In Odd Turn With Israel, Gazans Get Economic Adrenaline Shot from Virus

GAZA CITY — Ziad Qassem’s 25 years as a tailor seemed worthless in the cruel economy of the blockaded Gaza Strip: Unemployed for eight months, piling up debt, he sat idle in his apartment, worried how he would provide for his wife and five children.

The coronavirus came to the rescue.

With demand for masks and protective gear soaring worldwide, Gaza garment factories have been bombarded with new orders since early March by merchants from — of all places — Israel, ordinarily seen by much of Gaza’s Palestinian population as the enemy.

The Zahara clothing company in Gaza offered Mr. Qassem, 42, around $12 a day to put his sewing-machine mastery to use.

“I can breathe now,” he said. “I can buy things for my family. When I had no work, I felt psychologically depleted. I didn’t have an extra shekel to give to my kids.”

Across the globe, the pandemic has decimated economies and sent unemployment rates skyrocketing. But in the garment industry in Gaza, where joblessness, poverty and dependency on international aid were already at epidemic proportions, the coronavirus has oddly been a boon.

Apparel was once a pillar of the local economy, with 900 factories employing 36,000 Palestinians. But the industry all but collapsed in 2007 when the militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza and Israel banned the export of clothing from Gaza to Israel or the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The plants suffered devastating losses. They were practically put out of commission,” said Muhammad Abu Jayyab, the editor in chief of Al Eqtisadiah, a Gaza-based economic publication.

It was only after the 2014 Gaza war with Israel that the Israeli authorities permitted Gazan apparel makers to resume exports, the basis for a modest revival. By 2019, more than 200 clothing factories employed around 6,000 workers, according to the Palestinian Federation of Garment, Textile and Leather Industries, though workers and owners said daily wages were as little as $8.50.

Now, about a dozen factories have begun turning out masks and protective wear, several of them hiring new employees, expanding their hours or even subcontracting excess work to smaller shops.

In Gaza City, Zahara’s all-male factory floor bustled this week as some workers carefully stitched light-blue masks, while others quickly cut nylon fabrics and used old sewing machines to assemble them into protective wear. Most were at least a few feet apart, but only some employees wore masks. The owner, Muhammad Odeh, 42, said he had increased his work force to 55 from 30 men and stretched their shifts from eight hours a day to 12.

“The virus has brought life into our factory,” he said. “The masks and suits have not only given us more work, they’ve made it possible for us to stay open during this crisis.”

A bigger company, Unipal 2000, which is based in Gaza City’s industrial zone, is producing 50,000 masks and 15,000 protective gowns and suits a day, and expanded its work force from 850 to 1,250, said a co-owner, Bashir Bawab.

“I much prefer that everyone is healthy and that the virus disappears, but making these products has provided us with an important opportunity,” said Mr. Bawab, 61.

Rotem Cohanim, 37, a merchant from the West Bank Israeli settlement Beit Horon, said he used factories in Gaza to make the protective gear he sells because “their labor is very good, and they do it quickly and inexpensively.”

Workers at the factories report to their shifts regularly. The virus itself has largely spared Gaza, an enclave of 2 million, because of strict Israeli-enforced controls over border crossings, and Hamas’s decision to isolate all returning residents in quarantine facilities, now for three weeks. Only 17 people are known to have been infected so far, and no fatalities have been reported.

All told, factories in Gaza have produced millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of protective gowns and suits, garment industry leaders say, generally working with raw material from Israel and exporting the finished products there or, to a lesser extent, to the West Bank.

The masks range from inexpensive models costing less than 50 cents to high-quality designs that fetch $50.

Some factories have also quietly filled orders from their Israeli partners with designs that are politically risky in Gaza — to say the least. Some feature Israeli flags, the logo of a popular Israeli soccer team or “Made in Israel” labels.

Several tailors interviewed said they had no compunctions making masks to protect people in Israel, which has fought three bloody wars with militant groups in Gaza over the past 12 years, as well as several smaller battles.

“At the end of the day, we are all humans,” said Raed Dahman, 42, at Hassanco in Gaza City. “We should try to make sure everyone is safe, without exceptions.”

Gisha, an Israeli rights group that closely monitors Gaza, said Israel needed to lift its restrictions on movement into and out of the territory to help the economy function.

“Factories in Gaza repurposing their production lines to make personal protective equipment demonstrates what’s possible when the Strip has access to markets and materials,” the group said in a statement. “In the post-coronavirus era, there should be no place for unnecessary restrictions on movement that thwart livelihoods and the health of entire communities.”

As successful as the protective-gear boom has been, apparel industry leaders in Gaza say they fear it will run its course all too soon.

“The coronavirus will be temporary, which means the need for masks and protective suits will be temporary, too,” said Fouad Odeh, an official at the Palestinian Federation of Garment, Textile and Leather Industries. “We will ultimately need to rely on making clothing.”

Some factories have already felt the demand for masks decline, which their owners mainly attributed to the arrival of large Chinese shipments of them in Israel. Hassan Shehada, the owner of Hassanco, said he was still trying to find a buyer for 120,000 masks packed in boxes in his factory. And Bahaa Madhoun, director of Noor al-Bahaa in Gaza City, said his company had outstanding orders for only 20,000 masks, down from hundreds of thousands only weeks ago.

That leaves workers worrying that the happy new normal of gainful employment could give way to the return of hard times — just as the rest of the world is recovering from the pandemic.

“I’m afraid I’ll suddenly be told to go home,” said Raed Attar, a tailor at Hassanco, who had struggled to find steady work for a year before he was hired there recently. “My life would be very complicated again.”

Iyad Abuheweila reported from Gaza City, and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv.

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