In the eye of the beholder

One year on, success of Gaza evacuee businesses depends where they are.

shopping center 88 (photo credit: )
shopping center 88
(photo credit: )
A year after moving his life and print shop from Gush Katif to Ashkelon, Yamin Ohayon is still struggling to reconstruct a viable client base to replace the several hundred loyal customers he lost after nearly two decades in Neveh Dekalim. "Most of the businesses I worked with then are closed," he said, adding that there is much more competition than he had in Gush Katif. "All that we have done is like opening a business from scratch. Unfortunately, the State is not helping us in this," he charged. While others closed down shop and requested compensation or took courses and started rethinking what kind of businesses they want to run, Ohayon is among a small number of business owners that insisted on trying to move their businesses in one piece to a new location, without taking a break, bringing all six of his employees - formerly residents of Neveh Dekalim and nearby Ganei Tal - with him to the new location. "I kept the business going more for them than for myself," he said. Ohayon is not alone. Most business owners evacuated from Gush Katif and other Gaza Strip communities one year ago are still fighting to reach a stable economic position, made all the more difficult by the sequence of temporary living situations that many are still far from completing. Also, making things difficult, they say, is that many still haven't received compensation for their lost businesses. Yossi Noiman, head of the association that represented about 165 non-agricultural businesses in Gush Katif, said it was primarily businesses in the Erez industrial zone, which is outside Gush Katif, that had received compensation so far. According to SELA Administration figures, by the end of July, compensation was either paid or on its way to 104 of the 128 Erez businesses for which claims were submitted. "Erez was closed down a year before we were, so it appears that businesses from Gush Katif will have to wait at least another year," Noiman said. As for the non-agricultural businesses closed during the evacuation of the Gaza Strip as a whole, which Noiman represents, SELA said compensation was either paid or approved to 82 of the 144 businesses for which claims were submitted, but about 20 businesses have yet to even request compensation. Additionally, of an estimated 400 agricultural businesses located in the settlement block prior to the evacuation, compensation had been requested for only 164, of which 119 had either received payment or have been notified that the commission had decided in favor of their claim. In total, by the end of July, 305 businesses had either received full payment or approval for their compensation of 436 businesses that had submitted claims. In the first half of August, compensation had either been paid or approved for an additional 50 evacuated businesses, said SELA spokesman Haim Altman. Noiman estimated that half of businesses had closed and half are still active in some form. Furthermore, he argued, the Evacuation and Compensation law only covers about half the businesses closed, because it doesn't provide for every situation. "They passed a law and thought they had solved the problem. But it is now apparent that the exceptions to the rule outnumber those that fit the rule." Attempts to reform the legislation have met with opposition by government officials nervous about the costs. The government and Finance Ministry have also used the elections, the Knesset's summer recess and, now, the need to handle the costs of the war in the North, to postpone dealing with the Gaza evacuees, he said. Shortsighted planning of the "caravilla" mobile home sites also torpedoed an effort that began 10 months ago to provide former shop owners with a temporary commercial facility at the camp to allow them to maintain their relationships with both suppliers and their wandering clientele. Unfortunately, the area was designated as a site for "emergency housing" only, in such a way that it would take a full year to change the zoning rules to allow anything else, including necessary commerce and services, according to Noiman. Those who moved businesses to Ashkelon have not received money for the basic cost of physically moving what they could take with them, and compensation for the loss of a client base and other damages are not included in the law, Noiman said. His own requests for land matching the site on which his business was located have only been answered with offers for remote sites in Mitzpe Ramon or Yeruham to save on costs of a more central lot. "We're sitting in the caravillas, and most people cannot see a solution to their problems on the horizon," he said. Ohayon, meanwhile, said that businesses that closed and then reopened after the evacuation have received a special assistance package not available to businesses that never officially closed their doors, like his own. "Those of us that wanted to do the right thing - that helped the government by providing continual employment, and did it alone - are now being punished," he said. "Businesses that stayed open need to be assisted by the government." Ohayon has not received any compensation for the move: "It is being handled. It will apparently still take a long while," he said. Of the 620 evacuees who owned independent businesses in the Gaza Strip - whether agricultural or non-agricultural - prior to implementation of the Disengagement Plan, 240 were either running