Coronavirus revives Gaza's sewing sector as tailors turn out PPE

As COVID-19 spreads across the Middle East, Israel is having medical gear made in the Gaza Strip, where clothing manufacturers have shifted production to sorely needed personal protective equipment.

al-monitor A Palestinian worker manufactures protective coveralls and masks amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Gaza City, Gaza, March 31, 2020. Photo by Sameh Rahmi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

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palestinian-israeli conflict, covid-19, coronavirus, manufacturing, textiles, clothing, gaza economy, gaza blockade, gaza strip, medical supplies

Apr 7, 2020

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gaza clothing manufacturers have ventured into the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the coronavirus outbreak in the region — and they're making the products for Israel.

Tailors in Gaza are working with Israeli companies and factories started to export protective masks, coveralls, shoes, gloves and other clothing to Israel in early March.

The garment sector used to be one of the most prosperous in the Gaza Strip, but business significantly deteriorated after Israel imposed a blockade in 2007 and prevented clothing exports from Gaza. Nearly 90% of the 928 facilities, which had employed about 35,000 workers, had to close, said Abdel Naser Awwad, director general of the Department of Industry at the Ministry of National Economy in Gaza.

Last year, Israel allowed Gaza to export limited quantities of clothing and textiles to the West Bank and Israel, in accordance with truce understandings between Hamas and Israel reached that March. As a result, about 6,000 workers regained their factory jobs. “The number of licensed factories operating [in Gaza] has currently reached 165," Awwad told Al-Monitor.

These factories, which are advanced and can compete in global markets, immediately responded to the region’s PPE needs, he said. 

Awwad said Israeli companies are subcontracting work directly to two main Gaza factories run by Unipal 2000 and National Textile Industries Co. These two major manufacturers distribute orders to smaller factories based on delivery deadlines, helping revive some inactive businesses. 

Unipal 2000 chairman Tayseer al-Bawwab said that even though his factory has been able to survive the 13-year Israeli blockade, he was forced to lay off the majority of his workers. After Israel allowed some exports following the truce understandings, the factory regained activity. “We contract with Israeli companies to produce what they want according to certain specifications and standards they set. These companies contacted us and asked us to manufacture PPE and each company sent the model they want us to manufacture.”

He explained that samples are manufactured to ensure their conformity to the required specifications. Then, either adjustments are made or the needed quantity is manufactured immediately. Israeli companies send their models, including the raw materials they wish to be used, the colors and other details, and the factory handles the fabrication.

All the agreements and shipments are coordinated with the Ministry of National Economy in Gaza, he said.

Bawwab added that this is the first time his factory has made PPE. He noted that some masks require more effort and time, and their prices vary accordingly. One medical mask can cost between 50 cents and $4. “One of the companies asked us to manufacture a multiple-use, four-filter mask, and we managed to make it,” Bawwab said.

He pointed out that the most difficult obstacles he currently faces are the curfew and lockdown amid the coronavirus crisis. He also has trouble paying employees, as the banks are closed.

Bawwab said Israeli companies contract with Palestinian factories for many reasons, including quality, material and labor pricing, ease of communication, payment in the same currency and geographical proximity. “We work as traders; we are not interested in the party that takes our goods and this has nothing to do with politics," he said.

Awwad said, “The fabric that is used is imported [from Israel] and specially manufactured for these purposes. There is periodic review of the work of these factories, as samples are also examined by the Ministry of Health in Gaza."

He said his ministry's primary goal is to reduce unemployment by getting as many workers hired as possible, regardless of who they end up working for.

Asked whether these factories are licensed to manufacture PPE, he noted that these products are garments and thus appropriate for the sewing industry to take on. Although they are sewn differently than normal clothing, they require no new licensing. In addition, the Ministry of Economy has exempted factories from licensing fees for the current year and reduced taxes as well as lifted customs duties on raw materials for garments.

Awwad noted that the sewing sector still faces many obstacles because of the Israeli blockade, but the ministry is supporting it by facilitating trucking of goods into Israel.

Moein Rajab, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor some sectors of the economy that can help battle the coronavirus are reviving a bit, but the economic conditions have battered most aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. “The general picture in Gaza is bleak, considering that this crisis has made the already deteriorating situation even worse," he said. He called for the government to support all economic sectors and pump money into the market to alleviate the conditions in Gaza.

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