15-year blockade crushes dreams of Gaza’s businesswomen

Yasmin Abusayma The Electronic Intifada 

A woman sits by several glass containers with saplings
Saeda al-Majdlawi displays some of her experiments. Yasmin Abusayma

When Saeda al-Majdlawi learned about Gaza’s high rates of diabetes, she immediately got to work.

The 38-year-old, who holds a master’s degree in plant tissue culture and is a part-time lecturer at Gaza’s University College for Applied Science, began investigating sugar alternatives.

She formed her own startup Techno Plant and built a large greenhouse in the yard of her home.

There she experimented with potatoes, palm and strawberries, as well as stevia, a plant from which a sweetener can be made.

“We suffer from huge psychological pressures due to the occupation, the siege and the difficult financial conditions,” al-Majdlawi told The Electronic Intifada.

“All this stress contributes to incidences of diabetes. So, I started to think about how I could help by growing stevia, which is a safe and healthy sugar substitute to sweeten foods without the negative health effects linked to refined sugar.”

Today, she sells syrup and strawberry and chocolate sauces all sweetened with the sugar substitute.

Despite the pause in production caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, her small business is growing. She says her products are attracting attention from the occupied West Bank.

The problem? Her products cannot go there because of Israeli restrictions.

“I contacted the ministry of economy and was informed that liquid products are prohibited by Israel. It’s so depressing what we are experiencing here.”

Unfair criteria

In 2014, Razan al-Khozondar launched a startup called Rozza Designs.

The company designs logos and business cards or prints designs on clothes or phone cases, and similar.

The 32-year-old mother of two studied computer science in Egypt, but it was graphic design that became her passion.

It has also given her a mission.

“Because of the high unemployment rate in Gaza, I wanted to do something for my own future. I also started to think about how I could help my fellow graduates too. Then I came up with this idea, and now I am training some girls in my store to master graphic design.”

In 2021, the unemployment rate in Gaza stood at a massive 47 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Under such circumstances, al-Khozondar said, “I believe we should help each other in this open-air prison, Gaza.”

It is difficult. This month marks the 15th anniversary of when Israel imposed a complete blockade on Gaza.

One consequence is that Israel has restricted the entrance of a long list of items into Gaza, claiming they could be used for military purposes.

The list of so-called dual-use items is “long and vague,” according to the Israeli rights group, Gisha. It includes broad categories such as “medical equipment,” or “communications equipment,” as well as basic items and materials required for industry, the ICT sector, for farming and fishing and countless other products of everyday life.

According to World Bank estimates, easing dual-use restrictions could bring 11 percent growth in Gaza by 2025.

Al-Khozondar fell foul of those restrictions when she wanted to import a printer for a product line of clothing.

“In 2019, a product line had completely stopped for a year just because Israel didn’t accept to issue a permit for a printer that I needed to make T-shirts and other gifts.”

She has also applied for permits to visit the West Bank on business. Seven times, in fact, since 2018.

She has never been granted any permit. Instead, she is told that she doesn’t meet the criteria set for traders.

The criteria imposed by Israel regarding the movement of Palestinians to and from Gaza through the Erez military checkpoint are very stringent. They are mostly limited to permits for medical treatment.

In terms of commerce, permits to travel through Israel are limited to “senior” merchants and businesspeople.

Because of the restrictions, al-Khozondar is considering reducing her product lines because she cannot import what she needs. Instead, she said, she is planning to focus more on services.

“Israel must lift the closure and abolish the strict restrictions it imposes on the movement of residents and goods to and from Gaza,” al-Kozondar told The Electronic Intifada. “Israel should allow entrepreneurs in Gaza to travel for the purpose of trade and professional development.”

Dreams shattered

Raghad al-Afifi saw the limitations of Gaza’s education system that could offer her everything but exposure to others.

Cut off from the world, as Gaza pretty much is, students do not have the luxury of travel or of interacting with peers from elsewhere.

Al-Afifi, 23, saw an opportunity.

In 2018, while working with Gaza Sky Geeks, a technology hub, she established her own startup, Fill the Gap.

The business is an educational program to teach Palestinian graduates soft skills: communication, public speaking and leadership skills all while connecting them electronically with foreign graduates in order to forge connections, share knowledge and be exposed to other cultures.

Revenue is often secured through crowdfunding, though that is complex in Gaza, where financial transactions are restricted due to western and Israeli banking regulations targeting Hamas, the Islamist movement that is in charge in Gaza after winning parliamentary elections in 2006.

“We hold crowdfunding campaigns to run the business. In Gaza, it is a complicated process as a whole. You are only allowed to get money through well-known humanitarian organizations. This is really one of the things that I keep worrying about every year.”

Complicating matters further, GoFundMe, which al-Afifi uses for her crowdfunding efforts, only operates in 19 countries, not including Palestine.

Money collected via GoFundMe then has to be transferred to a humanitarian organization with a strong track record of fiscal transparency before it can get to Gaza.

Growing the business or even her own capabilities is also fraught with difficulty.

Her program has garnered interest from the West Bank city of Nablus. Yet al-Afifi has been unable to properly capitalize on such interest because she has not been granted a permit from Israel for travel to the West Bank.

“I am working on organizing a social entrepreneurship boot camp in Nablus, but I am probably not going to be able to get a permit to cross the Erez checkpoint. I am currently training someone who lives there to lead the camp just in case.”

This is the usual situation, she told The Electronic Intifada. As a young woman entrepreneur in Gaza, she is constantly invited to workshops and training programs outside Gaza, but she is never able to attend.

“I tried many times to apply for permits to go there, but it says that I don’t meet the criteria, as I am still young and not a high-ranking businesswoman.”

Israel is a barrier, she said. A barrier to travel, a barrier to expansion and a barrier that “crushes my dreams with its unfair practices.”

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