As the West Bank economy improves, Gaza remains in steep decline, with the private sector decimated and income sources largely down to donor money and smuggling revenue. A blockade has been imposed on the strip ever since Hamas seized power in 2007 and Israel’s assault on the territory in 2008/9, in response to continued rocket fire, further damaged infrastructure.
Restrictions on imports and exports have been eased since last summer’s debacle over a Turkish aid flotilla intercepted by Israeli forces in which nine activists were killed, but Gaza remains a closed market – or, as Palestinian business leaders prefer to pitch it, an untapped economic resource.
“When I talk to investors I say, look at Gaza, it’s a positive thing, we have room to grow if things change,” says Ammar Aker, CEO of Paltel, noting that while the West Bank has nearly 80 per cent mobile phone penetration, Gaza stands at 53 per cent.
And then there’s the famed Gazan ingenuity. “They are the most resilient, flexible and innovative people imaginable,” says Hashim Shawa, himself from a long-established Gaza family and chairman of the Bank of Palestine, the fast-growing and largest bank in the territories.
The closure has quite literally led to a thriving underground economy. Some 1,500 tunnels dug under the border from Egypt bring in everything from dismantled cars to weapons. With nowhere to go – and not much to do – Gaza has become an untapped reserve of avid recyclers and rebuilders, as well as self-taught IT enthusiasts and systems hackers.
Tourism potential for Gaza – with miles and miles of golden beaches and a perfect winter sun climate – could be huge. “The tourism there could be second to none,” says Shawa wistfully. But that’s far off in the future, if peace ever delivers its dividends.