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Brisk Trade In Flags Of Militant Groups

by Virginia Quirke

Business fuelled by war instead of peace
(IPS) GAZA CITY -- It could have been the sale of a lifetime for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Flag Shop in Gaza City.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had placed a tall order. He wanted 20,000 Palestinian flags and 50,000 t-shirts which would be distributed to celebrate the Palestinian leader's promised declaration of Palestinian statehood last Sept. 13.

But most of those polyester flags and cotton t-shirts, emblazoned with a picture of "The President of Palestine," are gathering dust in a storage, while Palestinians have had to put their dreams of an independent state on hold.

Since last September, business in Gaza's only souvenir shop has been fuelled by war instead of peace.

"Palestinian flags are now flying in the name of the Intifada, not independence," says shop owner Tareq Abu Dayyeh.

The Palestinian Intifada -- or uprising -- against Israeli occupation erupted last Sept. 28 in Jerusalem. As the violence between the two intensified and the death toll mounted at an alarming rate, Abu Dayyeh put away his "peace" souvenirs. Instead he followed the political trend and enjoyed a brisk trade in more popular items; the flags of the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

In a bizarre twist, the green flag of Hamas, the main Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories that rejects Israel's right to exist, is produced in Taiwan and imported by an Israeli company registered in Tel-Aviv, according to its Hebrew language label.

The PLO flag shop has festooned Gaza city with the flags of most visiting world leaders since it opened in 1994. But the blue and white flag of Israel has not billowed in the Gaza streets for many years. Abu Dayyeh says that what little stock he has is tucked away at the back of his shop.

"People only buy the Jewish flag to burn," he admits.

While some flags have been purchased for destructive purposes, others are bought in an attempt to protect civilians' lives.

Inflatable Arafat head popular
In the wake of the June suicide bombing attack outside a Tel-Aviv disco, which killed 20 Israelis, Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip anticipated harsh Israeli retaliation.

Word quickly spread in Gaza that the United Nations offices were advised to identify their premises so as to avoid erroneous Israeli shelling and before long, the PLO flag shop was inundated with requests for the "protective" flags. In three days, Abu Dayyeh provided over 200 flags for local schools and hospitals.

Flags are his main business, but he also sells a variety of other souvenirs. Mauve colored "VIP" plastic passport holders are prominently displayed in one corner of his shop and Abu Dayyeh can list the names of the foreign diplomats who have made a purchase off the top of his head. "I remember them because they're our friends," he smiles.

Rows of glittering aluminum pictures of Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock fill another shelf. Palestinians like to hang a symbol of Jerusalem in their homes, even if Israeli restrictions prevent them from visiting the holy city that both parties want as their capital.

In his efforts to drum up support for the Palestinian cause, Yasser Arafat meets regularly with the world's dignitaries and likes to leave them with a souvenir of his homeland. Abu Dayyeh stocks a selection of suitable gifts for such occasions.

His best sale, he recalls with pride, was a mother-of-pearl map of Palestine, which the Palestinian leader bought for $1,000 and presented to Jordan's King Abdullah.

For more reasonably priced souvenirs, there is no shortage of badges and key rings portraying Palestinian and Israeli flags side by side. Abu Dayyeh says he bought thousands of them on the advice of an Israeli peace group, but not one of them has sold in the last 10 months.

"People don't believe in peace right now. They won't even take the badges for free," he jokes.

Outside his shop on the dusty street, silkscreen images of Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein, President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat flutter together peacefully in the breeze.

When asked why President George W. Bush is not hanging outside with Hussein and Arafat, Abu Dayyeh is quick to respond.

"When Bush invites our president to Washington, then I will hang his image outside -- not before then," he says.

Since his inauguration last January, Bush has irked Palestinians by meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon while the Palestinian leader still awaits an invitation to the White House.

So as long as the Israeli-Palestinian fighting continues, few tourists will venture to Gaza to buy souvenirs. But there is one unusual item in the flag shop that appeals to the few foreign visitors, diplomats and journalists who pass through his shop -- an inflatable Arafat head.

Taken out of its wrapper and laid flat, the shape of this plastic balloon resembles that of a small tennis racket. Once inflated, Arafat's head, which is draped in his trademark checkered headscarf, takes form, narrowing gently at the neck so that it can be held in the hand.

A Palestinian living in the northern city of Manchester, England invented the popular souvenir and sent some samples to the PLO flag shop to test the waters. Pleased by what they saw, members of the Palestinian Authority ordered 10,000 more for distribution on the day Palestinians would celebrate their independent state.

With heavy heart, Abu Dayyeh has stored most of those balloons with the thousands of Palestinian flags and t-shirts that lie waiting in his warehouse.

For now, militant flags are in high demand and Abu Dayyeh will fulfil that need. But when he dreams, he longs for more peaceful times, when the air-conditioned busloads of tourists will return to the Gaza Strip and pull up outside Gaza's only souvenir shop.

"At the end of the day, I want to run a tourist shop," he says," and I want to sell souvenirs, not politics."

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Albion Monitor August 6, 2001 (

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