GAZA CITY — Gaza's donkey carts — slow, but cheap and essential for survival in this scruffy land — have finally met their match. They are being edged out by an Asian import, a blend of motorcycle and miniature pickup truck.
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Smuggled by the hundreds from Egypt in recent months, motor rickshaws, also known as tuk-tuks, have taken over congested streets of the Palestinian territory, in part because fuel has become cheaper than donkey feed.
Some just haul cargo. Others have been jazzed up with upholstered seats, colorful canopies and fringed curtains to serve as taxis, school buses or pizza delivery vans. They've become a badge of Gazans' ability to adapt to tough circumstances, including an Israeli border blockade and authoritarian rule by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Tuk-tuks also have helped create some jobs, perhaps making a small dent in unemployment running over 30 percent.
Ahmed Madhoun, who said he can't get a teaching job because he's not a
Hamas supporter, bought a tuk-tuk four months ago for $2,200, or roughly
what a day laborer would make in four months. Madhoun now earns between
$8 and $14 a day distributing merchandise to shops and delivering UN
This week, Madhoun and other tuk-tuk drivers lined up outside the UN
food distribution center in the Shati refugee camp where just a few
months ago, donkey carts would have been waiting to take on sacks of
rice and flour.
Economist Mohsen Ramadan said about 20 percent of loan applicants at his micro-finance agency want money for tuk-tuks.
The tuk-tuks are still imported through the tunnels because Egypt, their waystation, does not allow trade with Gaza.
Tuk-tuks started appearing on Gaza's streets in significant numbers
several months ago, with demand driven by cheap smuggled fuel. Once the
first tuk-tuks were imported, their advantages quickly became apparent,
generating more demand.
Gaza's new workhorse is a variation of, and shares a name, with the
motorized tricycles used as short-distance taxis in Asia and Africa. The
word tuk-tuk quickly found its way into Gazan Arabic, with an Arabized
Transporting passengers, especially children, has been banned as too
dangerous, said Lt. Col. Ali al-Nadi of the Gaza traffic police, but
people of all ages can be seen crowded into the little vehicles.
The ban hasn't stopped Shadi al-Ajel, who has been driving laborers for
25 cents per passenger. He equipped his tuk-tuk with upholstered benches
and a canopy draped over a metal frame. Staying ahead of the
competition, he decorated the interior with fringed, gold-colored
curtains. He also advertised his family's paint business with posters
stapled to the sides of the vehicle.
With winter approaching and car prices dropping now that Israel is
allowing car imports, Ajel wants to exchange his tuk-tuk for a small
van. Earlier this week, he displayed his vehicle at a dusty roadside
market for used cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks in Gaza City, saying he
expected a good price because of all the extras he installed.
Many drivers take pride in upgrading their tuk-tuks, which consist of
just the motorbike and a 4-by-6-foot (1.2-by-1.8-meter) metal platform
with side rails sitting on two wheels.
Some use colorful tarps, like the Taboun Pizza parlor which chose a
bright yellow canopy for its delivery tuk-tuk, with the metal base
sprayed in red, the restaurant's colors. Others add custom-made
The tuk-tuks also generate secondary business. Gaza's blacksmiths and
mechanics, who have honed their skills of improvising during the
blockade, are customizing and fixing them. A Gaza City driving school
offers tuk-tuk classes, now that the government demands a special
license, with scofflaws facing $50 fines.
Tuk-tuks aren't supposed to go faster than 50 miles per hour (80 kph) or
carry more than 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), said Nadi, the traffic
cop. Those rules aren't always observed. There's been one fatal accident
so far this year, and other scrapes are caused by excess weight or
sharp turns, Nadi said.
The Transportation Ministry has recently begun requiring registration of
tuk-tuks and said it has so far logged 1,500. But nobody knows exactly
how many tuk-tuks are in the territory, which is just about twice the
size of Washington, D.C. What's clear is that they're edging out the
donkey carts, which for a while had made a sudden comeback due to
blockade-linked fuel shortages.
Mohammed Ghazaleh, who sells sweets off a donkey cart, said the only
reason he hasn't switched is that he can't drive a tuk-tuk because of a
withered arm. The 30-year-old said feeding his donkey costs him $14 a
week, or a day's income.
For that money, tuk-tuk drivers say, he could buy enough gas to drive one of their machines about 450 miles (750 kilometers).
Madhoun, the teacher-turned-driver, summed up what many here feel about the tuk-tuks: "They're faster, better and cleaner."