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The story of an Israeli businessman and a Palestinian tailor in Gaza

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now the story of an Israeli businessman and a Palestinian tailor in Gaza. The two men were in business together until October 7. The Israeli looks forward to a day when that trade will resume. The Palestinian is just hoping he will survive a war in which he has lost everything. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ancient port city of Jaffa is bustling these days, and the war in Gaza feels very far away, though it's only an hour drive to the south.

MICHAEL FORMAN: How you guys doing? My name is Mike Forman. The name of my store is Made In Israel.

KELEMEN: Michael Forman is a 46-year-old businessman with tattoos up and down both arms and a big presence on this block. He says, when he first got into business, Israel had settlements in Gaza, and he started working with tailors there.

FORMAN: They are very professional over there with sewing. They're around the Middle East. There's a lot of factories over there that's sew clothes, and they're one of the best in the area.

KELEMEN: And labor was cheap. But after Israel pulled its settlements out of Gaza and Hamas came to power, trade was cut. Then there was a new twist. Forman says, a few years ago, Israel started encouraging clothes-makers to get back into business in Gaza.

FORMAN: And they told us to reopen the factories and start sending clothes to be sewn there because the slogan was, hands that sew don't dig tunnels.

KELEMEN: He got back in touch with Palestinian tailor Aboamad Matar, and they started making clothes again in Gaza for a store called Made In Israel.

FORMAN: It was amazing. It was like - again, like we never stopped.

KELEMEN: He says Matar, who ran the factory in Gaza, would come to Tel Aviv a few times a week, and business was great - that is, until the Hamas-led attack on Israel October 7. Israel vowed to rid Gaza of Hamas, which Forman says is easier said than done.

FORMAN: You know, it's like a root canal. Like, once you open it, you don't actually know how deep it goes.

KELEMEN: For more than six months now, Israeli strikes have destroyed much of Gaza, including Matar's home and factories. Our producer, Abu Bakr Bashir, reached the Palestinian tailor by phone to hear how he's doing.

ABOAMAD MATAR: (Through interpreter) I have no idea what to do next. I kept moving from one place to another - four times. Where else should I go?

KELEMEN: For now, he's in Rafah, along with over a million Palestinians who have fled other parts of Gaza. He lives off international aid whenever he can find it, and he and his family are crammed into a U.N. school. As Israel threatens a ground incursion in Rafah, Matar has nowhere to go.

MATAR: (Through interpreter) I have no cash to pay for travel. All my cash was invested in the business.

KELEMEN: Most of his business contacts in Israel won't answer their phones now, though he did manage to send Forman a picture of the rubble that was once his factory. Forman says, eventually, he hopes to get back into business with Matar.

FORMAN: Of course, the minute that everything is free, I'll rebuild. I'll send money. I'll do whatever is needed because, again, they're very highly skilled at sewing.

KELEMEN: An hour south of here, where the Palestinian tailor shelters with his family, Aboamad Matar is counting his losses, not thinking about the future.

MATAR: (Through interpreter) I cannot think of what to do next. I just can't.

KELEMEN: He worries about the dozens of employees who depended on him and on his clothing business, all lost in the rubble in Gaza.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.