GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Understandings reached between the Gaza Strip and Israel under Egyptian auspices in March are playing out in favor of Gaza Strip citizens — so far.
As part of the first phase of the truce, Israel facilitated the issuance of travel permits for Palestinian traders at the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing for the first time in years.
A second phase has included implementing large reconstruction and infrastructure projects under UN and international auspices, according to a June 19 report in Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper. On June 17, a Qatari delegation discussed with the Gaza Strip Energy Authority a Qatari-funded project to improve electricity distribution across the Gaza Strip by 85%.
This comes as traders are demanding that Israel fully lift its 13-year blockade on the Gaza Strip so their businesses can grow. The Gazan economy registered a negative growth of 6% last year, and the unemployment rate stood at 52% according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
But gains are being made. "Merchants in Gaza have experienced a clear improvement in the issuance of Israeli travel permits through the Beit Hanoun crossing,” Maher Tabbaa, director of public relations and media at the Gaza Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Al-Monitor. Israel has started granting traders permits for periods ranging from six months to one year instead of only one day to two weeks. Israel also reduced the number of traders who were prohibited from traveling for security reasons, though many are still banned for no specified reason.
Israel reversed its ban on merchants importing goods through the Kerem Abu Salem border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip close to the Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian border. Tabbaa explained that merchants were incurring huge losses because Israel prevented them from getting the goods they needed.
Traders used to have to be 30 years old and married, but now they can apply for permits at age 25 and don't have to specify their marital status.
Israel has increased the number of "businessman cards" (BMCs) issued. BMC holders are now allowed to get travel permits for a year and can get permission for their wives and children to travel with them, as is done in the West Bank. Tabbaa said this is a positive step that should be followed up by more comprehensive steps.
He pointed out that commercial and industrial activity will improve, depending on the goods received through the Kerem Abu Salem border crossing — especially the dual-use goods, which include materials that are needed for the industrial, construction and commercial sectors but that could also have military uses.
“Although the truce allows the export of a number of goods from Gaza and the entry of goods deemed by Israel as dual-use, Israel has thus far only introduced simple goods in small quantities,” he added.
Tabbaa explained that the economic situation in the Gaza Strip is intolerable and that radical long-term solutions should be found instead of temporary ones. The blockade, he said, should be lifted, all crossings should be opened and all the necessary goods should be allowed into Gaza. He stressed that suppliers want to obtain their imported goods more quickly, and Gaza products should be marketed and exported to the world.
A merchant who was previously on the list of prohibited traders for several years and now has a six-month permit spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his permit.
“The Israeli authorities deal with Gaza at their whim, and no one can force them to implement any [truce] understandings. We might wake up tomorrow to find that all the incentives have been canceled,” he said. He added, however, “This is a positive step that will enable traders to roam the markets, buy for their own needs and make new business deals."
Israel refuses to issue permits to a large number of citizens, traders and patients in Gaza, supposedly for security reasons. It refuses to issue permits to any Gazan with a direct or indirect relationship with an armed Palestinian organization in the Gaza Strip, or to Gazans whose relatives are living illegally in Israel or the West Bank.
Tahsin Elessi, a trader and the owner of Magic Touch Furniture in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor he has a three-month permit and, based on the truce understandings, he should get a six-month permit when the license expires. Now that Israel has improved the permit process, things will get better, he said, though the deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza remain a problem. Elessi said, “There [currently] aren't enough markets in Gaza to absorb the goods that could be imported. The problem isn't limited to permits."
He explained that as economic conditions improve, so will trade movement because, for example, instead of placing one order every three months, he will be able to afford to place two or more orders every month.
Economic analyst Moein Rajab told Al-Monitor traders who hold commercial licenses now have the opportunity to work inside Israel and improve their economic situations. He pointed out that this could reduce unemployment in Gaza, especially since the minimum age for traders has been reduced.
But he noted that Israel can make capricious changes that affect Gaza's economy and this is a problem — especially considering that while Israel agreed to these new incentives, they don't come with Israel’s formal approval.
“Israel tries to blackmail Palestinians by all means while invoking 'security' reasons. … Also, it doesn't abide by ethical standards when dealing with traders, as it arrests, harasses and detains them at the border crossings,” Rajab added.
He said, “Israel has the final say on this. It also has the final say on the expansion and narrowing of fishing space for fishermen and the dual-use goods." Israel has cut and expanded the Gaza fishing zone about 10 times just since April.
Rajab stressed the need for Palestinians to break free from Israeli control and find independent, secure and stable alternatives, all the while pressing Israel to issue more permits.
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