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Husam Balur, who worked in Israel for 16 years, at his home in the a-Nueseirat Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Photo: Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem, April 28,
From the field

Forced unemployment: Palestinian residents of Gaza who worked in Israel until 2000 describe how their lives came crashing down because of the unemployment forced upon them

The economy in Gaza is at an all-time low, a depression driven by 12 years under the Israeli-imposed blockade; 19 years that Israel has been working to cut Gaza off from the West Bank; and 19 years since Israel revoked Gaza residents’ permits to work in Israel. The most recent World Bank report indicates that over the last two years, the situation has deteriorated further due to declining foreign donations and transfer of funds from the Palestinian Authority.

S According to figures released by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment in Gaza was 52% in 2018, reaching as high as 69% in the under 26 age-bracket, and 78% among university-educated young adults. Unemployment among women is particularly high, reaching 74.5% in 2018.

S As soon as the second intifada began in September 2000, even before the blockade, Israel introduced severe restrictions on travel out of Gaza, almost completely cutting it off from the West Bank, and drastically cut back on travel through Erez Crossing. Israel also revoked the work permits of tens of thousands of Gaza residents who had worked in Israel until then, abruptly cutting off their source of income and livelihood. In 1999, 15.7% of all employed Gazans worked in Israel, and the unemployment rate in Gaza was 16.9%. Two years later, in 2001, only 1.9% of employed Gazans worked in Israel. Overall unemployment rates climbed to 34%, with unemployment among women reaching 24%. In June 2007, when Israel imposed a full blockade policy, it stopped issuing work permits altogether. Unemployment in Gaza reached 40.6% in 2008.

Sealing the Gaza Strip and cutting it off from the rest of the world have brought about Gaza’s economic collapse and trapped its residents in a small, closed job market, with no prospects of development and no future. Israel could change this stifling reality right now. Instead, it chooses to force Gaza residents to live in a state of poverty, stagnation and hopelessness.

Gaza residents who used to work in Israel, or whose relatives who did, spoke with B’Tselem’s field researchers and described the reality forced upon them with the closure of the Gaza Strip.

Hamdiyah Abu ‘Odeh, 46, a married mother of nine, is a homemaker and lives in Beit Hanoun. Her husband, Ayman, worked in Israel from 1988 until work permits were revoked. In a testimony she gave B'Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd, Abu ‘Odeh spoke about how her life was transformed:

Hamdiyah Abu ‘Odeh. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem, 17 April 2019

When I got married in 1988, my husband Ayman was working in construction in Israel. He would leave for Israel every day at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, and come home at 5:00 or 6:00 P.M. He made about 5,000 shekels a month. We had a good standard of living back then. The children were born, and Ayman made enough money to provide for us and for his mother. I was even able to put some money away, to save for the children’s future. It was a time of financial and security and wellbeing.

It never occurred to me that my husband could lose his job one day. When the second intifada began, they started closing Erez Crossing on and off, so he no longer worked every day, but we still managed. Then, in 2005, he wasn’t allowed to work in Israel anymore. Ayman started looking for work in the Gaza Strip. He found a few jobs, but they were very hard to come by and paid very little, and even then, the work wasn’t regular, and he didn’t have work every day. Now, he doesn’t have a steady job, but he sometimes does find odd jobs.

I started gradually cutting back on household expenses, to save money. Later, I used the money we had saved. When Israel tightened the blockade, I was at my wits’ end. I started looking for organizations that give money and donations, and we started receiving a welfare pension from the Welfare Ministry - 1,800 shekels once every four or five months or so.

When our three eldest children got married, it cost us a lot of money. We took loans from relatives and friends. Now, they’re married and have children, and they live with us and the rest of our children. Only two of our children work.

In 2012, to provide for the family, my husband started a small business growing chickens. It cost us a lot of money, but in the war of 2014, the chicken coop was completely destroyed. We rebuilt it, but we went bankrupt because of the difficult economic situation in Gaza. Very few people were able to buy.

In the war of 2014, our house was also completely destroyed. It was a three-story home that we built when my husband was working in Israel. We became homeless for a time, wandering between UNRWA schools and rented apartments. Thank goodness, our house was rebuilt thanks to UNRWA funding, and we’re back living in it.

We have a small plot of land, around 500 square meters. We’ve been cultivating it and we started growing vegetables for our own consumption. Anything extra, we sell to make some money, but my husband and I keep thinking we might be better off selling the land.

All the stress and the tension gave me diabetes, high blood pressure and heart muscle weakness. We don’t have a steady source of income, and it depresses me and makes me feel hopeless. My husband has also become very short-tempered because he’s constantly sitting at home without work.

Nasser Nur a-Din, 54, a married father of three from al-Maghazi Refugee Camp, has been unemployed since 2000. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh on 1 May 2019, he spoke about the hardship his family has suffered due to his unemployment.

I started working in Israel in 1980. At first, I only did odd jobs. I was single, and the permit I had didn’t include overnight stay, so I worked in Israel and went home to sleep in Gaza. I made 100-120 shekels a day. In 1990, I found a steady job with a company that painted homes and offices. I made 250 shekels. I worked every day. It was my “golden era.” Thanks to this job I got married in 1998, and in 2000 I built a 60-square meter home. Because we’re refugees, I got help from UNRWA to build it.

