Beach gives hope to Gaza’s drowning economy

As Gaza’s economy struggles to recover from the 2014 war, one beach is offering people some rare business opportunities.

Falafel restaurant at Beit Lahia
Yasser Arafat al-Masri at his falafel restaurant [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera]

Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip – Yaser Arafat al-Masri’s new falafel shop is a simple affair. His fryer is made out of a gutted washing machine, and his salad counter is a simple table he built with recycled wood covered in foil.

He sold his motorcycle to pay the $350 needed to rent a basic space on the beach in Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip, for the summer months.

“My first idea was to open a coffee shop near my house in Beit Hanoun,” Masri, 31, told Al Jazeera.

But both his home and the adjoining store he had been about to open were destroyed during Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, leaving him unemployed and renting a one-room apartment for a family of seven.

“Maybe I can do it this year. But the beach is a good place to start again,” he said.

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Beit Lahia’s white sand beach stretches for two kilometres from the Israeli border to al-Shati, also known as Beach Camp, in northern Gaza. On summer evenings and weekends, it fills with families crowding under shady umbrellas or by the water.

People sell boiled sweet corn and sweet potatoes from wooden carts, and towards sunset, riders bathe their horses in the sea.

A Gazan family spends their afternoon at Beit Lahia beach [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera]A Gazan family spends their afternoon at Beit Lahia beach [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera]

Isolated from the world as both Israel and Egypt tightly control Gaza’s borders, many residents turn to the beach as a temporary escape.

It also provides an opportunity for residents of the territory to set up businesses with a relatively small financial investment – a critical factor after many lost their homes and businesses during the 2014 war.

According to the UN, the war last summer killed 2,139 Palestinians, including more than 500 children, 72 Israelis of which 66 were soldiers, and one Thai national.

Nearly a year after Israel’s war on Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, reconstruction on the ground has barely started, with just a quarter of the aid pledged by international donors having so far been released.

Not a single one of the 19,000 homes destroyed during the 50-day war has been rebuilt, and an estimated 17,500 families remain homeless.

“The beach is full, but people this year don’t have much money to spend,” said Hafed al-Sultan, a former fisherman who owns a beach café and rents out umbrellas and lounge chairs.

He launched his business last year after the Israeli navy confiscated his fishing boat and nets, but it ground to a halt when the war began. “If I make enough money to buy new fishing nets, I will go back to sea. This is as close as I can get to it now,” he said.

After a long working day horses and donkeys get a bath in the sea [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera]After a long working day horses and donkeys get a bath in the sea [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera]

A World Bank report published in May said the 2014 war, combined with Egypt’s crackdown on Gaza smuggling tunnels, shaved an estimated $460m off Gaza’s economic output last year, pushing an already battered economy towards “the verge of collapse”.

The only thing that is going to make a difference to enterprises in Gaza is to lift the blockade.

Steen Lau Jorgensen, World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza

Unemployment in Gaza is the highest in the world at 43 percent, with youth unemployment as high as 60 percent.

The Palestinian Ministry of National Economy estimates that nearly 4,200 commercial enterprises were affected by the 50-day war. Of these, 1,255 were destroyed and more than 90 percent were small stores.

“First of all we need to get the materials in to rebuild, and that has proven to be very slow,” Steen Lau Jorgensen, the World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza, told Al Jazeera.

“But ultimately the only thing that is going to make a difference to enterprises in Gaza is to lift the blockade… Small businesses can do reconstruction, and it’s impressive to see what they are already doing. But there has been two percent growth in 20 years,” Jorgensen said.

The report also points out that, during this same period, gross domestic product in low income countries increased by 259 percent, which means Gaza’s economy is operating at a fraction of its estimated potential. “And yes, the Israelis have let some exports out, but it’s still less than one percent of 2006 levels,” added Jorgensen.

One of Amjed Tantesh's employees at the 'sea pool' instructs children to paddle their feet in the water [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera] One of Amjed Tantesh’s employees at the ‘sea pool’ instructs children to paddle their feet in the water [Edmée van Rijn/Al Jazeera] 

On the lifeguard tower, Ghassan Zayed, 38, blows his whistle every few minutes to warn wayward swimmers. He works for the civil defence department, run by the Hamas administration.

“I have been a lifeguard for 12 years,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the winter, they move us to other departments.”

He is one of around 40,000 workers who have not been paid full salaries for several months because the Fatah-Hamas unity government, which resigned on Wednesday after over a year, failed to carry out its functions while Hamas retained de facto control of the Strip.

“People this year are more stressed than ever before,” said Amjed Tantesh, who started a swimming school at Beit Lahia beach last month.

Known by his kids as Abu Ahmad, Tantesh decided to build a “sea pool” – a safe swimming area defined by

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a semi-artificial rock barrier. “This way we don’t have to worry about power shortages for pumps to fill the pool,” he said.

With six employees, his swimming classes are attended by more than 200 children who are shuttled by a free bus from all over the north of Gaza.

He recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to be able to offer free classes to children whose families cannot afford them.

A former Gaza backstroke champion, he ran a similar programme in 2011, but had to cut it short. “Parents couldn’t pay the fees,” he said. “I’m afraid I will run into the same problem now.”

But Abu Ahmad remains optimistic about what he can achieve on the Beit Lahia beach: “I want to produce world class athletes.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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