To most people around the world, the word ‘Gaza’ conjures up images of rockets and bombs, wars, poverty and invasion, never mind the appalling conditions in which many of its residents live as a result of the ongoing Israeli blockade and, most recently, the massive Israeli attack on the enclave — its third in the past six years. But, while one international commentator wrote recently, “It’s not too fanciful to see it in the future as the ‘Dubai’ of the Eastern Mediterranean,” Gaza has much more to offer given its 3,000 years of culture and its history as a prosperous trading hub connecting Africa and Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
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In the 19th Century, Gaza’s renowned soap factories, like those in Nablus, produced luxury goods that were exported around the world. It’s premium cotton crop, fruits, vegetables and spices were in great demand. Gaza’s merchants catered to a vast array of travelers: European visitors to the Holy Land, caravans from Egypt and North Africa, pilgrims from the Arabian Peninsula and Asia. Its bazaars were regarded as even better than those in Jerusalem.
Before the latest invasion, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund estimated that Gaza’s GDP would rise by 7 per cent in 2013 and 6.5 per cent this year, figures that any European country would envy. But the destruction by Egypt, as well as Israel, of the underground tunnels, which allowed much needed supplies to be brought in despite the blockade, has ended any hopes that Gaza can survive on its own, never mind grow.
Earlier this year, it was expected that increases in international aid, especially from the European Union and the UN following Israel’s onslaught in November, 2012, would counter some of the setbacks. The rise in development funds, from both government and private sources in the Gulf states – including Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – was also contributing to a new era of hope and confidence in Gaza. Qatar’s building projects, covering everything from schools, roads and hospitals to new housing and infrastructure projects alone were expected to create some 10,000 jobs by next year.
Surprisingly, until the latest assault, the growing international awareness and support for Gaza’s people had also led to a boom in tourism in the enclaves’ new hotels, restaurants and shopping malls. International solidarity activists, NGO staff and aid officials were helping to boost capacity and business to levels not seen since the Israeli bombardment of late 2008.
The desire of Gaza’s newly rich elite to live in up-to-date, spacious accommodation, combined with the eagerness of its private investors to seek out alternatives to the tunnel trade, helped to fuel a boom in real estate, retail and leisure services, as well as increased demand for international luxury brands.
Meanwhile, a host of recent studies, from the World Bank, Israeli academics and the Gaza-based PalThink research centre have pointed out that concrete measures will also be needed to be introduced by Hamas if Gaza’s huge economic potential is to be realized, even if the Israeli siege is lifted, or substantially eased.
In particular, they cite the need for more institutional support for the private sector, an overhaul of the tax regime, and measures to boost agricultural and industrial productivity, as well as export capacity.
Special attention, they add, should be given to those sectors, such as manufacturing, construction and tourism, which would provide the most jobs. Vocational training projects, as well as a re-vamp of the entire educational system, plus incentives for the ICT and telecoms sector, they say, are urgently needed to help Gaza realize its opportunities in a globalized marketplace.
While the Bank of Palestine and other financial institutions have continued to provide, often under the most difficult circumstances, access to cash and funds in Gaza, Hamas will also need to ensure that any lifting of the Israeli siege, both for business people and cargoes, is accompanied by closer co-ordination of trade and regulations with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Gaza’s dependence on the use of the Israeli shekel (NIS) as its main currency, together with its heavy reliance on money-lenders rather than on banks which can gather deposits and direct them to profitable development projects, could hold up progress in the future as more aid and investment pours in, and as reconstruction begins, once again, in earnest, the reports note.
Arab and Islamic tourism to Gaza, as well as to Jerusalem and the West Bank, could also be greatly increased by agreements with Egypt on developing the Sinai Peninsula and the border areas with Gaza, Oman Shaban, the founder and director of the Gaza-based think tank, PalThink, argues. “Tourism in the Sinai Peninsula [which would also benefit Egypt directly] represents a golden opportunity for tens of thousands of Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Jerusalem due to visitor appeal and modest costs,” he maintains.
Talks between the PA and Israel that were underway to begin exploiting the rich reserves of natural gas, and possibly oil as well, lying just off Gaza’s shores in the Mediterranean, have also been put on hold. Valued at some $7 billion, they could help to end Gaza’s critical shortage of fuel and electricity as well as providing substantial revenues to build new schools, hospitals, roads, ports and even an airport, as well as vitally needed new water and wastewater facilities. Gas exports either through Egypt or Turkey, could boost the PA’s coffers for years to come, and help to reduce both Gaza and the West Bank’s huge dependence on international aid, speeding up the day when Palestine can become self-sufficient.
Hamas’s newfound unity with the PA in Ramallah and the solidarity for Gaza shown by Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as by people around the world, bodes well for bringing Gaza into a regional network that could benefit Israel as well as Palestine. But for that to happen, more pragmatic heads will need to surface in Tel Aviv and Cairo, as well as in Gaza City.
© Pamela Ann Smith
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An earlier version of this article appeared in the July, 2013 issue of The Middle East magazine.