By Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman
Since the Israeli blockade was imposed in 2007, Gaza manufacturers and farmers – along with the families who rely upon them for income – have suffered, both due to the resulting lack of supplies and prohibited access to markets. A case in point is the 5,000 or so families who try to eke out a living by growing potatoes.
While farmers are able to produce about 50,000 tons of potatoes annually, exports have dropped close to zero, due to Israel’s repeated closure or restricted opening of the commercial crossings, as well as competition from the more politically connected Egyptian farmers.
“Originally, we sold most of our potatoes to the West Bank,” explains Ghassan Qasem, chief of the agricultural association in Gaza. “When we were no longer allowed to trade with our fellow Palestinians, we began exporting to the Gulf countries: Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq and the UAE.
“Today, though, the crossings are closed often and Israel frequently rejects our products for no reason. So far this year, we’ve managed to export only 40 tons of potatoes. Still, farmers grow the potatoes in hopes that will change, or that people in Gaza can afford to buy.”
The result has been large surpluses – potatoes with nowhere to go. That is, until the Agricultural Association of Beit Hanoun came up with the idea of establishing a fried-potato factory.
Seeds imported from the Netherlands assured that the potatoes grown were suitable for fry-making, and an investment from Oxfam financed the construction last year of the factory in Beit Hanoun, on the northeast edge of Gaza.
The Rosetta Factory is the first of its kind in Gaza and offers the extra advantage of providing stable employment for women.
Fifty-two percent of Gazans are unemployed, the highest rate in the world. Among women, however, it’s a lot worse; the rate was 74.5 percent last year, an increase of more than five percent since the last quarter of 2017. In Gaza’s conservative society, men typically work outside the home and women take care of children and other domestic duties.
However, changes in social norms and the deep poverty (now afflicting more than 80 percent of the population) have caused more women to seek work outside the home.
With this disparity in mind, says manager Reham al-Madhoun, Rosetta reserves the daytime shift exclusively for women. Ten women work at the factory from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., earning $200 a month.
Rahifa Hamad, 20, is one of them. The job materialised at just the right time. She was halfway through a math programme at Gaza’s al-Quds Open University but was scrambling to find money for tuition.
“During the two years I studied in university, I struggled to get financial aid from Gazan organisations,” she says. “My dad doesn’t work because he is blind.”
Her family is able to survive only because of cash assistance from the Palestinian Authority and the UN refugee agency (UNRWA). When no aid could be found, Hamad’s mother borrowed money from relatives to keep her in school.
Although the pay is minimal, it is enough. The Rosetta Factory provides what Hamad calls a “golden opportunity to accomplish my goals” without having to borrow money. After securing the job, Hamad put her studies on hold to save money instead; she expects to be able to return to university next year.
Abeer Othamna, a 40-year-old mother of eight, also considers herself lucky to have found work at Rosetta Factory. Her husband has worked for the Palestinian Authority for 20 years but can hardly afford the basics for the family on his salary.
“We always went into debt to pay for my sons’ college tuition,” she says. “But this time is different.” The fees the family still can’t pay are covered by loans from the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, which her sons will repay in installments after they graduate and start working.
“I am so glad I can finally help my husband provide my daughters and sons live a decent life,” she says with a big smile on her face.
The factory job enables another employee, 24-year-old Ibtisam Abu Jarad, to support her husband and two-year-old child.
“My husband’s contract to teach math ended a few months before I applied for this job in the factory,” she says. “His contract wasn’t renewed this year due to the deteriorating economy status in the institution.”
Like her husband, Jarad has a degree in math. She’d hoped to find work teaching in one of the public or private schools after she graduated. But that dream proved unrealistic.
The same fate befell 25-year-old Roa Qassem, who graduated with a diploma in secretarial studies from Gaza University. She doesn’t have a family to support but is proud the factory work enables her to be independent.
“Previously, my dad had to give me pocket money each month,” she recalls. “Being in my mid-20s, I felt ashamed to have to ask him for money. Now,” she says, “I can go out with my friends, take classes to improve myself and shop for clothes I can afford.”
Each day, the women who work at Rosetta Factory produce 80 kilos of chips, which then are distributed to more than 20 local restaurants. Soon, more women will be able to join them.
“In the near future,” says al-Madhoun, “we are going to hire more females because we are preparing to expand our work in Gaza due a growing demand for chips in Gaza.”
Khuloud Rabah Sulaiman is a Gaza-based writer for WeAreNotNumbers.org