Under Israeli bombs, a war economy emerges in Gaza

At school tables and desks transformed into shelters, wartime vendors lined a street, selling used clothes, baby formula, canned food and the rare batch of homemade biscuits.

In some cases, entire aid packages – still decorated with the flags of donor countries and intended to be distributed free of charge – were stacked on sidewalks and sold at prices few could afford.

Issam Hamouda, 51, stood next to his meager commercial offering: an array of canned vegetables and beans from a relief carton his family received.

“Most goods found in markets carry the label 'Not for sale,'” he said.

Before the war between Israel and Hamas devastated Gaza's economy, he was a driving instructor. Now, Mr. Hamouda supports his family of eight in the only way he can: by reselling some of the food aid they receive every few weeks.

“I once took four kilos of dried dates and sold one kilo for 8 shekels,” he said, referring to Israeli currency that amounted to about $2.

In the seven months since Israel began bombing Gaza and imposing a siege in response to the Hamas-led attack on October 7, the enclave's economy has been crushed. People were forced to abandon their homes and jobs. Markets, factories and infrastructure were bombed and razed to the ground. Farmland has been burned by airstrikes or occupied by Israeli forces.

In its place a war economy arose. It's a survival market focused on the basics: food, shelter and money.

Humanitarian aid labeled “Not for resale” and looted items end up in makeshift markets. People can earn a few dollars a day by evacuating evacuees on the backs of trucks and donkey carts, while others dig toilets or build tents out of plastic sheeting and reclaimed wood.

Given the growing humanitarian crisis and deep desperation, queuing is now a full-time job, whether at aid distribution sites, the few open bakeries, or at a handful of ATMs or currency exchange shops.

It is a “subsistence economy,” said Raja Khalidi, a Palestinian economist based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“It's not like all the wars we've seen before, where a certain area is targeted and other areas are less affected and can quickly re-engage in economic conditions,” he said. “From the first month, the economy was knocked out.”

In the years before the war, Gaza's economy — even under a suffocating air, land and sea blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt — was beginning to improve, according to Gaza economists and businessmen. Hotels and restaurants were opening on the beach. More Palestinians were allowed to work in Israel and earned good salaries.

All these gains – and more – have been lost.

According to a recent report by the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations, the majority of Palestinians in Gaza now face multi-layered poverty, which goes beyond lack of income and includes limited access to assistance health, education and housing. According to the report, around 74% of people are unemployed. Before the war, the unemployment rate, while high by many standards, was 45 percent.

The shock to Gaza's economy is one of the largest in recent history, the report says. Gaza's gross domestic product collapsed by 86% in the last quarter of 2023.

Israel's Defense Ministry said its attacks on Gaza were not aimed at degrading the enclave's economy and instead targeted Hamas' “terrorist infrastructure.”

The economy is now largely driven by limited supply and desperate demand for aid. Before the war, around 500 trucks carrying humanitarian aid, fuel and commercial goods entered the Gaza Strip every day.

After the start of the war and the imposition of new Israeli restrictions, that number dropped significantly, to 113 on average per day, although it has increased modestly in recent months. Even with the improvements, it falls far short of what aid agencies say is needed to feed Gazans.

Now, the flow of aid and goods has all but stopped, following Israel's attack on the southern city of Rafah and the near-complete closure of two major border crossings.

Hunger is spreading across the enclave, in what humanitarian and human rights groups have called a starvation weaponization by Israel. Israel has denied the accusations.

In a context of conflict, chaos and lawlessness, prices have skyrocketed. After the Rafah incursion, goods on the market became even more expensive. And for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing the Israeli offensive, transportation away from the airstrikes costs hundreds of dollars.

Even before the situation in Rafah worsened, aid deliveries were inconsistent and chaotic due to Israeli military restrictions, causing desperation and, according to residents, an opportunity for armed gangs or individuals to loot.

“Food aid is delivered or brought and stolen by armed people like gangs,” said Majeda Abu Eisha, 49, a mother of 10.

While trying to get help, she said her son and grandson were shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers. They couldn't get any help.

“The winner in this battle is the one who is armed and can get whatever he wants from aid,” Ms. Abu Eisha said. “Those who are not armed or strong enough to fight and push themselves go home empty-handed.”

The Israeli army said it would “never deliberately target humanitarian convoys and workers”. It added that it will continue to counter threats by “persisting in mitigating harm to civilians.”

Without sufficient aid, residents must turn to makeshift markets. The goods there can be sold for whatever the sellers choose. Prices often follow the escalation of conflict.

Sugar was recently sold in Rafah markets for 7 shekels, less than $2. Then, the next day, Hamas fired more than a dozen rockets at Israeli forces near the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel, resulting in its closure. In the following hours the price rose to 25 shekels. The next day the price of sugar dropped to 20 shekels.

“The same item can be sold at different prices in the same market,” said Sabah Abu Ghanem, 25, a mother of one and former surfer. “When the police are there, traders sell things at the prices decided by the police. When the police leave, prices immediately go up.”

Residents say officials and ministries associated with the Hamas-led government are present in some capacity, especially in the south.

While some Gazans say police have tried to force war profiteers to sell goods at inflationary prices, others have accused Hamas of profiting from the looted aid.

Mr. Hamouda said the aid his family occasionally received came from the Hamas-run Ministry of Social Development, which oversees welfare programs.

He said parcels are often missing some items, especially foods such as sugar, dates or cooking oil. Other times, he said, they received only a few canned vegetables in black plastic bags. Food products that disappear from aid packages eventually end up in markets sold at high prices, she said.

Ismael Thawabteh, deputy head of the Hamas government's press office, said the ministry had received about a quarter of the aid brought to Gaza, which it then distributed. “The allegations that the Gaza government is stealing aid are absolutely false and incorrect,” he said.

The looting of aid is carried out by a small number of people forced into desperation by Israel, Thawabteh said. He said the Hamas government has tried to crack down on such looting, but its police and security personnel have been targeted by Israeli airstrikes.

The Israeli military said it targeted police officers and commanders, as well as stations and vehicles, in an attempt to “dismantle Hamas' military and administrative capabilities.”

With most jobs gone, people found new ways to earn a few dollars while the war gave rise to new needs.

Many of Gaza's displaced residents live in tents, so building temporary shelters and toilets has become a cottage industry.

Tents made of thin plastic sheets and wooden planks can sell for up to 3,000 shekels, or $800, people in the city of Rafah said. Unable to pay, others put together their own tents from tarps and reclaimed wood.

“I bought those covers at a high price,” Mr. Hamouda said, referring to the tarps he used to build his family's shelter. “We bought a second-hand toilet for 250 shekels and paid 50 shekels for the plumber who installed it.”

The cost, he said, was more than double what it was before the war.

Having access to their own money to pay the inflated prices of war also allowed some to take advantage of the crisis.

There are few ATMs still operating across Gaza, and those that do are usually crowded with people trying to withdraw their money. Often someone armed will guard an ATM, charging a fee to use it. Money changers offer people access to their money in exchange for high commissions.

“I could only receive my salary from some people who took 17 percent of the total amount of money,” said Ekrami Osama al-Nims, a father of seven displaced people in the south who is a public official.

He tried several times to take a bag of flour from aid trucks – despite the risk of being shot at by Israeli soldiers, he said – to avoid having to buy it on the black market. But he never had any success.

“My salary covered a whole month of food and other basic needs,” he said. “Now with my salary I wouldn't buy even half a sack of flour.”

Abu Bakr Bashir, Aaron Boxerman AND This is Abuheweila contributed to the reporting.

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