Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

MIDEAST: Work Has Come to This

Eva Bartlett

GAZA CITY, Aug 12 2011 (IPS) - It’s a weekday morning, the beach is yet to fill with crowds seeking a break from the heat, but already the odd-jobbers are at work selling toys, clothes and food along the coast.

Mohammed Daowul has found a new trade. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

Mohammed Daowul has found a new trade. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

Shariff Abu Kass, 27, walks the stretch of seaside in Sheik Rajleen every day from morning to evening with two armfuls of lightweight sports pants to sell.

“I have two young children and no other work, so I do this every day. Usually I earn around 40 shekels (13 dollars) a day, but Fridays are better because so many come to the sea.”

Before Israel imposed the siege on Gaza in mid-2006, options for work were more plentiful. But Palestinian construction workers and other labourers who worked in Israel have been looking for new work since borders closed a decade ago.

Unemployment levels in the Strip have continually risen for years and currently soar at over 45 percent.

Abu Kass, one of those former workers, sought anything to replace his lost income. “Construction work was better, but there’s no chance for that here,” he says.

Following Abu Kass along the beach, Mohammed Daowul, 28, likewise brings his horse and cart full of cheap plastic inflatable toys beachside everyday.

“I’ve done this for the last ten years. I used to work as a tailor in Gaza City, when we could still export clothes to Israel or the West Bank,” he says. “But the closed borders and siege prevent both export and import of the materials I need. I already had a horse, so I started using it for work.”

The inflatables sell for between five to 10 shekels, the slushy drink for a shekel a cup.

“Life here is difficult for everyone now. Even just some years ago parents would buy all their children toys at the beach. Now if they have many kids they just buy one toy for all them. They can’t afford more than that,” says Daowul.

“I earned more as a tailor, and the cost of living was lower. Even if I make the same 50 shekels a day now that I made years ago, everything is more expensive now. What I earn isn’t enough for my three kids, wife and myself, not to mention my horse.”

In Gaza’s municipal park, Issa Ghoul, 19, sells chips and chocolates to park-goers to support his family. “I quit school and started working when I was 14. My father died when I was young and no one else works in my family,” says Ghoul.

Many children younger than Ghoul zig-zag between cars at traffic stops selling one-shekel items like gum, cheap chocolates and fresh mint in order to add to their families’ incomes.

“I can’t find any other jobs,” says Ghoul. “My mother is ill, my three-year-old sister is ill, what can I do but hope people will buy from me?”

Most Palestinians take pride in their education, and Ghoul is no different, except that his impossible situation denied him the opportunity to study. “I would have liked to have finished school like everyone, I would have liked to have been a teacher.”

The Jundi park in downtown Gaza is at any time of day a constant buzz of tea and snack sellers seeing opportunity in the lounging crowds.

At one corner of the park, Mohammed Awaida, 15, from the Zeitoun district of Gaza City and his younger brother sell plastic cell phone cases strung from an improvised rack.

“We started this just the other day, for the month of Ramadan. We come in the mornings and our father works here in the evening,” says Awaida.

“I like this work, it helps my family. Ramadan is an expensive month, and we need to buy new clothes for school after Ramadan.”

At an entrance halfway through the park, Abu Fares, 38, sells coffee, tea and cigarettes from a barebones table, working from morning to evening. Formerly a construction worker in Israel, this is now his only source of income.

“We’ve got ten people in our family. I’ve done this for seven years and now my eldest son, Feres, helps me,” he says, nodding at his ten-year-old son.

Despite his demotion in work and salary, Abu Feres has kept his sense of humour. “Thankfully I don’t have to buy a permit to put my table here. If we were not a country under occupation I’d probably have to have a permit.”

Abu Mohammed, a Beit Hanoun man in his forties, peddles the popular slushy drink, barad, from a cooler in his bicycle basket.

On the beachside, another man in his thirties stacks his bicycle with swimming inflatables as he pushes through the sand on a daily quest to earn a living.

Children and adults alike sift through dumpsters and litter-ridden lots, collecting water bottles and other recyclable goods in large cloth sacks.

Abu Sobheh, 42, is another who formerly worked in Israel. “I am a mechanic and worked all over Israel and the West Bank. I made good money then for my skills. When the borders closed I just worked our land. But it’s been bulldozed many times by the Israeli army, so I do whatever I can now to earn money for my ten children,” he says.

Throughout the Strip, similar scenes play out: children taking on responsibilities of adults to help their families, adults reverting from skilled labour to doing nearly anything to bring in a salary.

The adults remember when times were less choking, when borders were open and an economy was allowed. The children are learning what to expect from lives under occupation.

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