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GAZA (Reuters) - Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip not only restricts imports to the enclave but has also crushed traditional exports like fruit, flowers, furniture and ceramics.
But a year after a war between Israel and Gaza's Hamas Islamist rulers that left over 1,400 dead and the 4-year-old blockade firmly in place, some Palestinian entrepreneurs are turning to the Internet to gain access to new foreign markets.
Haitham Abu Shaaban of Tatweer Business Services, working with a local recording studio, has a new contract with Dubai telecoms company du to make personalized cell phone ringtones that he hopes will sell well across the Arab world.
The deal, which Abu Shaaban expects to go into production in a few weeks, will develop an existing business in Gaza that offers customers tailor-made musical jingles for their mobile phones by, he hopes, creating a wider customer base throughout the Middle East and greater levels of customization and service.
"The fact that Gaza has been under siege has stopped us from developing exports. But we thought there was a way around this," said Abu Shaaban, who has partnered with Mashareq Studios in the deal with du. Gaza singers are lining up at the studios to record ringtone songs in a variety of styles, from rap to jazz.
"We have taken forward the export of services through contracting local companies to export their work to other companies in the Middle East through the available tools, which is mainly, currently the Internet," Abu Shaaban told Reuters.
Servicing a growing market for interactive computer games and finding wider outlets for cartoon film producers working in Gaza are among other sectors with potential for export, he said.
While it is not uncommon in the region for people to pay a dollar or two for a ringtone that includes their first name, Abu Shaaban and Mashareq are banking on bigger revenues by offering du's 3 million subscribers a completely personalized service at higher rates, where singers would work customers' full names and special messages and wordings into one-off jingles.
Customers who like their cell phone crooning: "Oh, Mohammed! Please answer my call! Oh, Mohammed, Please don't ignore me!" will soon be able to commission even more elaborate messages.
The entrepreneurs are reluctant to put forecasts on earnings but among special features of the Gaza output is the ability to sing in not just a variety of musical styles but in the very wide variety of Arab dialects, from North Africa to the Gulf.
The recording studio's director, Rami al-Drimly, said his Gazan talent had already carved out a substantial market share of advertising and other commercial music beyond the enclave's limited borders. He believed the ability to export songs and do business over the Internet could bring yet more revenue in.
"Work is limited in Palestine and it wouldn't be worthwhile and profitable if we couldn't sell out in the world," Drimly said as he sat in front of an impressive sound system.
The Internet has made exporting services from Gaza possible.
"Gaza has its own excellent potential talent," Abu Shaaban said. "Through our work Arab clients have acknowledged that."
Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. An economic blockade imposed on borders with both Israel and Egypt has crippled Gaza's economy and has been tightened since Hamas Islamists seized control in 2007.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Paul Casciato