“This is called Sudoku,” the salesgirl says.
She slides the board out of a square red box.
“You have to put the numbers in the right place, but you can’t have more than one of each number in each row, in any direction. You see?”
Her audience, a curious nine-year-old with unruly pigtails, is trying to look attentive, but is distracted by a shiny trinket that beckons her from across the counter.
The girl’s parents, an Israeli couple in their forties, draw on the diversion to assess their purchase.
“It’s a problem,” the mother says. “There’s just so much. You can’t see the forest for the trees.”
The gift-shopping frenzy caught this family relatively early, more than two weeks before Hanukkah. Most Israelis do not embark on their toy quest until three, perhaps four days before the Jewish Festival of Lights begins.
So, what do Israeli parents seek in a toy gift?
“First of all, it has to be something she can play with on the Sabbath, because we’re observant,” the mother says. “And of course price is important. I won’t spend 120 shekels when I can spend 50 shekels on something that’s just as good.”
In theory, December is peak season for the toy industry in the Middle East.
Hanukkah, Christmas and the Muslim festival ‘Id Al-A’dha converge this year, sending parents to the malls in droves.
Israelis have an abundant selection of toys to suit different pockets and tastes, but Palestinians have far more limited options in the run-up to the Muslim and Christian festivities.
“Toys are not a basic need,” say Nezar Koheil, the owner of a toy factory in Gaza. “Poor people aren’t looking to buy toys. They have other needs. They need to drink and eat.”
Koheil, who also imports toys from the Far East, expects sales to increase over the holiday, but only marginally.
The economic hardship in the Palestinian areas, and especially in Gaza, means that children’s playtime is a low priority.
This will be the first ‘Id Al-A’dha since the hardliner Hamas movement won the legislative elections last January. Their rise to power produced a freeze in most international aid to the Palestinian Authority.
The dire situation is compounded by the frequent closures of Gaza’s crossings, imposed by Israel for security reasons.
Transport fees, and the cost of storing imported toys in Israeli warehouses, in the event that Gaza’s crossings are closed, can push prices up considerably.
“If in previous years someone bought a football for five shekels [$1.20], this year they’ll be buying the same football for 10 shekels,” Koheil says.
Israeli calculations put the Palestinian toy industry at between $18 million and $23m., based on local production and import costs.
In comparison, the annual sales of the Israeli toy industry in pre-1967 Israel are approximately 650 million shekels ($150m.), according to the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce (FICC).
In both areas, local production accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of the industry.
About 15 percent of the annual sales in Israel are made over Hanukkah.
The product typically dominating Israeli toy stores is the traditional dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on it. Beyond that, store shelves are laden with dolls in all shapes and sizes; toy cars; computers games; brain teasers; puzzles; even Monopoly is making a comeback, in electronic form.
Palestinians, on the other hand, are resorting to toys that are cheap and accessible. The toys are poorly constructed and many lack educational content.
“Footballs, dolls and toy guns,” says Muhammad Maridi, the owner of a toy store in Ramallah, when asked about the most popular items.
The war-game theme appears to be the norm throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
“When I look in the streets I see that most of the children aged six to 12 are playing with plastic guns, explosives and the likes,” Koheil says. “They want to express, in some way or another, what they’re feeling. They’re also the cheapest toys around.”
Aryeh Margaliot, the manager of Rosenfeld Toys on Jerusalem’s busy Jaffa Road, has self-imposed limits on this issue. His business caters for diverse clientele – Jewish, non-Jewish, secular and ultra religious, and the collection includes everything from scantily dressed Bratz dolls to puzzles of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem.
But he does not sell toy guns.
“I used to sell them on Purim. I’m not enthusiastic about this merchandise because people can abuse it and use it to stage a robbery,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll be tempted and I’ll sell a few, but I’m really not into it.”
But to assume the guns are exclusive to the Palestinian areas would be naïve.
Military toys are a staple product of the toy industry in Israel and their sales have even increased in recent years, says Avi Katz, who heads the toy division at the FICC. Games of this nature can account for up to 10 percent of the industry, he says.
Katz notes a “dramatic increase” in sales of military-related toys, which he says was undoubtedly connected to the precarious security situation in the region.
Margaliot relies on a mostly affluent Jewish clientele and is faring well. But his Israeli peers in the Arab sector are not as fortunate.
“In the past, we’d start selling Christmas toys in October. Now it’s December and, unfortunately, nothing is moving,” says Zohair Isbanyoli, a Christian toy supplier based in Nazareth who works with the Israeli Arab sector and several clients in the West Bank.
Isbanyoli is stuck with a surplus of Santa Claus dolls, which he simply can’t sell.
“We usually order a container [about 1,500 pieces] of Santa Clauses each year. But I’ve been selling the same stock for the third year running,” he says.
He attributes the sluggishness to the poor economic situation of Israeli Arabs – Christians and Muslims alike – a condition that, he says, has deteriorated in recent years.
While Christmas is traditionally associated with exclusive toys, this year, the target toys in Nazareth are simple and cheap.
“I import toy guns, unfortunately, and I sell them. It’s legal, but it’s against my nature,” he says.
