The U.N.'s World Food Program is exporting 140 tons of date bars to the West Bank from Gaza this week, hoping this first shipment in nearly five years will help revive a vital trade route, an official said Tuesday.
An Israeli official said a resumption of regular exports from Gaza to the West Bank is unlikely, citing security concerns and a desire not to reward Gaza's Hamas rulers.
Israel eased its blockade of Gaza nearly two years ago, allowing the import of many consumer goods. It continues to bar exports of manufactured goods. Exports, especially to the West Bank, on the opposite side of Israel, were once a mainstay of Gaza's economy.
The restrictions were initially imposed after the violent takeover of Gaza by the Islamic militant Hamas in 2007. Critics argue the export ban is counterproductive and punishes ordinary Gazans instead of pressuring Hamas.
Four in five Gaza factories are idle or operate at less than 50 percent capacity, largely because of the export ban, said Sari Bashi of the Israeli rights group Gisha, which lobbies for open borders for Gaza. Unemployment is around one-third of the work force.
"Without the ability to sell manufactured goods, there is no reason to produce," Bashi said. "Factory owners are moving capital and jobs to Jordan, and critical trade ties between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank are disintegrating."
Ali Abu Shahla, a Gaza business leader, said the private sector is investing in construction because of huge demand there, but he warned that the decline of industry is deadly for Gaza's economy.
At the same time, Hamas is profiting from the smuggling of fuel, construction materials and other items restricted by Israel. Hamas imposes taxes on the black market imports, collecting cash right at the point of delivery _ tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt.
The international community has urged Israel to allow exports from Gaza. Israel has promised to do so gradually, but little has changed since it first eased other border restrictions in the wake of its deadly sea raid on a blockade-busting flotilla in May 2010.
Israel permits seasonal exports of strawberries and cut flowers. In January, it allowed two truckloads of furniture to be shipped from Gaza to a trade fair in Amman, Jordan.
This week's shipment of date bars, which began Monday, marked the first exports to the West Bank since 2007. Sune Kent of the World Food Program said it took months to win Israeli approval, with shipments limited to two truckloads a day and spread out over a week. He said he had no assurances that the WFP can send more goods to the West Bank in the future.
Israeli defense official Maj. Guy Inbar said he does not envision a resumption of regular exports. A scanner to be installed at Israel's crossing with Gaza later this year might expedite some shipments, he said, helping alleviate security concerns.
He said Israel might also consider allowing some Gaza exports if sponsored by international aid groups or Hamas' rival, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to avoid boosting Hamas.
For Mohammed al-Telbani, owner of the Al Awda cookie factory that made the date bars, this week's delivery to the West Bank makes little difference to his bottom line. The shipment amounts to about a week's worth of production at his factory.
Before 2007, he sold most of his products in the West Bank, but now he has only the Gaza market. He said he put his 400 employees on part time schedules rather than cutting staff.