But given that there is no work these days in Gaza, he considers himself lucky to have just found a job, even as a menial labourer.

His wife Najla visits al-Azhar University Alumni Association every Tuesday, where unemployed graduates meet up to discuss strategies that may help them find jobs. 

They arrange meetings with different ministries, and in large groups head over to confront them in an effort to put pressure on those with some semblance of decision-making power.

Ahmad Abu Holi, director of the organisation, spoke to an overflowing crowd of unemployed graduates last week, trying to assuage their fears and re-assure them that the future is not all bleak.

“We need you to be vigilant and pro-active - make sure all your documents have been verified and photocopied, that you show up here every week, that you protest with us at the ministries. We’re not Rambo - we can’t take on the entire state but we do what we can,” he said.  

But many, like Najla, have grown tired of this weekly routine.

Najla graduated three years ago with a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology. She says the only way to land a job these days is through a “wasta” or a personal connection with somebody high up.

“I know people without a university degree who have been employed in a matter of days because of a wasta, while we sit here every single week year after year being told to make sure our documents are all in order,” she said.

Powder keg

In what he describes as a patronage system running amok, public relations officer Adnan Najjar says the needs of unemployed graduates in Gaza are largely being ignored.

Fresh graduates fill out forms for 
unemployment benefits

“Everyone, especially in the Legislative Council, has their own agenda. I mean, you have people who studied hard for four years and paid tuition fees on top of that and still can’t find jobs and other people without any degrees being employed in a matter of days,” he said.

“This is a powder keg waiting to explode,” said Najjar.

Najjar and Abu Holi say there is little they can do to help the graduates besides prompting them to turn in their paperwork and register as unemployed with the Palestinian Authority in order to secure some financial benefits.

Najla did just that and was among a meagre 250 graduates approved for a three-month unemployment stipend of 1000 shekels ($227). 

She and her husband share a house with 17 other family members in the central Gaza Strip refugee camp of Dair al-Balah and with no headway being made on finding her a job, the future does not look promising.

“We’re living on food coupons now. What will I do when the three-month stipend runs out. Beg? I have a child at home and another on the way. I need Pampers, milk - where will this all come from? And why did I bother going to university if it didn’t improve my job prospects at all?” she asked.

Jobless economy

Najla and Hisham are not alone and their fears are not unfounded.

There are literally tens of thousands of unemployed college graduates in Gaza and their numbers are only increasing as hundreds of students continue to graduate into a jobless economy.

"What will I do when the three-month’s stipend runs out? Beg? I have a child at home and another on the way. I need pampers, milk-where will this all come from? And why did I bother going to university if it didn’t improve my job prospects at all?”

Najla,
unemployed graduate,
Gaza Strip

By some estimates, unemployment in general is over 60% in the Gaza Strip, while about 80% of the population are living under poverty line, according to the UN.

An estimated 210,000 jobs have been lost by Palestinians since the beginning of the Intifada.

The World Bank and the UN report that the ratio of the total population to the number of people employed has climbed by more than 50%. This is compounded by the fact that whereas in 2000, one worker supported four people in the West Bank and six in the Gaza Strip, the ratios are now seven and nine respectively.

According to Khalid Abd al-Shafi, head of the UNDP’s Gaza office, the current political situation is to blame for the high unemployment rate.

Blanket blockades

In particular, Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians and raw materials in and out of the Gaza Strip, imposed since the beginning of the Intifada, have taken their toll on the Palestinian economy, he said.

“40,000 Palestinian labourers were going to work in Israel prior to the Intifada.  Now it’s down to 10,000," said Abd al-Shafi.

But its not just menial labourers who have been affected by the Israeli measures, as Najla and Hisham’s situation makes clear.

Israeli soldiers check belongings
of Palestinians at roadblocks

The production capacity within all sectors of the Gaza Strip has dropped by nearly 50%, said Abd al-Shafi, and this downturn has translated into job losses across the board.

“It's becoming harder and harder for Palestinian businesses to survive because of difficulties in getting raw materials. In other sectors, agricultural for example, a lot of workers have lost their jobs due to destruction of wells, farms, and greenhouses,” he said. 

Short-term solutions

Earlier this year, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) joined forces with the UNDP Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP) in an effort to create jobs in Gaza and to help stem the rising tide of poverty and unemployment.

The programme is part of a concerted effort by the UNDP to generate jobs by improving infrastructure in Palestinian cities.

But according to development researcher Hashim al-Husayni, job creation projects and programmes do not meet the needs of the vast numbers of the unemployed in Gaza - especially unemployed university students.

“They answer the problems of a minimal number of unemployed, and definitely do not address the needs of the unemployed graduates,” he said.

Some 80% of Gaza residents are
unemployed, says the UN

"We are completely dependent on Israel. So if you’re talking about job creation, you are very limited with the number and kind of jobs your economy can provide,” said al-Husayni.

Abd al-Shafi says the job creation programme is a temporary measure intended to alleviate hardship, not provide long-term solutions.

Humanitarian intervention

“Job creation is an emergency humanitarian intervention. The purpose is to create as many jobs as possible for a short period of time to provide income for unemployed people.”

“The potential for job creation is in the private sector and [with] private investors. But no private investor is willing to invest a penny under such very unstable and risky circumstances,” he added. 

According to the UNDP, the investment rate during the last three years has decreased by about 90%.

“The only reason the whole economy has not collapsed is that we have a large number of people employed through the public sector,” said Abd al-Shafi. 

The problem can only be resolved if the political situation improves and Israeli restrictions on travel and trade are lifted, he said.

“All these job creation measures are temporary measures… they will never solve the problem of unemployment. They only contribute to alleviating the hardship and providing minor income for people to survive,” said Abd al-Shafi.

“A final solution will depend on future political developments.”