GAZA CITY: Workers wrap and pack chocolates at Al Arees factory.—AFP
GAZA CITY: Workers wrap and pack chocolates at Al Arees factory.—AFP

THE Al Arees factory in Gaza city despite daunting obstacles churns out treats ranging from chocolate-covered biscuits to a Gazan version of a world famous spread, dubbed here ‘Natalia’. Al Arees’s products are Gazan but their components are not, as few of the basic raw ingredients are produced in the impoverished Mediterranean coastal strip. The factory relies on chocolate from as far as Argentina, sugar from African countries and dried eggs from the Netherlands. Israel controls all goods that enter Gaza, imposing a blockade that tightened after it was seized by Hamas in 2007. The exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas has escalated since last month after US President Donald Trump unveiled his Middle East peace plan. But amid rockets and mortars from Gaza and late night Israeli air strikes, the chocolate factories kept whirring.

Gaza has no airport. Goods for the strip are usually brought into Ashdod, an Israeli port around 35kms north of the strip. Getting them into Gaza requires patience and money. “I pay customs twice,” said Wael Ai, head of Al Arees, meaning once in Ashdod where Israel collects fees on behalf of the official Palestinian government based in the West Bank and then in Gaza to Hamas.

Nutella may be a global phenomena, but Gazans clamour for Natalia, their own version of a chocolate and hazelnut spread. Local factories also make Crimpos, a large marshmallow coated in a thick layer of chocolate. The treats are popular, but not necessarily profitable. Four hundred grams of Natalia sells for just three or four shekels (about a dollar) while Crimpos sell for as little as five shekels per box of 20. With Gaza’s unemployment rate at nearly 50 per cent, there is little space to raise prices domestically. And exports to more lucrative markets are largely banned by Israel. Despite ongoing tensions, Israel and Hamas have reached a series of agreements over the past year that have slightly eased tensions. That fragile accord led to an event in December which, for a Gazan producer, could fairly be described as momentous: for the first time in years Gaza exported sweet goods. Eight tonnes of Crimpos were cleared for export to Bahrain, crossing through Israel and the West Bank to Jordan, and onwards to the Gulf Arab state.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2020