| HABIBI, CAN YOU SPARE A ... ? West Bank Arabs waiting for employment
Forklifts weave between factory buildings, but their pallets are mostly empty. Fewer than 25 of what six months ago were 150 manufacturing plants even bother to open their doors inside the sun-baked Gaza complex along the border with Israel.
About 500 Palestinians, mostly skeleton crews assigned to mothballing duties, show up for work on a typical day.
Two months after Israel's announcement that it would abandon the industrial zone as part of its proposed evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, the 30-year-old site, hailed as a model of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation, is another casualty of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The disappearance of the carpentry, welding and sewing workshops including some jointly owned by Israelis and Palestinians undermines the economic base for 50,000 Palestinians living in the Strip, according to a recent United Nations estimate.
With unemployment in the Gaza Strip running at 70 percent, few Erez workers can expect to find equally good jobs inside the densely populated seaside rectangle, where 1.3 million Palestinians live sandwiched between the Mediterranean and a heavily guarded Israeli security fence.
Because Israel, citing security concerns, has severely curtailed the number of day laborers it permits to enter Israel, that option also is virtually foreclosed to the displaced workers.
"I don't know what I'll do," said Adeeb Zarouq, 41, a metal-furniture welder, who for the moment has his job at an Erez factory but knows his days of employment are numbered.
On a salary of $130 a week, Zarouq supports himself, his wife, his father and seven children. He rents a Gaza City apartment for $150 a month.
He is counting on Israel to recognize its self-interest in not letting the economic pressures inside Gaza reach explosive proportions that could affect the entire region.
"It's like surgery," he said on a recent night off. "If you operate on one of my arms, you have to give me a transfusion in the other."
Kobi Cohen, 40, chairman of the Erez manufacturers' association, runs a garment-manufacturing plant at Erez that formerly employed 350 Palestinian workers producing a line of men's clothing under the brand name Chaos.
Today, a half-dozen Chaos workers spend their days packing up sewing machines.
Cohen considered moving his plant to Israel to take advantage of a compensation package that Israel offered to displaced Erez businesses.
But the much higher minimum wage for workers inside Israel about twice what he pays his Gaza workers more than offset the benefits, he said.
Moreover, he did not want to entirely abandon his loyal Gaza workers, whom he credited for his company's success.
So instead of just closing up, Cohen sold his sewing machines on what he says are generous payment terms to a Palestinian in Gaza City, who will employ about 100 Palestinians in three workshops.
Cohen intends to supply raw materials to the workers through the Karni crossing, a mid-Strip passage where goods pass back and forth through an opening in the wall that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip. He intends to export the finished garments the same way and sell them in Israel and throughout Europe and parts of Central America.
Among the factors contributing to the deterioration of the Erez Industrial Zone are tensions caused by the suicide bombings that have rocked Israel in the last four years, and attacks on the zone itself.
The Islamic resistance movement Hamas, which wants to portray Israel's disengagement as a panicky flight under fire, has shot rockets into the gated terminal and tunneled around its perimeter to launch attacks.
In January, a 22-year-old woman sent by Hamas detonated explosives at the workers' entrance, killing herself, two soldiers, a border policeman and a private security guard. Since then, there have been three deadly attacks inside the zone, which also houses an Israeli army garrison.
"Hamas will say it forced the Israelis out," and the Israelis will respond with force, Zarouq , the Erez welder, said. "When that happens we, the workers, will be the losers once again."
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