Barriers to Business in Gaza Computer entrepreneur Abdelhadi "Hadi" Abushahla faces plenty of challenges to doing business in the Gaza Strip. The roads are cluttered with slow-moving donkey carts, the phones often don't work and permission to enter Israel can be nearly impossible to get.
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Barriers to Business in Gaza

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Barriers to Business in Gaza

Barriers to Business in Gaza

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And today we have the second part of our series about a Palestinian businessman in Gaza. Economic recovery in Gaza is a big priority following Israel's historic withdrawal two months ago. The man we're following is 31-year-old Hadi Abushahla. He was raised in London and four years ago he moved to Gaza, where his father grew up, to open a computer store. It's called Information Technology Partners. Abushahla is an optimist, and he is determined to help create the viable, credible Palestinian state that President Bush has talked about.

BLOCK: In the first part of our series, we heard Abushahla face gunfire in the streets, sonic booms overhead and a dispiriting to-do list.

Mr. HADI ABUSHAHLA (Information Technology Partners): My third item on my list today is debts. It was also third item on Tuesday, fourth item last Monday; it's always there.

BLOCK: Now reporter Nancy Updike continues Abushahla's story from Gaza.

NANCY UPDIKE reporting:

Abushahla is on his way to get gas, staring with irritation at the slow-moving vehicle ahead of him.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: This is one of the miserable things of Gaza, these donkey-driven carts that we have.

UPDIKE: The roads in Gaza City are shared by cars, bicycles, pedestrians and wooden carts that are just flat boards, no sides or top, over wheels hitched to what is often a donkey whose coat is so threadbare it looks as if it'd been made from the thrown-out carpeting of a very cheap motel.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Disastrous. I mean, it should really be outlawed. They slow traffic. It's not a very civilized view that you see of donkeys sort of running around in the middle of the streets. And no one really knows what's going on inside the head of a donkey, so it's pretty dangerous.

UPDIKE: At the gas station, Abushahla surprises the attendant by asking for gas rather than diesel. A lot of cars in Gaza are diesel 'cause it's cheaper.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: (Foreign language spoken) I asked for him to fill up the tank.

UPDIKE: So how much does it cost to fill up a tank?

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: It costs me about--just below a hundred dollars to fill up 60 liters of petrol--unleaded petrol here, which is a lot of money.

UPDIKE: In fact, it's more than $6 a gallon, which is quite high compared to the US, but it's on par with rates in Israel, which supplies Gaza with gas for cars as well as natural gas for cooking and heating. One of Gaza's problems is that it's a developing world economy. It's dependent on a much stronger, more expensive one. For many Gazans a car isn't even a dream. Donkey carts are the only way to go. Resentment of the economic imbalance is a constant in Gaza, along with the high prices and the falling-down infrastructure.

(Soundbite of street noises; hand-washing noises)

UPDIKE: Abushahla is washing his hands at the bathroom sink back at his store while his floor manager, Ishmael(ph), acts as a sort of human faucet by pouring bottled water over his boss's hands. There's no running water at the store today, also no working phone or fax lines for the third time in three months. The utility companies in Gaza are each in a unique state of semifunctioning.

(Soundbite of buzzing noise)

UPDIKE: The phone line in Abushahla's office is making an ominous buzzing. Not much is going right today. A West Bank supplier has messed up a simple order for a very big customer: the phone company, funny enough, Paltel. Abushahla waited three weeks for two laptops while Israel kept the borders closed. When the borders opened, only one laptop arrived and it was the wrong size hard drive. Abushahla was chagrinned but not quite surprised.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: It's common. Because I can't--normally it takes so long that I can't send anything back into the West Bank, I'm in trouble. In this case, I'm a little luckier because they have an office in Gaza. But normally if it was an Israeli company who has no sort of counterpart or agent in Gaza, that's trouble.

UPDIKE: Abushahla has been buying some of his goods from the same Israeli man at the same Israeli company for the last four years. Sometimes business between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza leads to friendship. Politics can recede in the face of a common goal, making money. But Abushahla and his main Israeli supplier have not become friends even after so many years. The relationship is an odd mix of intimacy and frustration.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: It's got to a point where we'd have quarrels and fights like husband and wife do. He'd give me an offer and I would say, `No, give me a discount, and this is my target price.' And then we'd go into this endless `I don't understand.' `You understand.' `No, I don't,' e-mailing each other, sort of one-word e-mails, one-sentence e-mails, that sort of thing.

And I'd say `Call me.' And he'd like say, `No, you call me.' `OK, I'll call you. Where are you? What's your number?' And I'd call him. And he's `Why you talk to me like that?' Like, `How am I talking to you? I'm e-mailing you the way you e-mail me. You don't like it?' He goes, `No.' `OK, so don't e-mail me that way.'

UPDIKE: Part of the problem is that their entire relationship takes place through e-mail, phone and fax. Abushahla has never once met his Israeli supplier in Tel Aviv face-to-face. Tel Aviv is less than two hours away, but before Abushahla can go there he has to get a magnetic card issued by Israel that means he's been checked for security risks. After getting the card he needs a permit. These procedures are part of Israel's defense against suicide bombers. Abushahla got the card two years ago, and it was an ordeal he remembers. His first mistake was ignoring his father's advice.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: My dad actually said the Israelis sort of do give some priority to businessmen, so if you sort of go through the VIP section, you get in earlier than everyone else. And I said, no, and I want to be like everyone else and I don't want this, and why should I be different and we're the same. And I went.

UPDIKE: He spent from 5:00 in the morning till 1 PM near Gaza's northern border in a line of what he guessed was about a thousand men, more than half of whom, including him, never got in the door to be screened for the card. It was raining; he got soaked. He went back the next day at 6:30 AM to the VIP section. After a four-hour wait he got to the first round of screening, where an Israeli soldier spoke to him in Arabic.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: And he says something to extent of either (Arabic spoken), turn around, or lift your shirt up or something, which is donkey, lift your shirt up, literally translating it.

UPDIKE: Lift your shirt up so he can see...

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: So he can see your...

UPDIKE: ...make sure you don't have a...

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: ...stomach, your back.

UPDIKE: ...bomb. Did someone actually say `donkey' to you?

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Donkey, yeah, (Arabic spoken).

UPDIKE: Then he was taken by bus to another building.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Get off the bus and you would hear what was sort of going on inside when you're still outside. And all you could hear all the time was `(Arabic spoken), take your belt off. (Arabic spoken), we told you a million times, no one coming in with your belt.' That's all you could hear for like two hours we were waiting to get in. I thank God I went through it, nothing beeped. And the two hours prior to that, of all the shouting and screaming of the people, it made me feel so proud of myself when I actually crossed this X-ray machine and I didn't beep, that I had done something great. And it was just going through an X-ray machine.

UPDIKE: He got the magnetic card at the end of the day, but he never made it into Israel. Even after getting the card, he was turned down for a permit four times, no reason given. He decided not to renew the card after it expired. Now looking ahead, he's making a plan. He wants to try and change his business model to specialize in computer products from a different country, the US. In Gaza, Nancy Updike for NPR News.

SIEGEL: There's a photograph of Hadi Abushahla and more about him at our Web site, You'll also find links to our news coverage from Gaza.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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