But after 2000, Israel closed the crossings, and I was left with no work. I’ve been unemployed ever since. I work just a few days a month, if I even find anything.

I have three children, and I’m in a terrible state financially. We live off UNRWA food aid, which we receive once every three months: five 30-kilo sacks of flour, 10 liters of cooking oil, four boxes of powdered milk, a kilo of sugar per person (it used to be 3 kilos per person, but it’s been cut down), 3 kilos of lentils and five cans of sardines per person.

These supplies don’t last us three months, so I have to buy supplies on credit. When I find the odd job, I pay it back.

We buy chicken once every five or six months, and we eat meat only during the holiday of ‘Eid al-Adha, when people give the needy a portion of the sacrificial sheep. All I bring the family are tomatoes and potatoes. Sometimes, I don’t have a single shekel in my pocket for a month at time.

Every day, I “run away” from the house to avoid getting into fights with my family or having to face my children when they ask for things I can’t get them. I sit in a coffee shop, and here too I drink the coffee on credit. My children go to school without pocket money. When there are special events, they ask me to buy them new clothes, but unfortunately, I can’t. My eldest daughter, Arij, is about to finish high school and take the matriculation exams. I’m worried because I don’t see how I can pay for her to go to university. I can’t afford either the tuition or to cover the trips there.

Nasser Nur a-Din at his home. Photo by Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 1 May 2019

I haven’t paid my water and electric bills since 2000. I think I owe more than 10,000 shekels.

Our roof is made out of metal, and we can’t afford to build a real roof. In the winter the house is as cold as an icebox, and in the winter it gets hot as an oven. The rain leaks into the house, so we put down pails everywhere to keep the house from flooding.

I’ve looked for work for so long and couldn’t find any. It made me feel so hopeless. I don’t really look anymore. I’m cut off socially and from my family too. I don’t visit relatives because I have no money. My three sisters live in a-Shati Refugee Camp. I visit them only on holidays, because I don’t have money to buy them gifts or pay for the fare for the trip there. Sometimes, so that I can visit them I walk there. It’s a four-hour walk, and I go alone, without my family.

Husam Balur, 51, a married father of nine, lives in a-Nueseirat Refugee Camp. He is out of work. Balur had worked in a variety of jobs in Israel from 1984 to 1998. He then found work at a sewing factory in the Gaza Strip, until it closed in 2000, after the crossings were shut down for the export of goods. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Khaled al-‘Azayzeh on 28 April 2019, Balur described how the blockade affected his family:

Husam Balur. Photo by Khaled al-'Azayzeh, B'Tselem, 28 April 2019

I started working in Israel when I was 17, doing all kinds of jobs. I worked in public parks, the Tel Aviv Municipality, a restaurant in Tel Aviv, in a bakery in the Rishon LeZion Industrial Zone in and in a biscuit factory in the same industrial zone. The last job I had was at a pastry shop in Rishon LeZion. I worked there for about six years, until 1998. I made 70 shekels a day. I would sleep in the factory during the week and go home on weekends. I saved money and got married.

After I got married, I switched to working in sewing factories in the Gaza Strip for 30 shekels a day, but in 2000, the sewing factory closed because Israel closed the crossings and wouldn’t allow to export and import goods. I worked several temporary odd jobs in the Gaza Strip, including in a hummus restaurant in a-Nuseirat and selling coffee and tea by the roadside. In some of the places I worked, the owners couldn’t pay me even 20 shekels for a 12-hour work day.

I’ve been completely out of work for three years now, and currently receive assistance from the Welfare Ministry. I get 1,800 shekels once every three months and I share it with my mother. Sometimes we get food aid from charities or from private individuals. We also get food supplies from UNRWA once every three months.

We live in a 90-meter metal-roofed home. The space has been terribly tight for years. We all live in three rooms with my mother. I can’t pay university tuition for my daughter Ruba.

I’ve racked up a lot of debts. I owe the electric company 39,000 shekels and about 12,000 to the water company. I go out looking for work every few days, but find nothing. It’s causing me a lot of stress. We don’t have a penny to our a name, and I feel like I’m suffocating. A few years ago, I got diabetes because of the trouble and the state I got into.

Jamal a-Sheikh Khalil, 60, a married father of six, lives in Gaza City and is unemployed. He had worked as a housepainter in Israel for more than twenty years, beginning in the early 1980s. In 2003, the Israeli authorities revoked his work permit, and he then barely scraped by doing occasional work in Gaza. Since the blockade was imposed on Gaza in 2007, he has had no work whatsoever. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 15 April 2019, a-Sheikh Khalil spoke about his family’s life since then:

Jamal a-Sheikh Khalil. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem, 15 April 2019

I began working as a housepainter in Israel when I was in my twenties. Those were very good years for me. I got married. I built a house, and I had six children. I made about 4,000 shekels a month. I provided for my family, and we wanted for nothing. I managed to provide for my parents too, and also to save some money.

