A few words about the man who inspired the story.
Noor is an imaginary character, but Mohammed Tilbani, a prominent businessman in Gaza and the proud owner of the Al Awda sweets factory, is entirely real. His life story echoes the events that have shaped the region over the last seven decades. The last ten years, those of the Israeli-imposed closure on the Gaza Strip, have been the most difficult of his professional life.
Tilbani founded the Al Awda factory forty years ago (al awda means ‘the return’). There isn’t a child in Gaza who wouldn’t recognize the taste of Al Awda ice cream, wafers and biscuits sold in sweet shops and kiosks throughout the Strip. The company is constantly reinventing itself and introducing new products.
Mohammed Tilbani was born in 1952 in Maghazi Refugee Camp in Gaza. His family is originally from the al-Sharia area (in the Negev/Naqab), where the community of Netivot is located today. His parents arrived in Gaza as refugees in 1948. After the war of 1967 and the opening of the border in the 1970s, Tilbani, like tens of thousands of other young people from Gaza, went to work in Israel. In 1977, he took the money he had saved up as a construction worker and later a contractor, and opened a small, home-based, sweet-making workshop. At first, this consisted of no more than a few trays and bowls used to produce sweets, which were wrapped and sold to stores in the Strip.
In 1980, Tilbani managed to buy a few second-hand machines in Israel and opened an actual factory in the town of Deir al-Balah. He started out making wafers and sweets, gradually expanding to offer a wide variety of confectionery. In 2000, he invested in an ice cream factory and began manufacturing ice cream and popsicles. At its peak, Al Awda factory employed 400 people, marketing 60 percent of its products in the West Bank and 5 percent in Israel.
On May 30, 2007, a truck left the Al Awda factory in Gaza for the West Bank, in what would be its final delivery out of Gaza to this day. In June 2007, following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel closed the crossings to outgoing goods, stopping Al Awda’s trade with the West Bank and Israel altogether. Israel still forbids the sale of processed food from Gaza in the West Bank and in Israel, ten years later. To be precise, a grand total of two trucks bearing goods exited Gaza for the West Bank between 2007 and 2014. Both carried date bars made by Al Awda, which were distributed to schoolchildren in the West Bank – a special project by the World Food Programme which was approved by Israel as a one-off gesture.
The closure may have restrained Tilbani’s ambition, but it could not suppress it entirely. In June 2014, for instance, he shipped 2.5 tons of biscuits to Italy just so that he could learn how to operate a packing machine he had purchased for the factory. As unlikely as it sounds, it was easier to send the biscuits abroad than obtain a permit from Israel for an Italian technician to enter Gaza and train the factory’s employees.
In late July 2014, in the midst of Operation Protective Edge, Tilbani’s factory sustained a direct hit. Due to the shortage of water in Gaza, a fire that broke out at the factory as a result of the bombardment burned for two days. Because of the difficulties involved in bringing supplies into Gaza through Kerem Shalom Crossing, Tilbani stored enough materials in stock to last for six months of operations. The fire destroyed everything, including equipment, machinery and thousands of liters of fuel reserved for the generators used by the factory during regular blackouts.
Today, at 65 years old, Tilbani continues to strive for growth and innovation, working creatively to produce new products, use new manufacturing techniques and develop new markets. These days, he is working on establishing a second factory in Hebron, which would allow him to sell products in the West Bank once more. Seeing as he cannot bring the components needed to build new production lines into Gaza, and because Israel still prohibits the sale of processed food from Gaza in the West Bank, opening another branch of Al Awda is the only way of returning to the market in the other part of the Palestinian territory. The investment is cause for worry, even for an experienced businessman like Tilbani: “What if my exit permit is revoked? How would I be able to run the new factory?” He describes the bold efforts devoted to building and expanding a viable business and providing work for numerous employees under conditions of such uncertainty. The survival, let alone success, of the factory depends on its owner’s freedom of movement, and this freedom is at the mercy of the Israeli authorities. The story of Tilbani and Al Awda is, if you will, an allegory for the Palestinian economy and of life as a resident of Gaza.
Unlike the character in the animated film, the real Tilbani has an heir. One of his thirteen children runs the factory with him, and another is studying engineering abroad. Tilbani’s son used to accompany his father on business trips to the West Bank and abroad, until last year when Israel revoked his senior merchant permit and claimed he was under a “security block.” He can no longer travel; no one knows why, and there is no one to ask. Now Tilbani the father has to take care of business outside Gaza on his own, and continues to travel, despite his age. Just like his cartoon-animated counterpart, he has no intention of giving up. “I don’t like blood and I don’t like wars. I like to build things,” says Tilbani.
Children like Noor, that is, her real-life counterparts, deserve a better future than the one currently in store for them. Gaza’s young population is made up of children who have big dreams and big talents; of future factory managers, doctors, engineers, artists, teachers, athletes and musicians. All of this potential can, and should, be realized to benefit both Palestinian society, and the region as a whole. What stands in the way isn’t natural disaster or fate – it is Israel’s failed policy of closure. Some falsely believe the closure is motivated by Israel’s security considerations, when in fact, it contradicts the security paradigm subscribed to by the very system that employs it. There is neither justice nor wisdom in driving a wedge between young people and their dreams. After fifty years of occupation and ten years of closure, no time is better than the present for change.
