Gaza's Unemployed Have Handouts or Hamas

A worker stacks bottles of soda at the Gaza Strip's Pepsi plant, which faces a shutdown in the coming weeks because it can't import raw materials.
A worker stacks bottles of soda at the Gaza Strip's Pepsi plant, which faces a shutdown in the coming weeks because it can't import raw materials. (Photos By Griff Witte -- The Washington Post)
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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008

GAZA CITY -- Less than a year ago, Abu Hammed worked in a garment factory, sewing pants.

Now he totes a Kalashnikov assault rifle as a Hamas police officer, imposing order in this eerily desolate city on behalf of the armed Islamist movement.

Given a choice, he'd rather be back in the factory.

"If the Israelis opened the crossings again, I would leave the police and become a tailor again," said Abu Hammed, who would give only his nickname for fear of a Hamas reprisal. "The salary is better in the factory."

Yet the factory jobs are long gone. Ten months into an Israeli siege that followed the Hamas takeover of Gaza last June, 90 percent of the factories that once existed in this narrow coastal strip have closed, driving tens of thousands of people out of work. Those who lose their jobs face a stark choice: stay at home and survive on international aid, or try to work for the only employer around that's still hiring -- Hamas.

Although Israel intended for the siege to weaken Hamas, factory owners, workers and international aid officials in Gaza say the rise in unemployment and the dwindling influence of the private sector have had the opposite effect, allowing the group to consolidate its control over the lives of Gaza's 1.5 million people.

"There's no one else to give jobs but Hamas. It's crazy," said Ammar Yazegi, 25, whose family has owned a soda factory in Gaza since 1954. "Hamas is going through a golden period -- total control of Gaza without any restrictions. The siege has saved them."

The Yazegi family factory -- which started as Gaza Cola and is now the official bottler for Pepsi -- is one of the few factories in the strip still open, though probably not for much longer. Like all factories here, it can't get raw materials past the blockade and is facing a shortage of plastic.

The plant operates four hours a day, down from 24. The 30 employees who remain, out of the usual 250, will soon be out of work. Many of the laid-off workers have gone to work in Hamas's police force, Yazegi said, or joined the movement's military wing in its fight against Israel.

The factory underwent a $2 million renovation that was completed last spring, only weeks before the start of the siege. Now most of its gleaming machines sit idle. The factory floor, once a place few would venture without earplugs, is quiet and cavernous.

"At the beginning, we thought the closure would last one or two or four weeks at the most," said Mohammed T. Yazegi, the company chairman and family patriarch. "But unfortunately, we are seeing a closure like none other since the beginning of the occupation."

For this, he said, "we have to blame ourselves. We're giving the Israelis an excuse to do whatever they want."

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