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Gaza's ubiquitous donkey carts are facing stiff competition after an influx of South Asia's iconic tuk-

First Published 2010-07-29

'It's much faster than a donkey'

Palestinian transport seeks to adapt to life under Israeli siege by relying on cheap smuggled fuel.

By Joseph Krauss - GAZA CITY

tuks, powered by ultra-cheap smuggled fuel, have hit the roads of the besieged coastal strip.

The auto-rickshaws, in which the front half of a motorcycle is welded onto a two-wheel trailer, are well-adapted to the four-year blockade that has transformed the local economy and daily life in the Palestinian territory.

And the phenomenon highlights one of the stranger side effects of the Israeli border closures -- that gasoline in Gaza is now cheaper than water.

Ahed al-Idrisi, a 29-year-old accountant who has made a living by buying and selling household goods since he was laid off in 2007, sold his 7,000 dollar (5,400 euro) car a few months ago to buy a 2,400 dollar high-end tuk-tuk.

The shiny blue contraption, with "Wadi Terbo" painted on the side and bubble wrap still taped to the shocks and headlights, gets 25 kilometres (15 miles) per litre and can traverse the coastal strip in a little over an hour, with the cost of gasoline rarely exceeding three dollars (2.3 euros) a day.

"Animal feed for donkeys is expensive because it comes from Israel. These days the cheapest thing in Gaza is fuel," he said.

Israel and Egypt largely sealed Gaza's borders in June 2006 when Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid and tightened the siege when the Islamist Hamas movement seized power a year later.

Since then a vast network of tunnels along the border with Egypt -- taxed and regulated by Hamas -- has supplied virtually all consumer goods, including heavily-subsidised Egyptian gasoline, to the territory's 1.5 million people.

These days a litre of gasoline pumped in from Egypt costs 50 cents (0.40 euros), less than a third of the price of a litre imported from Israel.

That in part explains the constant groan of gasoline-powered generators along Gaza's crowded streets, which keep fans and air conditioners running during the frequent power outages.

And it allows Abu Fayez Kali, 36, to support his family of 15 by driving his bright yellow tuk-tuk to farms across Gaza in order to buy chickens to slaughter and resell at Gaza City's Shajaiyah market.

"It's much faster than a donkey," he said as he sat in the covered trailer, the tuk-tuk parked in a line of wooden carts tethered to the beasts.

"A donkey would cost me 20 to 30 shekels (five to eight dollars) a day for feed. The fuel for this thing is just 10 shekels. And it goes 80 kilometres (50 miles) an hour," he said.

The tuk-tuks are mostly made in China, shipped through the tunnels in crates and reassembled in the border town of Rafah.

Most are of the motorcycle-trailer variety but some classic Indian-style tuk-tuks with pill-shaped cabins have also appeared recently. Unlike in cities and towns across South Asia, they are not yet used as taxis.

Bowing to international pressure in the wake of its deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid fleet, Israel said last month it would allow all civilian goods into the territory, but automobiles have not entered since 2007.

And although Gaza's supermarket shelves are stacked high with food and household goods, its private sector is mostly in ruins because of the closures, with virtually all factories shut down and unemployment topping 40 percent.

In recent months car dealers along Salaheddin Street, Gaza's main thoroughfare, have reluctantly rolled out the tuk-tuks in order to stay in business.

Mustafa Abu Warda, who sold cars in Gaza for nearly 30 years before the blockade, would like to return to his former trade and, like most Gaza businessmen, despises the informal tunnel economy.

"When we were selling cars brought in from Israel everyone benefited -- the dealers, the mechanics, the garages. Everyone had work. With the tuk-tuk, the only one who benefits is the tunnel owner," he said.

"He charges me 300 dollars for each tuk-tuk, and my profit margin is only 100 to 150 dollars. I'm practically losing money."

He nevertheless understands the appeal of his new product.

"Donkeys die. Tuk-tuks don't."

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