But all this changed when the second intifada began in 2000 and we were no longer allowed to work in Israel. I was frustrated and felt desperate. I had a family of eight to provide for, and the children were small. I kept thinking about their future.

I started looking for work in Gaza. I got temporary jobs for very little pay, which weren’t enough to cover our expenses. Our situation has gotten worse even since 2007, because of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza. The blockade hurt the laborers the most. We couldn’t find work at all. I was just sitting at home. I started looking for charities that give food aid rations in Gaza. I contacted the Ministry of Welfare to get a pension, but I didn’t get it until 2016, and only then after a great deal of effort. It’s 750 shekels once every three months. I also managed to get a monthly food allowance from Oxfam for about 270 shekels, but it’s not enough for us all.

My kids have reached marriageable age, but I wasn’t able to secure their futures and help them establish themselves and get married. They’re unemployed too. Sometimes, they find one-day jobs for 20 shekels. I have a son who is a university student, and he has been threatened with expulsion several times because of debts I can’t pay. I ended up borrowing money from friends and family so he can finish his studies. I still go out looking for work, but I barely even find odd jobs.

Ever since I stopped working, I’ve been worried and depressed. I got diabetes from the stress and tension. I’ve borrowed more than 50,000 shekels so we could make ends meet. I sold my wife’s jewelry to pay off some of the debt, but there are debts I haven’t been able to repay.

Our lives are on a downward spiral, and I feel that it’s an injustice. I spend most of my time at home because, with no money, you can’t get out of the house. I feel sorry for my children. Their future is a complete write-off. I pray for Gaza residents to be treated humanely and for the blockade and poverty to end so we can live in dignity.

Muhammad al-Jaru, 59, a married father of eight, lives in Gaza City. He has been out of work since 2004. He used to make a living selling fruits and vegetables from Israel in the Gaza Strip. In 1996, he got a job in a car-part factory in the industrial zone near Erez Crossing. He started out as a laborer and became the foreman in 1998. In 2004, the industrial zone shut down, and he lost his job. In a testimony he gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 18 April 2019, al-Jaru spoke about his family’s life since then:

Muhammad al-Jaru. Photo by Olfat al-Kurd, B'Tselem, 18 April 2019

When I worked selling produce from Israel, I made about shekels 5,000 a month. Then, when I was a foreman at the factory at Erez Crossing, I made about 6,000. Back then, we had financial stability and lived very comfortably, in every sense of the word. I didn’t have to constantly think about money, and I never denied my family anything - clothes, food and anything else they needed. Every day, on the way home, I’d buy food for us, and clothes for my children and my wife. I even managed to save some of my earnings.

In 2004, my life turned upside down after they closed the industrial zone at Erez Crossing and laid off all the workers there. Thousands of workers were laid off from all the plants. It was a disaster for us. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I couldn’t understand why they kicked us all out and closed down the industrial zone. None of us were a threat to anyone.

I became unemployed with nine mouths to feed. I tried to find work in Gaza, but couldn’t find anything. There are hardly any opportunities, and the market is small. When I did manage to get work, my salary was about 2,000 shekels a month, working twelve-hour days. I started using the money I’d saved when I worked at the Erez Industrial Zone.

In early 2005, I bought a bus and a stock of cleaning supplies and started selling them. But since 2007, when Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza, I’ve had a really hard time getting the cleaning supplies, because we haven’t been able to bring merchandise into Gaza. I went on selling whatever stock I had left until war broke out at the end of 2008. During that war, my house, in eastern Gaza City, was bombed and completely destroyed. I lost all the stock I’d had stored there. That’s how my business went bankrupt.

After the war, we moved from one rented apartment to another for six years - until 2014. It was a very difficult time. I wished I would die so my hardships would be ever. Since then, we rebuilt our house with money we received from UNDP. We only got 18,000 dollars. Our original home cost much more, and I still haven’t paying for it.

I lost my work in Israel. I lost the business I started. I even lost my home. I was in a very bad emotional state. I was always worrying about getting enough food for my children. My son Hassan and my daughter Tahani started university. I borrowed money so both of them could continue to study.

I’ve been unemployed since my business collapsed at the end of 2008. There are no employment opportunities in Gaza because of the tightening of the blockade.

Four of my children have post-secondary degrees, and they’re all out of work. Today, we get by on a weekly allocation of food we get from CHF worth 70 NIS per week. It’s not enough for a family of ten. My kids sometimes find occasional work for 20-30 shekels a day, for working from morning until night.

My sons Ahmad, Mahmoud and Bahaa are of marriageable age, but their futures aren’t bright. They have no work, no home. Even though I’m almost 60 years old and job opportunities are scarce, I am willing and able to work, if I can find a job in Gaza. But, because of the situation today, even if I’ll actually find work, it won’t be enough to provide for the family.

I really wish I could find work so that I can provide for my children and ensure their future. The situation in Gaza is hopeless. The standard of living is extremely low, and the future is a great mystery for us. My children’s future is hopeless. They don’t even think about getting married and starting a family because they don’t have the means. They live in despair and frustration.