Money for Gaza repairs in short supply

A money changer holds Jordanian dinars and Israeli shekels. About 40 of these money changers stood outside one bank in a major square in Gaza City.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Even though the polls are closed in Israel, today's election there is still really too close to call. It's going to come down to which of the major parties can put together a winning coalition.

Security was the very clear undercurrent during the campaign. Israel launched air and ground operations in Gaza last month in response to Hamas rocket attacks. The fighting took lives on both sides. In Gaza, it demolished homes and knocked out electrical systems. Reconstruction will inevitably be expensive. As it happens, the official currency in the Palestinian territories is the Israeli Shekel.

Daniel Estrin reports from Gaza, the shekel's quite scarce.


DANIEL ESTRIN: Before I made my way from Jerusalem to Gaza, I stocked up on shekels. A shekel is worth about 25 cents. But that's often academic. Because getting hold of shekels is very tough, as bank customer Khaled Abu Ghali found out on a recent visit to an ATM.

KHALED ABU GHALI: I will take 1000 shekel. No, my card gets out of my machine.

ESTRIN: What does it say on the screen?

ABU GHALI: It say here, There is no account in shekel. What you want to take, Jordanian dinar or dollar only.

ESTRIN: So there are zero shekels here. You can't even take out five shekels.

ABU GHALI : Even one shekel there isn't. (laughs)

And this is the Arab Bank, the biggest bank in Gaza. Khaled Abu Ghali laughs it off. But at another bank nearby, in the manager's office upstairs, there's one accountholder who's had it.

ACCOUNT HOLDER: You close the door and say that you don't have money. But this is my money. I'm going to sit here and wait until you give it to me.

The guy didn't even take a seat. He stormed off a few moments later.

Cash has been in short supply here since 2007. That's when the Islamist group Hamas forcibly took control of Gaza. Israel then imposed a strict blockade that limits trucks taking cash from bank headquarters in the West Bank to branches in Gaza.

Israel, the U.S. and the E.U. consider Hamas a terrorist organization and don't want money getting into its hands. Over the last few months, the shekel embargo has tightened. And Gaza-based economist Khaled Abdel Shafi says banks are at rock bottom.

KHALED ABDEL SHAFI: The problem is not just that cash is not coming in. It's that people that usually deposit cash in the banks are not anymore doing that. They are afraid that if they deposit, they will not be able to draw.

So Gazans today are putting their earnings everywhere else but in the hands of a bank teller. One taxi driver told me his wife sewed a secret pocket in his pillow to stash his cash. Others lock up their money in safe deposit boxes at the bank -- which makes bank managers want to pull out their hair. Their bank is full of cash they can't touch. The familiar problem of no liquidity. And little cash on hand for humanitarian aid groups.

Oxfam's John Prideaux-Brune explains.

JOHN PRIDEAUX-BRUNE: We went to the bank today to try and withdraw cash to complete our humanitarian programs in Gaza. When we got to the bank they said we could only withdraw 800 shekels. To complete our program, we need 350,000 shekels.

ESTRIN: That's not quite enough, is it?

PRIDEAUX-BRUNE: That's nowhere near enough, 'cause without cash we just can't do it.

This is where the lack of cash begins to have more long-term implications on the rebuilding of Gaza. Again, economist Khaled Abdel Shafi:

ABDEL SHAFI: If the cash problem is not resolved, it's nonsense to talk about reconstruction. How are you going to hire contractors, and contractors to hire workers, without cash?

U.N. workers recently brought cash into Gaza by car. It's a risky way to do business, and they just found out why. Last week, armed Hamas men stole hundreds of U.N. blankets and food aid. It's one more reason why Israel is hesitant to let in trucks full of cash. Until the cash shortage is resolved, says Abdel Shafi, the people of Gaza, desperate for homes and sewage systems to be restored, will pay a heavy price.

In Gaza, I'm Daniel Estrin for Marketplace.

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