palestinian entrepreneur Hadi Abushahla, who is trying to make a go of a computer business in Gaza. Nancy Updike's last interview with Abushahla was conducted by telephone because it was too dangerous for her to visit him in Gaza.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. For six months we've been telling the story of Hadi Abushahla, a young Palestinian entrepreneur trying to make a go of his computer business in Gaza City. His parents are Palestinian, he was raised in London, and he is determined to help build the viable Palestinian state that President Bush speaks of.

Hadi Abushahla grew up dreaming of moving to Gaza, and four years ago he did. His brother and sister followed. Reporter Nancy Updike has followed him since the historic Israeli handover of Gaza, because for Gaza to succeed people like Hadi Abushahla would have to succeed. Nancy Updike joins us now. And Nancy, you're joining us from Jerusalem, not from Gaza. You should explain why.

NANCY UPDIKE, reporting:

Yeah. Gaza has just gotten too dangerous. I mean, all through the last several years the West Bank and Gaza have been very safe for foreigners, but there's been a real ratcheting up in Gaza in the last six months of frightening incidences, kidnapping specifically. And Americans and British citizens are now being targeted.

SIEGEL: Well, this, the conclusion of your series of reports on Hadi Abushahla, is based, then, on a phone interview that you did with him. When did you talk with him and where was he?

UPDIKE: I talked with him last Sunday and he was in his office and I was in a studio in Jerusalem.

SIEGEL: Well, we're going to hear some of that, and most notably the moment when Hadi Abushahla was talking to you about some of his relatives who now, in light of circumstances, are thinking of leaving Gaza. And you asked him at this point of the interview if he knows of anyone else who's thinking of leaving Gaza.

Mr. HADI ABUSHAHLA (Owner, Computer Store, Gaza City): This might come as a shock to you but I've actually have thoughts. I mean…

UPDIKE: Oh my god, I am shocked.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I actually went down to Egypt for, just after the election. I came back here and things were disastrous. I mean, the roads are empty, there is no one buying any PCs. I mean, I had a friend who walked in and said, how's work? And I said to him, well people aren't going to find bread in town, they're not going to exactly buy computers today.

I myself am surprised I'm saying this. I never, ever sort of imagined myself thinking of moving back to the U.K. But I'm 31, 32 at the moment. I'm not making the money that I was hoping to make in Gaza. I'm been here for four or five years in Gaza. And it's just been getting worse and worse. And I told myself, no, it will get better, it will get better. Is it? That's my question now. Is it going to get better? I don't know. I don't know.

SIEGEL: He's even surprised to be telling you that. You were shocked to hear that he's thinking of leaving.

UPDIKE: I was. I was. I mean, this is a guy who has been a stubborn, tireless Gaza booster throughout every business headache, every week in the last six months, when, as he put it, the tumbleweed blew down through the street because no one was buying. And not just computers, but, you know, all businesses are suffering. But the election of Hamas and its economic aftermath were a punch in the gut when he was kind of already down on the mat with all the other economic problems that Gaza's facing.

SIEGEL: Yeah. This was certainly the biggest development in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, which was the Palestinian election in which, to the surprise of a great many people, Hamas, the Islamist movement, remarkably won an absolute majority in the legislature. This is something that you had talked about with Hadi Abushahla before, and you talked about with him afterwards too.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I actually remember one question you asked me. You said, what if Hamas wins? And I sort of laughed the question off, and I said no way. Unfortunately it's happened. And no one, I mean, I don't think anyone expected what happened. And certainly Palestinians didn't expect it. Hamas, themselves, didn't expect it.

It's a matter of, because people were fed up, including myself, we wanted some change. But I wasn't going to go to the ballot box and put Hamas' name down. And I expected everyone else to do the same. It just didn't work out that way for some reason. And I don't know how.

UPDIKE: Yeah, he said before the election that, as somebody who's put money into Gaza and built a business there, a Hamas victory worried him. He wanted a peace process to get underway. You know, peace is better for business than conflict. And he knew that that was not going to be on Hamas' agenda.

SIEGEL: Critical problem for him was the closure of the cargo crossing from Israel into the Gaza Strip. He would've counted on that as a businessman for computers, computer components, to come into his territory so that he could then sell them.

UPDIKE: Correct. I think that's been the main problem that has stymied him. The cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza is called Karni, and it's been closed for most of the last two months. But it's also been closed for long stretches for all of the last six months, even with a lot of effort being expended.

A very detailed arrangement has been in place since the middle of November. The agreement on movement and access, balancing security with commerce. But that plan has simply never been implemented in spite of pressure from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And this has really devastated Abushahla's business, as well as many other businesses and ministries and hospitals.

SIEGEL: Now, listeners may recall at the beginning of this series, your once asking Hadi Abushahla what his wish list would be, what he would want to see happen over the next six months?

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I would like to have a cinema open in Gaza. I'd like to take my wife and go watch a movie for god's sake. I'd like to take my family out to, there's a beautiful restaurant in Haifa. I would love to be able to have lunch there. I'd like the newspapers to write whatever they feel like, for Gaza to have freedom of speech. If Gaza is cleaned of arms within the next six months, I mean, that would be wonderful.

UPDIKE: This was an incredibly hopeful time in Gaza. Israel had just pulled out, the U.S. was talking about raising 3 billion dollars for Gaza's economic development, a special envoy devoted to Gaza's economic rejuvenation was hard at work. You know, there was a sense of the sky's the limit. We can make this work. We can turn this strip of land from a place with a lot of potential into a place that actually works. And then I played it back for him last Sunday.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Why are you making me hear all this? It's like, I told you so or something.

UPDIKE: I don't mean it to be that way.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: So, what do you think now?

UPDIKE: Yeah. I mean, when I asked it at the time, you know, my plan was to play if for you in six months no matter what happened.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Yeah. Okay, my idea of the cinema in Gaza isn't going great at the moment. Going to Haifa's beautiful restaurant is, it's not going to happen for me to go to Israel, alone or with my wife. So…

UPDIKE: Is this still your wish list? Or would you wish for different things now?

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I've got my priorities straight now. I mean, I'm not going to go directly from sort of shooting in the streets to cinema. I just want some calm, quiet. I want some economic prosperity. I want the price of gas to go down a little. I mean the hope is always going to be there, but my hoping is different than it was before. Before, say we were at level zero and we were hoping to build something, at the moment we're minus 10 and we're hoping to get back to zero.

SIEGEL: Now, we should just point out here Nancy that we're not contrasting what Mr. Abushahla thinks today and what things were like in 1993. This was last October that he's talking about, the times of great optimism.

UPDIKE: Yes. I mean, the decline has taken place in just six months. I mean, I think there is a sort of also, you know, a cumulative effect of the last few years of the intifada. But, yeah, this is a very dramatic decline in optimism and in prospects. I mean, he's a real barer for sort of, you know, if I can't go this way, I'm going to go this other way. I will find some way to make this work. And the fact that he's feeling that he really may not be able to is a pretty dramatic statement about how far things have declined in the last six months.

SIEGEL: Well, Nancy, thank you very much for talking with us and for the entire series.

UPDIKE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That was reporter Nancy Updike talking to us from Jerusalem about the story of Hadi Abushahla, the Gaza businessman whom she's been following over the past several months. You can find her earlier stories from Gaza at our website NPR.org.

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