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Desperation In Gaza, Where Over Half Of Work Force Is Unemployed


In the Gaza Strip, there's an ongoing economic crisis, and it's getting worse. Estimates put more than half of the workforce there out of a job. From Gaza City, NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Gaza City unemployment office is open every weekday. But usually, it has no jobs to offer. And still, the job-seekers come. Receptionist Mohammed Masharfeh says all he can do is register their names.

MOHAMMED MASHARFEH: (Through interpreter) It hurts. You cannot help. You wish you could, but you cannot.

ESTRIN: People here will try almost anything. We meet a young man who has hospital records showing his mom has cancer. His family can't afford the expense involved in traveling to get the treatment. He hopes the story will get him to the top of the job list. But office worker Abdel Wahab Haboush says he hears these stories all the time.

ABDEL WAHAB HABOUSH: (Through interpreter) We feel sorry for the people. Sometimes we cry. Sometimes, yeah, stories we hear make us cry.

ESTRIN: A couple months ago, the office did have something to offer. The United Nations sponsored jobs for doctors, engineers - basically, humanitarian aid disguised as work - short-term jobs, just three months long, for very low pay. There were 850 positions. More than 30,000 applied. Haboush says the glass door of the unemployment office cracked from the weight of the crowds trying to get in.

HABOUSH: (Through interpreter) People were pushing the smashed door. Thank God it didn't collapse.

ESTRIN: The statistics are staggering. Haboush says the people coming for jobs this year are triple the usual number. In Gaza City alone, the unemployment office has 220,000 people looking for jobs. The World Bank said in September that throughout the Gaza Strip, 53 percent are unemployed.

Gaza economist Omar Shaban says terms like unemployment and economy don't even apply here.

OMAR SHABAN: We need a new definition. What do you mean economy? For a sealed territory, 2 million people living in, 99 percent of them cannot leave, two-thirds of them are youth. They have been on charity, aid, food assistance. There's no economy.

ESTRIN: He calls it a sealed territory because for more than a decade, Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade to pressure the militant Islamist group Hamas to give up its control of Gaza. Imports and exports are severely restricted. Three wars brought lots of destruction. And in the past year, the Palestinian central government has cut money to civil servants in Gaza to put pressure on Hamas.

Shaban says he's one of the very few people in Gaza with a job.

SHABAN: Who's working in Gaza now? Some private sector, some banks, insurance company, 2,000 to 3,000 civil society, another 2,000 to 3,000 working with international organizations. And the rest are just audience. They're watching us.

ESTRIN: People are living off their savings, and some are in debtor's jail. Many depend on family. Like Shaban says, he's giving financial support to his brother's son and three of his sisters and, sometimes, their husbands. Recently, a bakery in Gaza made local headlines. They had a job vacancy. They were looking for someone to help out with the baking.

MOHAMMED ADNAN: Just a worker, simple work.

ESTRIN: Manager Mohammed Adnan posted the job notice on Facebook and got about 3,000 applicants in 24 hours. Many of the applicants were overqualified, with university degrees, which is common in Gaza.

ADNAN: A lot of them academic - baccalaureous dablum (ph). The biggest one is a majester (ph) in math.

ESTRIN: An MA in math?

ADNAN: We didn’t know what to do.

ESTRIN: The job pays $8 a day for a 12-hour workday. The Facebook post raised hopes and left thousands disappointed.

ADNAN: Because a lot of people - they be sad because of this post. They didn't have work. And when they see there's something, they be sad.

ESTRIN: Unemployment has helped fuel a wave of protests at the border with Israel. Hamas has worked on quelling the protests, and Israel has let in more aid and money into Gaza. Hamas says it's hiring thousands for new jobs, but they'll only be temporary.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "EL TORO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.