A year after the 2014 war, Gaza remains decimated, with tens of thousands of Palestinians still homeless.
Gaza City – A year ago, Mohammed Ajour said he earned about 2,500 Israeli shekels ($650) a month from his work as a furniture maker.
Nowadays, Ajour – who lives in Gaza – calls it a lucky month when his income hits just 1,000 shekels ($250). Last month he took home just 800 shekels.
After losing his job as a tailor owing to a work-related injury, Ajour became a furniture-maker through a newly established vocational training programme called Irada (“will” in Arabic). Funded by Turkey, Irada trains disabled Palestinians in Gaza to enable them to earn their own livelihoods.
In March 2015, however, Israel forbade the import of wood planks as “items of dual use“, a term it uses for materials prohibited from entering Gaza over what it describes as security concerns. Currently, the list of such items includes more than 110 products.
Israel has imposed a siege on Gaza since Hamas took power in the impoverished Palestinian territory a decade ago. Economic activity in Gaza has been crippled as a result, and it faces major difficulties in producing necessary goods locally.
Among dozens of materials, Israel controls shipments of cement, steel plates, wooden planks and even fibreglass, claiming these materials are used for tunnel construction by Palestinian factions.
“Israel banned imports of wood planks of a thickness of more than one centimetre. Shortly after, they banned paint hardeners,” Ajour recalled. Israel says these can be used in weapons manufacturing. Months later, Israel permitted the import of planks up to two centimetres wide.
The ban did not stop Ajour from making furniture, but it did make his job more difficult, requiring him to use glue and staples to forge several wooden planks together to make the furniture sturdy enough. “It used to take a mere five days to make a complete set of sofas. Now I need two weeks on average – sometimes more,” he told Al Jazeera.
In Gaza, a sofa set is composed of nine seats made of five chairs of variable sizes. “With the extra time required to complete one set, production dropped to a third of what I used to make before, and with it dropped my income,” he said.
The price of wood in Gaza on the black market soared after the Israeli ban was introduced. “The price of a cubic metre of beech wood reached 7,000 shekels [$1,810], compared with the original price of 2,800 shekels,” said Amro Abu Alqumboz, the Irada project’s manager.
Meanwhile, the price of paint hardeners rose by 600 percent. Even at such high prices, supply remains scarce and available hardeners are of low quality. Traders ascribe this to the ever-shrinking number of smuggling routes.
Given current prices, Abu Alqumboz estimates that a piece of furniture now costs 150 percent more than it did before the Israeli ban. As a result, demand has dropped by more than half. “The economy was already slow, and the new price tags further dragged demand down,” he told Al Jazeera.
Wadah Bseiso, the secretary of Gaza’s Wood Industry Union, said the Israeli decision to restrict the import of raw materials – referring mainly to wood and hardeners – had forced 700 workshops out of business, rendering more than 10,000 workers unemployed.
The union urged Israel to lift the ban on imports of raw materials. Instead, last October, Israel unexpectedly lifted the ban on Gaza exports of furniture for the first time since 2007. The Israeli army said the decision was meant to guarantee stability in Gaza and improve its economy. But Palestinians in Gaza view the decision differently.
“As long as Israel keeps barring the entry of raw materials used in making furniture, the Israeli decision will remain irrelevant,” Bseiso said.
Jamal Elessi, who owns a workshop and a furniture store, said local demand is beginning to shift towards imported furniture, owing to competitive prices that come at the expense of quality.
He fears that the new trend will aggravate the suffering of local producers. “The siege has eroded the purchasing power of customers. At times, I sell at a loss in order to procure cash to pay my employees,” he told Al Jazeera. However, he insisted that he will not sacrifice quality to boost sales.
The ban is not a complete one: A few vetted vendors can import wood planks, strictly for use in infrastructure and internationally sponsored projects. The number of vendors are ever-changing, the same as with cement vendors.
According to Mohammad Abu Jayyab, the editor of the Gaza Journal of Economics, this has created new problems for Gaza’s wood industry. “In their vetting process, the Israelis favour marginal importers over others who had been in the market for decades,” he explained.
Abu Jayyab’s opinion is that this aims to create local conflicts among traders, but no one is certain, as Israel has not provided an explanation. This, he added, has spurred conflict among local traders and forced capital out of the industry, further slowing the sluggish economy.
Abu Jayyab added that the dire situation of Gaza’s industries is offering a golden opportunity to Israeli manufacturers: “Israel profited through taxing Palestinian imports of raw materials. Now, Gazans have no option but to import ready-made doors and furniture while Israeli manufacturers fill their coffers.”