”The Concrete Ceiling”: How Gazan Businesswomen Struggle under Israeli Restrictions

Despite disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005 by removing its illegal settlements, Israel continues to maintain a total chokehold on Gaza in a myriad of ways. At times, Israel has displayed its control with violence, such as the Gaza War of 2008/09 (Operation Cast Lead), and the subsequent bloody Israeli offensives of 2012 and 2014. These acts of aggression have put Palestinians in an exhausting state of precarity: constantly rebuilding and constructing their infrastructure, often lacking the necessary materials and tools to do so.

Israel also controls the Gaza Strip by shutting its borders and curtailing the movement of people and goods. Current Israeli policies limit travel outside Gaza, and ban the export and import of many goods, including medical, food, educational, and building supplies. All of these modalities of closure and containment have drastically impacted the Palestinian economy, rendering it vulnerable to Israeli policies.

This month, Gisha, an Israeli non-profit organization working to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, released a report entitled “The Concrete Ceiling: Women in Gaza on the Impact of the Closure on Women in the Workforce.” The report discusses the limitations of the Palestinian economy –caused by Israel’s closure policies– as experienced by women in the workforce.

The report features interviews with Palestinian women in senior positions who discuss frankly the multiple effects of limitations that the Israeli occupation places on them. In addition to confronting gender inequality and confounding traditions that demand passive women, the interviewees demonstrate how women are subjected to policies that hinder their professional development and economic advancement. The term “concrete ceiling,” a play on the concept of the “glass ceiling,” is used to describe their reality: while a “glass ceiling” can be shattered, a “concrete ceiling,” is virtually impenetrable.

“Concrete ceiling” accurately describes the working conditions of women in Gaza because it speaks to institutional, structural, and physical limitations placed upon the population by an external force. In the face of literal and figurative concrete barriers, the population feels powerless to take charge of their own lives, whether individually or collectively. A primary limitation is the difficulty of travel.

Historic Palestine is a small region: the distance between Gaza City and Jerusalem is less than 50 miles, and the distance between Gaza City and Ramallah is about 51 miles. While Gaza is relatively close to Jerusalem and Ramallah, Palestinians cannot travel between these two cities without difficult-to-obtain special travel permits. Even with such permits, they encounter numerous Israeli checkpoints, making travel over such short distances prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

According to the Gisha report, Israel began allowing certain products out of Gaza in 2014. The easing of exports, however, only benefited wealthy businessmen by allowing only a handful of traders to obtain travel permits outside of Gaza. As the Gisha report notes, only two percent of permits go to women, because they work primarily in non-governmental agencies, public agencies, or small businesses. So, these women rarely meet the criteria set to obtain these permits. Permit applicants must demonstrate that they are exporting goods from a highly selective and ever-changing list, which includes certain produce, textiles, wood, and furniture, and that they are able to cover the high cost of transporting goods.

The report highlights the experiences of six women, who share their concerns about Israeli limitations on travel to other parts of the Palestinian territories. Removal of such limitations would enable them not only to access networking opportunities, but also to expand their businesses and send employees to specialized trainings not available in Gaza. For example, Riham al-Wahidi runs a business consulting firm and encounters obstacles in growing her business simply because she cannot meet clients outside the besieged Strip.

Suha Khader, director of the Gaza district of al-Quds Bank.

Suha Khader, a banker, works for the Palestinian Stock Market and represents the Gaza district of Al-Quds Bank. After having relatively consistent and regular access to a permit that allowed her to travel to the West Bank, she was suddenly and inexplicably flagged for “security reasons,” and was forbidden from attempting to renew her travel permit for 12 months. Khader has no recourse in addressing this problem and she is unable to do her job representing the district bank’s interests to the bank’s management and leaders because all meetings take place in the West Bank.

Maha Abu Sidu sells embroidered items, but has encountered numerous problems that stymie her efforts to grow her business into a larger and more lucrative enterprise. She has to rely on selling her products online and through the postal service, which is not reliable in Gaza. Abu Sidu cannot attend events and fairs where she would be able to exhibit her products, find new materials and ideas, and network with others selling similar products.

Other Gazan businesswomen face similar obstacles. Hiba al-Tamimi’s information and communications technology business cannot grow since she cannot send her employees outside Gaza for necessary training. Sabah al-Aweisi faces a similar problem with her employees at daycare centers. Maha al-Masri works with women in the agriculture sector, who cannot expand their businesses because not only is the Gaza market too small, but they cannot export their produce to the West Bank or Israel.

Sara Roy, a leading expert on the Palestinian economy and a senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, has written extensively on the Palestinian economy and has repeatedly argued that Israel’s manipulative control of Gaza and the West Bank–and by extension the Palestinian economy – has exacerbated poverty and precarity in the occupied Palestinian territories. In her book, The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development, Roy coined the term “de-development” in which she argues that Israel’s policies have caused a continuous downward spiral in Gaza, preventing the region from ever becoming autonomous by having a viable economy. Roy maintains that the 2005 Israeli disengagement was the final step in the process of de-development: “given the policy of economic warfare against Gaza, it is but a short step from the goal of Gaza’s isolation and disablement to that of its abstraction and deletion(p. xxix).

Palestinians in Gaza collectively suffer economically, politically, and socially from Israel’s closure policies. Gisha’s report draws attention to a sometimes forgotten segment of Gaza’s population: women professionals. Although the report is unique and informative, its authors might have included more discussion about Israel’s policies regarding travel permits issued to women in general.

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About Rasmieyh Abdelnabi 1 Article
Rasmieyh Abdelnabi is a doctoral student of sociology at George Mason University. Abdelnabi’s M.A. thesis focused on the grassroots mobilization efforts of women activists in the occupied Palestinian territories. She recently returned to the United States after conducting research and teaching in the Middle East for the last 5 years.

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