The infrastructure of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is designed to have a negative impact on the lives of Palestinians, and it does. The dire situation has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. No doubt to the delight of the Israelis, there can be no place easier to lock down than the occupied Palestinian territories.
Although necessary, the drastic preventative measures had dire consequences for the already high unemployment rate in Palestine; it has now gone through the roof. Businesses across all sectors have been hit hard, especially tourism and hospitality.
However, it hasn't been all doom and gloom for everyone. Engineering student Issa Haj Yasin saw a gap in the market and set about filling it with his mobile business, the Hotdog Van. Based in Ramallah, Yasin opened his first van before the pandemic to provide himself with an income to cover his study and living expenses.
"I was studying at Birzeit University and worked at a restaurant making sandwiches, but I wanted to start something different on the campus," he explained. "I had originally wanted to start my own coffee shop but it was going to be too expensive." Then he thought about a food van, which was affordable. "And since there are no places here in Palestine serving hotdogs even though they're common around the world, I decided to be the first to open a Hotdog Van."
The business stopped in the first months of the crisis when the total lockdown was imposed but reopened even as the pandemic worsened and outdoor dining was in demand. Now his business has more than doubled in size.
"I've employed six students who are working in two vans, and I am preparing a third van that is going to have another four new employees," Yasin pointed out.
Buying street food is preferred over-ordering and waiting for food indoors. His customers know that social distancing is easier, and so there is less risk of infection.
Yasin's first orange Hotdog Van is stationed behind Nelson Mandela Square, a popular spot which families drive past when returning from road trips. The second van is parked at the university.
"Customers just park up, wear their masks, take their hotdogs, and go. It's very popular with school children; when they see it in the street they get excited and run towards the van."
The Hotdog Vans are classic VW campervans. "There is no vehicle like this here; the design and colours. All the elements of the van are perfect."
The 27-year-old entrepreneur is now planning a fourth van, but this one will be the Sugar Van selling desserts ranging from marshmallow ice creams to creamy frozen yogurts and chocolate and strawberry waffles. It will mean a few more jobs for fellow students.
"Being able to provide jobs to students like me who are struggling to look after their families along with paying their university fees is what makes me more ambitious to expand my business," said Yasin. This is important in the current climate as many employers are laying off their workers. "It's having a devastating impact."
One of his colleagues used to work at a hotel in Jerusalem, which closed down due to the lockdown. "He was close to having a breakdown so asked if he could work with me. I took him on right away."
Although his degree course is normally five years, Yasin is in his eighth year of studying because he couldn't keep up with his tuition fees. He knows what it is like to struggle. Like him, he insisted, many Palestinians just want to get on and live a normal life. If a second lockdown is imposed, he thinks that businesses should be allowed to stay open.
"People should be allowed to work even if there's a lockdown because there's too much economic damage here. Too many of us are struggling. We need to learn how to work around Covid-19 instead of hitting both extremes of a complete shutdown or complete freedom."
With unemployment in the occupied West Bank reaching 26.6 per cent during the second quarter of 2020, compared to 25 per cent in the first quarter, he has a point. According to a recent report from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, those working in restaurants, hotels, and construction are the worst hit by the pandemic.
"When you see ten young people working hard to learn new skills together so enthusiastically, and know that they have families to feed even while going to university and making their semester payments, then I know that we are doing the right thing," concluded Issa Haj Yasin. "To see them happy and achieve their ambitions, that's what my target is now. That's what's going to make me open ten more vans in Palestine."
If the success of the first Hotdog Vans in Palestine is anything to go by, he will succeed.