GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Gaza's donkey carts _ slow, but cheap and essential for survival in this scruffy land _ have finally met their match. They are being edged out by an Asian import, a blend of motorcycle and miniature pickup truck.
Smuggled by the hundreds from Egypt in recent months, motor rickshaws, also known as tuk-tuks, have taken over congested streets of the Palestinian territory, in part because fuel has become cheaper than donkey feed.
Some just haul cargo. Others have been jazzed up with upholstered seats, colorful canopies and fringed curtains to serve as taxis, school buses or pizza delivery vans. They've become a badge of Gazans' ability to adapt to tough circumstances, including an Israeli border blockade and authoritarian rule by Hamas.
Tuk-tuks also have helped create some jobs, perhaps making a small dent in unemployment running over 30 per cent.
Ahmed Madhoun, who says he can't get a teaching job because he's not a Hamas supporter, bought a tuk-tuk four months ago for $2,200, or roughly what a day laborer would make in four months. Madhoun now earns between $8 and $14 a day distributing merchandise to shops and delivering UN food rations.
This week, Madhoun and other tuk-tuk drivers lined up outside the UN food distribution center in the Shati refugee camp where just a few months ago, donkey carts would have been waiting to take on sacks of rice and flour.
Economist Mohsen Ramadan said about 20 per cent of loan applicants at his microfinance agency want money for tuk-tuks.
Still, the overall economic outlook remains dim in the Gaza Strip. Economic activity picked up after Israel eased the blockade over the summer _ in response to international criticism over its deadly raid of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla _ and allowed in consumer goods. But growth is elusive because Israel, citing security concerns, restricts the import of construction supplies and key raw materials, and forbids most exports.
Israel and Egypt slammed shut Gaza's borders in 2007 after Hamas, an Iranian-backed group that has fired thousands of rockets at Israel, seized the territory.
At the height of the blockade, smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border were Gaza's lifeline. Smuggling has eased because consumer goods now come from Israel via a land crossing.
The tuk-tuks are still imported through the tunnels because Egypt, their waystation, does not allow trade with Gaza.
Tuk-tuks started appearing on Gaza's streets in significant numbers several months ago, with demand driven by cheap smuggled fuel. Once the first tuk-tuks were imported, their advantages quickly became apparent, generating more demand.
Gaza's new workhorse is a variation of, and shares a name, with the motorized tricycles used as short-distance taxis in Asia and Africa. The word tuk-tuk quickly found its way into Gazan Arabic, with an Arabized plural, ''takatek.''
Transporting passengers, especially children, has been banned as too dangerous, said Lt. Col. Ali al-Nadi of the Gaza traffic police, but people of all ages can be seen crowded into the little vehicles.
The ban hasn't stopped Shadi al-Ajel, who has been driving laborers for 25 cents per passenger. He equipped his tuk-tuk with upholstered benches and a canopy draped over a metal frame. Staying ahead of the competition, he decorated the interior with fringed, gold-colored curtains. He also advertised his family's paint business with posters stapled to the sides of the vehicle.
With winter approaching and car prices dropping now that Israel is allowing car imports, al-Ajel wants to exchange his tuk-tuk for a small van. Earlier this week, he displayed his vehicle at a dusty roadside market for used cars, motorcycles and tuk-tuks in Gaza City, saying he expected a good price because of all the extras he installed.
Many drivers take pride in upgrading their tuk-tuks, which consist of just the motorbike and a 4-by-6-foot (1.2-by-1.8-meter) metal platform with side rails sitting on two wheels.
Some use colorful tarps, like the Taboun Pizza parlor which chose a bright yellow canopy for its delivery tuk-tuk, with the metal base sprayed in red, the restaurant's colors. Others add custom-made plexiglass windshields.
The tuk-tuks also generate secondary business. Gaza's blacksmiths and mechanics, who have honed their skills of improvising during the blockade, are customizing and fixing them. A Gaza City driving school offers tuk-tuk classes, now that the government demands a special license, with scofflaws facing $50 fines.
Tuk-tuks aren't supposed to go faster than 50 miles per hour (80 kph) or carry more than 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms), said al-Nadi, the traffic cop. Those rules aren't always observed. There's been one fatal accident so far this year, and other scrapes are caused by excess weight or sharp turns, al-Nadi said.