A pattern of closure
Gaza's sewing shops have for years provided cheap labor for Israeli textile manufacturers. But now the eye of the needle is closing and the finished fashion items are stuck in the Strip
This coming fall, designer Shelly Gueta's jackets will have no lining. This is her way of dealing with the prolonged closure of the Karni border crossing terminal. Sewing a lining is complicated work that demands a high level of professional skill. There are professional tailors in the Gaza Strip who are capable of doing this, but for more than two months now, there has been no way of sending them the sewing patterns or to get the prepared garments out to shops in Israel.
The hope on both sides is that the closure of the border crossing is temporary. Having no alternative, Gueta will send the simpler designs to sewing shops in Nablus. The workers in the West Bank aren't as skilled and careful as those in the Gaza Strip, she says. And others in the fashion business agree with her. For example, Zvi Lieberman, the director of the Textile and Fashion Industries Association, and Yehuda Shoshani, the proprietor of Vanilla Fashion, Gueta's employer. And also Muhammad Abu Shanab, the head of Gaza's Sewing Shop Owners Association.
The first sewing shops in Gaza were established at the end of the 1960s, says Abu Shanab, "And immediately they were working in conjunction with Israeli manufacturers. We grew up together, we developed together. Some sewing shops in Gaza now employ 200 workers; the trade has been passed down from father to son. In Gaza, the work is mainly done by men and when necessary they can work even 12 hours a day. In the West Bank the workers are mostly women, who are busy with their households and have less time."
However, the industry has changed since the 1960s. In recent years most of the fashion trade has been based on cheap production in China and dozens of Israeli sewing shops have shut down. The choice of producing fashion for young people has in effect saved Shoshani and others from this continuing crisis and led him to choose Gaza. This is frenetic, unpredictable fashion that changes rapidly. It is not dictated by the leading designers but is influenced by what American movie and television stars are wearing. "Anyone who wants to succeed has to enter the market fast," says Gueta.
It does not pay to manufacture these garments in China because by the time they come into the shops the fashion has already changed. This market segment supports small manufacturers like Shoshani, whose annual turnover is about NIS 12 million, and thereby also aids the sewing shops in Gaza.
Made in Gaza
Shoshani heaps praises on the Gazans' work, upon which he has depended since he established his business together with his brother, Hacham Shoshani, in 1992. There is no one quite like them when it comes to precision, finish, speed and keeping to a timetable, he says. Of Abed Aziz, the proprietor of one of the two sewing shops with which he works, Shoshani says admiringly that "at a single glance he knows what to add to jeans so the cut will be perfect."
Beyond the quality of the work, there is also an economic consideration. The merchants pay about NIS 7.50 for every shirt sewn in Gaza and about NIS 10 for trousers (about half of what is paid in the West Bank), which are sold for NIS 200 in shops in Israel. This translates into a profit of 50 to 70 percent, according to Shoshani. In the Gaza Strip a tailor gets NIS 60 to NIS 100 for a day's work. But Abu Shanab and his colleagues are not complaining. "We are dependent on each other. There is a different standard of living in Israel, the Israelis have their expenses and losses and we have no alternative."
The bolts of cloth lie there like logs in Shoshani's workshop, located in Panorama House in south Tel Aviv. For many long hours it seems as though everyone has gone out for a break, it is so quiet there. Of the 32 workers he had employed until two months ago, 14 remain. The rest were dismissed because he had no other alternative. The 70 workers at the other sewing shop with which he works, Hassanco, owned by Hassan Shehadeh in Gaza, are also unemployed. Two years ago he had 100 workers, Hacham Shoshani says: "The goods terminal is closed and we are strangled. Before you know it, we will have to shut down the factory." Abed Aziz, in a telephone conversation from Gaza, says: "I'm suffocating."
Lieberman believes this is the reality of several dozen manufacturers, who work with Gaza sewing shops. According to him, altogether, there are between 700 and 800 textile factories in Israel, small and large, including dye shops, sewing shops and workshops for knitting and weaving. The entire industry employs 19,000 workers, about half of the number of workers who were employed in this sector but a decade ago. Shoshani estimates that the real number is larger. He says that most of the small manufacturers are not registered with the Textile Association and therefore Lieberman does not know about them. He estimates that he is one of about 700 or 800 Israeli fashion manufacturers who have ties with sewing shops in Gaza. Abu Shanab shares his estimate and talks about many hundreds of Israeli manufacturers. According to him, about 25,000 people in Gaza work at 964 sewing shops. Until the outbreak of the second intifada, at the end of 2000, there were 40,000 men and women working at sewing shops in Gaza, and 90 percent of their products were marketed to Israel.
For two months now about 850,000 pieces of clothing intended for Israel have been stuck. Shoshani has 7,000 completed pieces there, worth altogether about NIS 600,000. Even if by some miracle they make it out of the Gaza Strip before the winter comes, he will sell them at a loss. "Fashion items are like bread," explains Lieberman. "Today it's good, tomorrow it's gone stale."
