Evacuated entreprenuers seek support

Business owners evacuated from the Gaza Strip have accused the government of not doing enough to assist them financially or logistically, and have bee

Business owners evacuated from the Gaza Strip have accused the government of not doing enough to assist them financially or logistically, and have been struggling to come to terms with their fate - and still land on their feet in the weeks since their displacement. There were 165 non-agricultural enterprises "of every description" in the Gush Katif settlements on the eve of the disengagement, said Yossi Noiman, 44, head of the Association of Gush Katif Business Owners. Manufacturers, grocers, accountants, and others kept shop in the settlement bloc. Noiman charged that the government's basic assumption was that all evacuated businesses would be closed and compensation would be passed out, and "that the matter would be closed." "In reality, it is another story entirely. Businessmen don't have the ability to simply close down the businesses. They have long-term clients, debts, clients from outside of the settlements," he said. "We have obligations, and need to find solutions." For 18 years, Yamin Ohayon, 46, had a printshop, producing pamphlets, stationary, and local newspapers for clients in Gush Katif, as well as newsletters for colleges and businesses in neighboring regions. He left behind custom-equipped premises, with infrastructures, offices, galleries, graphics equipment, and storage - "a business that we've been building for two decades. Now we have to start completely from scratch." "The authorities did not work as they should have," Ohayon said. "Businesses got no attention. No one came to ask: 'What do you need? Where are you moving on to? Do you need a loan for the move? Help in finding a new place?' It didn't interest them at all. Employment is an issue that should have been stressed." Shavit Gez, 44, lived in Neveh Dekalim for 15 years, producing stringently kosher fruit drinks and syrups from Israeli citrus fruit, Golan apples, and imported raspberries and apricots for the past decade in the settlement's industrial zone. His label, Pri Katif, was sold to roughly 400 retailers and other clients in Israel's ultra-orthodox communities, particularly in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, he said, putting his annual turnover at nearly NIS 7 million. Gez invested about NIS 600,000 in his old premises, and estimates that it will cost him as much to adapt a new building to his needs. Noiman himself had a factory in Neveh Dekalim making mobile homes and other pre-fabricated structures for schools, the police, and other clients, that handled NIS 10 million in turnover yearly. "Within a year I want to be in the same position as a month ago. I don't want to be a victim of the political system," he said. "It's unacceptable. We're going back 15 or 20 years - can they make me 15-20 years younger? Most of us are 40 to 50 years old, in the middle of our lives. We've done what we've done." Gez employed 30 workers - eight from the Gush Katif settlements, 11 from neighboring parts of Israel, and 11 Palestinians from nearby Khan Yunis. "For now they're unemployed. I told them to look for work elsewhere," but he'll gladly take them back if and when he bounces back. "It's not easy to train people from scratch, to redo everything from scratch," he said. Even though Noiman is beginning his third month of unemployment - it takes two months to build a mobile home, and he had not been taking orders that would be cut short by Neveh Dekalim's evacuation - he is still paying the wages of his 60 employees. "I don't want to lay them off, because I've worked with them for a long time, and it takes six months to train new workers. I'm paying them from my own pocket, but soon there will be nothing left. Who will compensate me for my unemployment? Who will pay me back for the cost of retaining my workers?" As for Ohayon, most of his six employees - former inhabitants of Neveh Dekalim and Ganei Tal - are moving with him to a building that he is currently refurbishing in Ashkelon. "Telephone lines and infrastructures should be done within a week or two," and the new printshop should begin producing any day now. "I don't have time to laze around. I have to supply services to my clients," he said, noting that he began preparing for the move a couple weeks before the August 15 evacuation date. Since then, a large part of Ohayon's original base of 300-400 clients has "scattered" in all directions, so he has to build a new client-base in and around Ashkelon. "It will take more than a little time to begin competing." Ohayon could also not say how much compensation he was eligible to receive. "We haven't even begun with that - everything went so fast. I just know that I can't count on it for much. They built the law in a way that doesn't allow us much space. For now, I've been funding it all from my own pocket." All he needs is for his losses to be covered, he said, though he has yet to fully estimate them. The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry's Ashkelon evacuee employment center put Gez in touch with a MATI [the Center for Fostering Entrepreneurship] consultant, "but they didn't give me any money, and that's what I need right now." He owes banks and suppliers money, he said. "They will have to wait to get it." For Ohayon as well, contacting the evacuee employment office in Ashkelon did not make the process any easier. "They sent me to MATI, which didn't help at all. Their only assistance was filling out forms." In the meantime, Gez's competitors are working as usual, and he is afraid that he's losing clients. Pri Katif will probably be re-established in Ashkelon, where Gez is looking for a building that meets Health Ministry requirements, like the one he had in Neveh Dekalim. "I had everything in Gush Katif," Gez said. Noiman said that he had received no help funding the move itself, which cost NIS 150,000 and involved 28 trailers. "I put the containers on some field - it's a waste of each day that passes. Now I have to wait until I have replacement land." But in any event "the cost of land is higher in the cities than in Gush Katif," Noiman pointed out. "For a 400 sq.m. facility in Gush Katif, a business will receive compensation allowing him to buy only a 100 sq.m. facility in Ashkelon," according to Noiman, who called the situation "completely illogical." "It's true that a building in Gush Katif costs less, but I don't care about the monetary value of the land. If there was a living, existing business on 300 sq.m., I want 300 sq.m. in Ashkelon," he said. Noiman said that the Disengagement Administration was "offering a humiliating amount" that he would not state. "It was roughly 30% of the cost of moving and setting up again," he said, which he calculated according to the financial compensation formula released by the Authority. He also decried the time necessary to submit an application for compensation. "They say, 'Wait, wait more, check this, prove that,' and in the meantime, I have received nothing. They ask me, 'Why didn't you move your business five months ago?,' but what if the disengagement wouldn't have gone through?"