a business again or preparing to, while the remaining 380 were inactive as entrepreneurs nearly a year after the evacuation, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry said this week. Another 70 evacuees who were not business owners before the evacuation have also either set up a new business or are in the process thereof. "The closure of the businesses due to the evacuation has allowed many of their owners to consider if they want to continue working as business owners, to become employees or perhaps even to exit the work force," the ministry said in its report, which evaluated the situation as 10 months after disengagement. "It should be remembered that some of the businesses were 'rolling in place' prior to evacuation." "Establishing a business after the evacuation would in fact mean setting up a new business," the ministry recognized, adding that such a move would require that the investment needed to be worthwhile. The ability to reconstruct lost client bases also would be doubtful. "The older the people are, the less worthwhile an investment would be, or a high yield would be needed to cover the investment in a relatively short time," the ministry said. The fact that only 120 of the 620 evacuees who owned businesses before had already succeeded in getting their new business off the ground "shows, on one hand, that the business-building potential of the Gaza Strip evacuees has yet to reach its full expression while, on the other hand, testifying to the difficulty encountered by the evacuees in reopening businesses after the evacuation," the ministry said, adding that perhaps not enough time had passed for people to reassemble resources. Nonetheless, the experience of those who had a business in the Gaza Strip before gave them an advantage over the 70 other evacuee entrepreneurs, only 20 of whom had completed the process of opening a new business. Of the nearly 300 owners of businesses closed during the evacuation who contacted the MATI entrepreneurship counseling and training center in Ashkelon, more than 28% had switched fields, the ministry said. Farmers have shown a higher tendency to stay in the agriculture field, the ministry added, noting that 23% of businesses that former Gaza Strip entrepreneurs have already fully opened are agricultural, as are 36% of the businesses that they are in the process of opening. Only 12.5% of the businesses of evacuees that were not business owners beforehand were agriculturally oriented. Anita Tucker, who had a farm with her family at Netzer Hazani for 29 years prior to the evacuation, has been wandering and jobless for the past year, like most of the farmers from her community. Her family only joined 45 others from the settlement at the caravilla site at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim about a month ago, following 11 months in hotel rooms. Farmers are unable to help themselves out of their predicament and begin working in agriculture again since full compensation has yet to arrive, and they have yet to settle in their eventual destination, she said. Even once it is eventually received, the full compensation package would only cover about 60% of the value of the agricultural business held in Gush Katif, requiring anyone with plans of setting up a new business to take out loans, she said. Of the 80 families living in Netzer Hazani on the eve of the Disengagement, 60 were involved in agriculture. Tucker estimated that at least half of the farming families would be interested in re-establishing their crops at the eventual site. Others plan to set up businesses in tourism and other fields. Until now, only six of the community's farming families, including two of her sons, have managed to get back into agriculture in some way, having rented land in the Jordan Valley on which they plan to grow organic peppers. They, like many of the other farming families, were eager to get back into business, Tucker said. "After a whole year, you lose your market and lose your good name. Everything will start disappearing from us if we don't get back into it." During the year, some older evacuees have taken courses in tourism, gardening, computer programming and other fields for which they received a stipend during the study period. Tucker expressed doubts as to how much such courses would help people in their 50s and 60s find work, however. "People are frustrated. It's not clear. There are more question marks than exclamation marks," said Tucker. However, agricultural projects are beginning to see a renaissance among the roughly 1,000 evacuees who have chosen to settle in the neighboring Eshkol region of the western Negev, the regional council said Wednesday. In one endeavor, a 50-dunam plot of land has been planted with the Four Species used during the Sukkot holiday rituals (palm frond, willow, citron and myrtle) - primarily citrons for export abroad. In another project, a 60-dunam greenhouse to grow organic peppers for export to Europe was built in the Dunes of Elusa (Holot Halutza), replacing a 30-dunam greenhouse that stood in Gush Katif. "Work on preparing the terrains for building the greenhouses and planting crops is progressing at the fastest possible pace to prevent the loss of additional agricultural seasons," the regional council spokesperson said, adding that the area's residents "are following with amazement the speed with which the Gush Katif evacuees moved on from mourning over the destruction they experienced to the new pioneering push and quick development of the expanses of the Dunes of Elusa."