Border clampdown forces Gaza's businesses into fight for survival

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Palestinian businessmen are having to fight physically to export goods from Gaza in the face of continued security hold-ups that they say have caused the already stricken economy to deteriorate further since Israel's withdrawal in August.

At the industrial zone next to the Karni cargo crossing point - the only one open between Gaza and Israel - increasingly desperate clothing manufacturers yelled abuse and wrestled with each other yesterday, competing to get their goods on the few trucks allowed to join the long queues at the terminal.

The mounting tensions at Karni are a dramatic illustration of a continuing economic crisis that Palestinian ministers are expected to raise forcefully with Britain's Chancellor, Gordon Brown, during his two-day Middle East visit beginning today.

With the Palestinian economy high on Mr Brown's agenda in his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the latter are likely to urge him to join those urging Israel to relax border restrictions to free the movement of goods across Gaza's borders.

A neatly printed notice on the wall of the main warehouse enumerates each tailoring workshop's place in the queue to put its crate of finished goods on the trucks allowed by Israeli security to trickle to the terminal at a rate about five times slower than its capacity allows.

But so infrequent are the trucks' visits because of the Karni bottlenecks that some furious factory owners repeatedly shouted accusations at others that they had surreptitiously substituted crates of their own goods for those allotted a rightful place in the queue.

One determined clothier, Munir Khalifa stood in front of a moving truck leaving for the terminal until he was dragged away by equally angry colleagues. Mr Khalifa, 36, said: "It wasn't even my goods that didn't get on the truck but I knew that someone had jumped the queue to get his on."

Clothing exports destined for the Israeli and West Bank winter season are already badly overdue because of closures at the crossing after two spates of militant rocket attacks in September and October. Another manufacturer, Nabil Bowab, said "I should be sending out 2,500 items a day, but I can only send 500 at most. That means that I am piling up stocks here of 12,000 items a week."

In arguments that erupted at the warehouse, most blamed Israeli security demands for causing the tensions, though one businessman shouted: "It is the Israelis and the Arabs as well. We should have a system here."

Fayq Blal, 55, chairman of the local clothiers' association said: "Everybody wants to get their products out and they think I have the key but I don't."

The tensions are also a harbinger of what could happen to exports of vegetables to be harvested late this month if talks which James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank, aims to broker do not succeed.

Western diplomats predicted, however, that separate but related talks between Israel and the Palestinians over a formula that would allow goods to cross into Egypt, and Palestinian people to cross both ways, under EU supervision, could be close to a breakthrough.

Saleh Abdul Shafi, a senior economic adviser to the Palestinian Authority, said hopes of a successful outcome to the Rafah talks had improved after a period in which "the Gaza economy has deteriorated since disengagement".

Asked about the visit of Mr Brown, who will be reminded of October UN figures showing Gaza's is the poorest sector of a Palestinian population in which at least half are thought to be under a poverty line of under $2.20 (£1.10) a day, he added: "What we would say to any European or international politician is to keep pushing Israel on the issue of access for goods and people to the outside world."

Mr Abdul Shafi said that did not exempt the PA from the obligation to address "issues directly related to economic development such as the rule of law".

Critical of the PA's failure to use "all force" against the perpetrators of recent kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza, he said he worried the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was still not sufficiently "aware" that "while there are kidnappings and television pictures of gangs and gunmen, no investor will invest".

But he said Mr Abbas's task in dealing with lawlessness and restraining the militant factions would be made easier by better access to outside markets. "We still have not made progress on passage between Gaza and the West Bank, or an airport. And no one is even talking at the moment about a seaport."