Palestinian merchants count their curses


GAZA CITY, Gaza — As a steady calm settles over Gaza, local vendors are piecing together their broken businesses, mindful that the conflict only worsened an already tough economic predicament.

On the one hand, Gaza witnessed a supply-side meltdown because of closed borders, ports and tunnels. On the demand side, Israel's near-continuous bombing campaign meant that most Gazans stayed in their houses, avoiding any unnecessary shopping.

Ibrahim Shanti owns a pharmacy that faces Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Despite the dramatic increase in medical needs during the 22-day bombardment by Israeli forces, which officially ended Jan. 18, Shanti said he wasn't able to capitalize because most of his high-quality medicines came overland from Israel, which shut the borders completely several months ago.

"Most of the medicine comes from Israel," Shanti said, adding that smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza had provided some of the low-end medicines he sold.

"Before the war," he said, "lots of medicine came through the tunnels. During the war and now, nothing comes. It's all Egyptian wheat medicine anyways. No good."

Now, he's faced with having lost nearly a month's worth of business at a time of economic uncertainty in the strip. "I lost a lot because we didn't have medicine and people couldn't get out to buy it," he said.

In downtown Gaza City on Wednesday, Samir Manaye worked at a feverish pace, racing around in his company van to distribute fresh-baked bread to local restaurants.

Manaye, too, struggled to get his hands on basic inputs like flour and wheat, which came into the strip mainly through Israel.

Adding to his financial woes, restaurants for the most part remained closed during the conflict, dwindling his supplies to nearly zero.

And in a harsh twist, Manaye incurred a different sort of financial loss when the Red Crescent bought an entire truckload of bread to deliver to the besieged northern town of Beit Hanoun. Manaye joined the supply convoy, which included Red Crescent ambulances, but the group was intercepted by the Israeli army.

Feeling threatened, Manaye fled, leaving his van behind. He returned three days later to find it shot up and in need of $1,500 in repairs.

The fruit and vegetable trade has suffered less, by comparison, due to the sheer amount of land given over to farming. Still, those without farms who have had to rely on imports from Israel saw their lifeline cut off.

"Four months ago I stopped receiving fruits," said Hussein Hassouna, who found himself selling  bananas, apples, peppers and avocados on a street corner after his store was damaged by debris from a missile strike on a nearby mosque.

"I just started selling three days ago" after not working for the three weeks of conflict, he said.

One bright spot for Hassouna, he said, was that prices of some fruits were down considerably from a month ago, owing mainly to the fact that he had been importing produce from Egypt for several months beforehand, and at a much higher rate than produce from Israel.

The inconsistency of energy supply has been one of the most frustrating elements of post-conflict life for many Gazans. Rolling blackouts persisted throughout the conflict.

Almost all of Gaza's energy supply comes through the Egypt-Gaza smuggling tunnel network.

Disputing any claims that Israel had destroyed the tunnel system, Mahmoud Qaaud, a black market gas dealer said he was selling gas at loss given a recent influx in the supply.

"There is now a lot of gas, so now I have to sell it for 4 shekels," he said, noting that he bought his supply for 4.5 shekels.

Despite the increase in the supply of gas, diesel, he says, is suffering.

"There is no diesel. Maybe there is no diesel or maybe the merchants are holding it back to get better prices," he said.