Both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities encouraged investment in this industry along with the creation of ties between Gaza and Tel Aviv. The business ties brought friendly relations in their wake. Hassan Shehadeh sometimes receives a permit to go to Tel Aviv, to meet with the Shoshani brothers. Yehuda Shoshani always asks longingly: "When will I be able to visit you in your courtyard?" The day looks to them further away than ever. Today, Shoshani knows, "My tailor in Gaza is ashamed to buy a watermelon and walk in the street with it, because his neighbors don't have a penny to their names."
Yaakov Alalouf, the textile industry's representative at the Karni terminal, says that in good times 25 trucks were working, three days a week, bringing patterns and garments through the Karni crossing point. Using a conservative calculation and taking all deliveries together, on every such day they brought out about 200,000 pieces of clothing. During the "terrible" period, that is ever since the Hamas government was elected and the number of closure days was increased, the number of trucks has declined to 13, which on every working day brought through only about 80,000 pieces.
The losses incurred by manufacturers specializing in young fashion are part of the $135 million Israel has lost since the crossing point was closed two months ago. This estimate stems from calculations made by the president of the Manufacturers Association, Shraga Brosh. According to him, every day Israeli industry is losing about $2.2 million because of the blockage of the regular trade with Gaza.
In order to survive, Shoshani is sending piecework to sewing shops in Nablus, 500 items a day instead of 4,000. The sewing shop owners in Gaza are also looking for alternatives: Shehadeh tried to set up a sewing shop in Egypt, to fulfill his commitments to Israeli buyers, but the initiative failed. Now he is hoping that he will be allowed to go to the West Bank together with five tailors from Gaza to train more tailors in the West Bank. He intends to ask for the help of the Peres Center for Peace, which once promised that it would aid representatives of the textile industry. "It's not so simple," says Abu Shanab. Israel is in no hurry to give permits to Gazans, "and in addition to that," as Shehadeh himself has observed, "in Ramallah they relate to us as though they were the Ashkenazis. They do not accept us willingly."
At the beginning of last week Abu Shanab and his colleagues from the Sewing Shop Owners Association set out for Ramallah to discuss the problems of the Karni crossing point in general and the textile industry in particular with representatives of the Palestinian Authority. After a day of running around at the Palestinian Ministry of the Economy, related Abu Shanab, "I went to bed more frustrated and depressed than I had been when I arrived." He realized that there was no chance that Karni would reopen in the near future. "It all depends on Israel, and Israel doesn't want this," he concluded from what he had heard.
No textile lobby
Officials at the Defense Ministry are examining the possibility of bringing vegetables out of Gaza for the ultra-Orthodox sector, because of the shmitta year (the biblically ordained fallow year, every seventh year). "The vegetable-growers have a lobby, the textile industry doesn't have a lobby," complains Shoshani. But Lieberman protests: "We talked with the relevant people but the answer was that everything is closed. There are political pressures from all sides. The most painful fact is that the merchandise is stuck in Gaza, like a hostage."
"We are hostages stuck in power struggles," says Salah Ayash, Abu Shanab's deputy at the association. "They send us food for which we pay the full price, they send us donations. But why should I beg when I can work?" The unemployed textile workers constitute a significant part of the approximately 70,000 private sector employees whose work has been stopped since the middle of June. Behind each of them is a family of 6 to 10 people.
The story currently circulating among Israeli merchants and manufacturers is that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas does not want the Karni crossing to open, in order to trip up Hamas. Sources at the Defense Ministry also say that Abbas does not want the crossing point to open, although they don't go so far as to say that his desire is the only factor for the closure. Jamal Zaqut, an advisor to Salam Fayad, the Palestinian prime minister in Ramallah, takes umbrage at the rumors: "Since when does Israel take instructions from Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] That's nonsense."
Shlomo Dror, the spokesman for the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, says that "the crossing point was built in such a way that it requires Israeli and Palestinian security cooperation. Such coordination is impossible in the present situation. Israel is interested in preventing a humanitarian crisis and to that end it has opened the Sufa and Kerem Shalom crossing points, but Hamas has even fired rockets at those places, thereby signaling that they are not interested in maintaining quiet."
According to Dror, the closure of the Karni crossing point also has political significance, since everything that goes into Gaza and comes out of it strengthens Hamas. "We cannot let the terminal function as though it were business as usual, while Hamas still calls for the destruction of Israel. Hamas should change its positions and take responsibility for its wish to administer life in Gaza." During the past two months various suggestions have been made for operating the Karni crossing point by a third party: perhaps a Turkish company, perhaps security people who were trained in Holland, perhaps a British security company.
Dr. Ahmad Yusuf, an adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister in Gaza, says that "from the outset we made it clear that we have no objection to its operation by a third party. On the contrary. Hamas is prepared to guarantee from afar the safety of the security people and the businesspeople. The Israelis and the Palestinians need this crossing point to the same extent." But Hamas is not prepared for people from Abbas' Presidential Guard to work at the crossing point, because of complaints of corruption. The suggestions have been passed along to Israel, but nothing has budged and Dror believes that they will not be accepted, for the same political and security reasons. In the meantime, sources in the Tailors Association in Gaza are saying, "Our tailors, even those who have no affiliation with Hamas, are joining the organization's operational force in Gaza, only so they can earn a living."