Koheil, too, is not oblivious of the problematic nature of toy guns.
“Personally, I teach my kids not to buy these kinds of toys because I don’t want it to negatively affect their mental state,” Koheil says. “I try to get them accustomed to other toys which can develop their minds, such as Lego.”
However, in the same breath, he admits that compared to most Gazans, his relatively comfortable financial situation enables him to be more selective in the toys he chooses for his children.
Thought-provoking games are a hit in the Israeli toy stores, and there are several Israeli companies manufacturing brainteasers.
Khalid Al-Hajj, a toy-store owner in Ramallah, says he sells mind-games in bulk to schools and institutions, but not to individuals. Computer games are also absent from his shop. They are simply too expensive, he says.
In Israel, the rise in toy consumption is reflected in the weight thrown behind the advertising industry during the festival season.
Toys “R” Us in Israel is putting nearly a quarter of a million dollars into a campaign aimed at the Jewish, Muslim and Christian sectors in Israel, nearly twice as much as the company spends during other months of the year, says Anat Nativ, VP of marketing for the company in Israel.
Toys “R” Us holds 33% of the toy market in Israel.
Kfar Ha-Sha’ashuim, an Israeli chain, which also holds nearly a third of the market, is spending $400,000 on a marketing campaign this year, a hefty chunk of the company’s $1.8m annual advertising budget.
The company usually spends $150,000 on its Hanukkah advertising. This year’s campaign was inflated because of the surplus of products in the market.
“Many toy companies closed down this year, so we’re trying to benefit from what we have,” says Yael Swisa, Kfar Ha-Sha’ashuim’s advertising manager.
This is the first time the chain is running such a large-scale advertising campaign, which is running on two commercial television stations as well as in the national and local press.
The campaign is publicizing a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on many of its products, pushing brand names such at Bratz dolls and Dora the Explorer accessories.
The fact that many Israelis are living on a low income is significant, and the chains try to suit all pockets, but Swisa says cash-strapped parents will often spend the money anyway.
“Children are a very strong buying power and frequently the parents simply can’t resist. You may think that a mother won’t spend 150 shekels ($35) on a doll, but many do.”
Israeli toy chains estimate that the average Israeli parent will spend between $16 and $35 on gifts for each of their children.
Palestinian parents will be spending about $14 on each gift if they can afford it, says Labib Zayed, general manager of the Ramallah-based Logo Advertising Company.
But advertising activity in Gaza and the West Bank hardly budges in the run-up to the Muslim festival. Toy giants such as Toys “R” Us are nowhere to be found in these areas as the industry is comprised of neighborhood stores with small-business budgets.
The advertising relies on word of mouth, flyers or local billboards, Zayed explains.
In the Israeli Arab sector, the festivals are usually “crazy time,” according to Bashar Maddah, who heads the Arab section at the Migzarim advertising company.
It is hard to estimate the advertising expenditures in this sector because the focus is narrow and advertising activities are hard to monitor. Nevertheless, he estimates the ad industry expands by as much as 100% during the season.
While Israeli and Palestinian parents are seeking ways to save pennies, their American counterparts can be far more liberal with their checkbooks.
The commercialization of Christmas and Hanukkah has become an issue of debate in the U.S.
Religious authorities fear the true meaning of these festivals is being hijacked by shopping sprees. According to the American Research Group, American shoppers will be spending, on average, $907 on gifts this season.
The more penny-wise approach of Middle Easterners is due, in part, to tighter budgets. Still, many take pride in maintaining the true essence of the holiday without having to deal with wallet-smashing temptations.
Are the toys safe?
If you happen to be looking for a cheap gift for a toddler in Israel, you’re in for a rough time. The local version of the Two-Dollar shop will have an abundant variety of toys on offer, but the ‘Not for children under three’ warning is applied abundantly – perhaps too abundantly.
Both Israelis and Palestinians apply a strict European standard on locally manufactured toys or games imported into Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The standard prevents, among other things, the inclusion of poisonous or flammable materials in toys and disallows small parts that could cause choking.
On the Israeli side, the standard is obligatory and applies to both imported goods and toys that are manufactured in the country, says Vered Oren, spokeswoman for the Standards Institution of Israel.
On the Palestinian side, importers are required to receive a standard certificate from the Israelis for all imported toy goods.
However, when it comes to toys manufactured in the West Bank or Gaza, their safety depends very much on the whim of the manufacturer, a source familiar with procedures in the Palestinian Standards Institution (PSI) says.
“If they want to work with high quality products, they will go with the standards,” the source says. But receiving a regulatory certificate from the PSI is optional, as the organization cannot audit every factory.
The PSI draws up the regulations, but the Palestinian Ministry of Economy often falls short of fulfilling its enforcement task. As a result, many cheap toys made in the West Bank and Gaza do not meet basic safety standards and pose a danger for the kids handling them.
Ideally, the Palestinians would like a system in which they control the monitoring of standards on both locally manufactured goods and imported products. However, in the current situation, Palestinian parents are dependent on Israeli scrutiny, and many will actively seek the Israeli standard certificate.