The Gaza Strip is just a short distance away from Israel’s major cities. The stacks of Ashkelon’s power plant can be seen from almost anywhere in Gaza, and Israeli communities adjacent to the perimeter fence can easily be seen from within the Strip. The pollution of Gaza’s seawater by untreated sewage flowing into the sea due to Gaza’s acute electricity shortage impacts Israel as well. Earlier this year, two beaches in Ashkelon were closed to swimming due to contamination. Life in Ashkelon and other neighboring communities couldn’t be more different than life in Gaza, and yet their fate is inseparable.
Noor, the heroine of this clip, has a grandmother who lives in the West Bank. Under the closure imposed by Israel, relatives who are split between the two parts of the Palestinian territory can’t meet other than in “exceptional humanitarian circumstances,” such as the wedding, death or a severe illness of an immediate family member. Just having grandma over for a casual visit is nothing short of a fantasy for children like Noor.
Most residents of Gaza cannot leave the Strip at all. Israel does not allow Gaza to build and operate an airport or sea port, and imposes a strict and inflexible permit regime. Travel abroad via Israel for academic studies, business, professional development, or for family reunification requires a permit. Rafah Crossing has been mostly closed since mid-2013.
Gaza’s power grid has been in a dire state for years. Before the current electricity crisis began in April 2017, residents received electricity in cycles of eight hours of power, followed by eight hours of blackouts. In April, the fuel for Gaza’s sole power plant ran out, and the plant was shut down for several weeks, due to an internal Palestinian political dispute. In June, Israel approved a request by the Palestinian Authority to reduce the supply of electricity sold and provided to the Strip. Consequently, and even once the power plant resumed operations running on fuel purchased from Egypt, Gaza residents receive between four to six hours of power followed by at least 12 hours of outages. The acute shortage of electricity impacts factories, hospitals, schools, shops, and homes, and has caused Gaza’s failing infrastructure to deteriorate even further.
After the closure on Gaza was imposed in 2007 and up until 2014, the sale of goods from Gaza in its traditional and closest markets – Israel and the West Bank – was forbidden. Following Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Israel declared that the sale of certain goods from Gaza in Israel and the West Bank would be allowed. Processed foods are not included in the short list of permitted goods, so Mohammad Tilbani can’t resume sales in the West Bank, where he used to sell the majority of his products. This policy hinders economic growth in Gaza; it is very difficult for manufacturers to develop their businesses under such restrictions, and the situation discourages others from joining the industrial sector.
Al Awda factory was shelled during Operation Protective Edge, and has not been fully rebuilt since.
Gaza’s population is very young: Forty-two percent of its residents are children under the age of 15. Many of these young people, just like the fictional character of Noor, are highly ambitious, industrious and creative. They could build a completely different future for Gaza and for the region, as a whole, if only the policies toward Gaza gave them a chance to flourish.
Israel tightens the closure on the Strip following the Hamas take-over in June, closing Karni Crossing and stopping entrance and exit of goods, as well as movement of people. In September, it declares Gaza a “hostile entity.” Israel ostensibly devises formulas for calculating the minimum caloric intake needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis, reduces the amount of fuel and electricity sold to Gaza, and limits the fishing zone to three nautical miles off shore.
Operation Cast Lead begins in December. Gaza’s power station is hit once again. Extensive damage to residential and government buildings, as well as electricity, sewage and water infrastructure. Hundreds are killed and thousands injured.
Israel releases a protocol which effectively prohibits Palestinians from Gaza from moving to the West Bank for family unification.
Israeli navy takeover of Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, ends with the killing of nine activists on board. International pressure and investigations follow. Israel lifts most restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into Gaza, with the exception of “dual-use” items, and allows the entry of construction materials for international organizations only. Limited export abroad from Gaza begins.
Israeli air force strikes a Gaza tunnel. Throughout the year, smuggling through tunnels running from the Sinai desert to Gaza intensifies. Rafah Crossing operations expand greatly after the Muslim Brotherhood rises to power in Egypt, and it remains open most of the time, allowing Gaza residents to travel to and from Egypt.
Operation Pillar of Defense begins in November. Israel subsequently increases the fishing zone to six nautical miles off the coast and declares farmers will be allowed to approach up to a distance of 100 meters from the border.
The discovery of a tunnel near the Israeli kibbutz community of Ein Hashlosha in September brings an end to a very brief interval during which Israel allowed construction materials to enter Gaza for the private sector. All construction materials are banned. Unemployment soars. Over the course of the year, Egypt destroys most Sinai smuggling tunnels and frequently shuts down Rafah Crossing.
Operation Protective Edge begins in July - the deadliest and most destructive round of fighting in Gaza to date. Operation ends in ceasefire. The GRM is established and more construction materials are allowed to enter Gaza. Permits for family visits in the West Bank are somewhat increased. The ban on the sale of Gaza goods in the West Bank is lifted in November.
Israel allows limited sale of Gaza produce in its own territory for Jews who observe shmita (practice by which Jewish-owned land must lay fallow). Rafah Crossing opens for only 32 non-consecutive days throughout the year.
In March, Israel bans cement designated for Gaza’s private sector from entering for almost two months. Over the year, thousands of merchant permits given to Gaza residents are revoked, and they are denied travel to Israel or the West Bank. Security refusals increase.
The first half of the year sees a drastic drop in exits of Palestinians through Erez Crossing, and especially exits of merchants, evidence of a further tightening of the closure.