No More Business in Blocked-off Nablus

Checkpoints have cut off this once thriving commercial center, choking its economy and forcing many of its residents to move to Ramallah.

Abu Fahmi's family-run garage in the eastern industrial zone of Nablus is still open. Maybe 10 cars a week come in for repairs. Until four years ago, they were repairing around 10 cars a day. Drivers came from Jerusalem, Haifa and Ramallah. There were six mechanics working there in addition to Abu Fahmi and his nephew. Now it's just the two of them left in the large, covered, empty garage. The few cars brought in for repairs come only from Nablus. There are dozens of garages in Nablus and all are now competing for the cars in the cut off and enclosed city. Of the 60 villages in the Nablus district, only five are not cut off from the city by the IDF network of roadblocks and closures.

The emptiness of Abu Fahmi's garage, in which he invested all of his life's savings from 30 years of working in Kuwait, reflects a break in the ties that Nablus developed over hundreds of years with the surrounding villages. Car owners in those same villages have found alternatives to the Nablus garages and the same is true of other services the city supplied: clinics, pharmacies, law offices and markets. Because people in need of these services cannot enter the city, local offshoots have opened in the villages, which led to the collapse of hundreds of small businesses.

Abu Fahmi's garage is still open; the carpentry shop owned by his brother, Abu Bashar, is closed. All of the business was with Israel, says his son, Bashar, where the raw materials were bought and the couches and sofas were sold. Now the Israeli market is closed. In the 15 years before the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the carpentry shops of Nablus thrived and were all focusing on the Israeli market, primarily the Israeli-Arab market. This sector has been destroyed. Even without factoring in the hundreds of lost workdays because of the curfew imposed on the city, it is impossible to do business when travel permits for trucks are hardly issued and when the cost of transporting raw material and furniture by in the few trucks around has increased tenfold because of the long wait at the numerous checkpoints.

The fate of the seamstresses and the large textile factories that over the years worked for Israeli companies was similar. Competition with China and Turkey, and trouble transporting raw material and finished products sealed the fate of this industry. Even the stonecutting businesses located on the city's outskirts, where IDF roadblocks have also been set up, have just about shut down. Not only is it impossible to transport the huge rocks quarried in Samoa, near Hebron, to Nablus, but also the nearby Jama'in quarries have stopped transporting stones to Nablus. There are too many roadblocks and too much army bureaucracy.

For hundreds of years, Nablus developed as a center providing services to the surrounding villages, buying, consuming and marketing agricultural produce and offering jobs in factories, educational and health institutions and in local administration. The changes that occurred after 1948 and 1968 did not alter the city's self-image as an important central city whose sons have an impact on the national economy and on Jordanian and Palestinian politics.

Ghasan Shaka, the powerful mayor who resigned in April, made sure in the 1990s to open the city to Israeli Arabs, who until then mainly went to Jenin, Tul Karm and Qalqilyah. Today, Israelis are not permitted to enter the city. The residents of the Nablus refugee camps - Balata, Ascar and Ein Beit Ilma - who sought and found work in Israel, preceded Shaka in efforts to establish ties with Israel.

The separation from the Israeli labor market, which first of all affects the refugee camps, places pressure on the local job market, small as it is. The camp residents, who are used to a low standard of living and are also exempt from several urban expenses, can and are willing to settle for a low wage and compete for jobs with city residents. M., 20, for example, left Balata at 7 P.M. and headed for the bakery where he works because he feared a curfew would be imposed on the camp during the night or an IDF foray into it - a routine occurrence - would prevent him from reaching Nablus. So he sleeps at the bakery. He starts work at 3 A.M. and returns home about 3 P.M. His salary: NIS 50 for a day's work.

Upsurge in roadside stalls

The city's storeowners complain about the increasing number of roadside stalls and carts offering very cheap merchandise, mostly from China, that are concentrated in the lower part of the city, between the vegetable market and the main square, outside the old city. The veteran merchants say that the peddlers from the refugee camps exploit the fact that they don't pay city taxes, don't pay rent and are exempt from the maintenance costs of a regular shop. Parents, even impoverished ones, still want to buy gifts for their kids and get something for a shekel at a stall. "Once they were our workers," says a veteran businessman who recently moved part of his business to Jordan, "now, our factories are closed, the workers are looking for a way to earn a living and they've found a way to get rich." The man speaking was not even aware of the class-based complaint against the "nouveau riche," small in number as they may be. The police, he said, cannot compel them to obey municipal laws, nor force them to pay taxes.

The older and more established families, who earned some of their wealth from renting out apartments and stores inside and outside the old city have stopped asking for the rent after realizing that the tenants simply could not make the payments. According to data from the Palestinian Labor Ministry, the unemployment rate in Nablus recently hit 40 percent (as opposed to 25 percent in the entire region, whose work force comprises some 28,000 people over the age of 15). Some 35 percent of the unemployed have an academic education. A quarter of Nablus residents receive welfare assistance and another 25 percent are entitled to assistance, but don't receive it because there is no available budget for it. The loss of income from rent is part of the chain reaction that has affected several established business owners. They relied on the factories they set up together with the relatives abroad many years ago.

The trend has gained ground in the last four years and now has a new twist: emigration from Nablus. They compensate their city with generous donations to charity. Many of them, like the Shaka family, have agricultural lands in the Jordan Valley, where several family members or seasonal laborers work. But the journey of a truck bringing vegetables from the Jordan Valley to the crossing point for goods and produce at Awarta on the edge of Nablus can take as long as eight hours. Israeli trucks carrying produce travel in half an hour from Ra'anana or Kalansua to Awarta, where the driver will relay the crates back-to-back to the truck from Nablus. "So who would want squashed tomatoes?" asks Shaka.

Irreversible damage

The transport problems are not the only thing cutting off the Jordan Valley from Nablus. The designation dating from the 1970s of certain areas as shooting ranges where entry is prohibited appropriated lands from residents of Nablus and the surrounding villages. The closure and encirclement orders issued during the current intifada have only continued the trend. So, for example, the Abu Imjad family from the village of Rujib was forced to give up shepherding in open spaces and replaced its flock of sheep with lambs that live on a feed mixes only and are cooped up inside pens. There are 5,500 lambs in this village and 3,000 people. The village supplies a large part of the cheese produced in the Nablus regions and, luckily for it, it has not been cut off from Nablus.

The roadblocks and curfews and the poverty of many Nablus residents has cut demand for labaneh. Four months ago, Abu Imjad's family opened a store, Baladi, in Ramallah where they sell their dairy products with no preservatives, pickled vegetables, za'atar and other spices. In that city, there are buyers for these products, even if they are relatively expensive.

In Ramallah, which has greater freedom of movement, some 150 stores whose owners are from Nablus have opened recently, and some of them, Abu Imjad among them, have rented an apartment in Ramallah to save on the daily wait and mental anguish at the roadblock. For the same reason, many Palestinian Authority officials whose families reside in Nablus have moved to Ramallah. They cannot move with their families, because of the high cost of living in Ramallah or because their kids don't want to leave their familiar turf. They cannot stay in Nablus because their jobs require them to travel frequently to Ramallah. They cannot quit their job because there is no other work. These socioeconomic changes will have an effect for many years to come and might even be irreversible.