Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Penniless in Gaza

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By Avi Issacharoff 

In the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip there are still signs of the last Israel Defence Forces operation in the area. More “exposed” agricultural areas, the bombed bridge leading into the town and damaged homes. A visiting Israeli examined the bullet holes in the windows in astonishment. “Why did the soldiers fire at you?” he asked in shock. The owner of the house smiled in embarrassment. “It’s not the Jews, it’s the Kafarana family that fired on us during the war of hamulas (extended families),” he explained.

Misery for most, but money for Hamas officials 

Military operations in Gaza provide many Israelis and Palestinians with the ultimate explanation for the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip: the occupation is to blame. However, visits to Gaza and public statements by Palestinians, like Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad, who recently published an article calling on the Palestinians to own up to their mistakes, reveal a more complicated situation.

Many Palestinians dare to admit that the economic and social deterioration in the Strip is not the outcome of Israeli actions alone. The disintegration of Palestinian society and its institutions has also played an important role. Gazan society is returning to an era in which the government, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh or Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), does not solve problems; the sheikhs and mukhtars are the important mediators.

While the economic situation in Gaza is bad, almost shocking, it was not born completely in the Israeli and international economic boycott. As it turns out, there is money - but only for Hamas members. A prime example of this is the huge budget provided for Hamas-run schools in the strip. For Gaza residents, Hamas membership can assuage economic distress. The organisation manages to assist people and pay them allowances, while Fatah members are approaching bankruptcy. This is how a partial economic revolution has taken place: Those who receive salaries and can make it through the month are Hamas supporters, who traditionally came from weaker sectors of the population. The new poor are Fatah members.

The streets of Beit Hanoun are relatively clean. Municipal employees are not on strike here, as opposed to Gaza City, and garbage collection has continued as usual. There were also no strikes in Khan Yunis, Rafah and other cities. However, there is a strong stench in Gaza City, for which people blame Israel; Israel has been withholding money from the PA (and thus payment from the municipal employees.) Gaza City’s mayor, Majed Abu Ramadan, is identified with Fatah, and, as a result, the city received reduced budgets relative to other Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip communities. Therefore, the municipality employees in the city hastened to strike, while sanitation employees continued to work in other cities. The strike ended in Gaza as well, not because the salaries were paid, but because of agreements behind the scenes between the Gaza municipality and the Ministry for Local Government, which is controlled by Hamas.

A kilo of zaatar for 100 shekels

Gaza City’s dire economic situation is more evident among Fatah members in other areas as well. Hamas’ operational force, which numbers thousands of soldiers, receives the best equipment, regular supplies of food and drink and, according to Fatah members, a sizable monthly allowance. This fact has ignited the anger of members of the other security services, who have not received wages for nearly six months.

On September 12 they set out on a parade in the streets of Gaza. The thousands were led by a motorcycle bearing two armed men with yellow Fatah ribbons tied to their heads. The demonstrators fired into the air and sang loudly: “Go, go, ya Haniyeh, a kilo of zaatar is worth a hundred shekels.” [Ed. Note: Zaatar is an inexpensive mixture of thyme, sumac and sesame seeds generally eaten on bread.] This chant referred to Haniyeh’s famous statement upon assuming the premiership, in which he said that “if the siege continues, we’ll eat zaatar and salt.”

One of the participants, an officer in the preventive security force, Arafat al-Arini, explained that “the Haniyeh government must take responsibility. The government is not providing political hope, is not conducting negotiations with anyone in the world, and is making mistakes in its treatment of the security services.” Meanwhile, the cries become more hostile: “Go, go Haniyeh, the government needs real men.”

Arini says that Hamas caused the international community to lose interest in the Palestinian issue. “They aren’t even accepting the Arab initiative,” he says. An ice cream wagon that was making its way among the demonstrators did not manage to cool things down, and when the protesters arrived at the parliament building, they vented their anger against it.

“Hamas should fear the moment when [kidnapped Israeli solder Gilad] Shalit is released,” says a senior officer in one of the Palestinian security services. “Only then will its real problems begin. Everyone will expect a turning point, but without a change in the organisation’s policies, Israel will not remove the siege and the government will fall. The economic and security situation is only becoming worse, and with it, the corruption. During the era of Fatah rule, a special committee decided on appointments to government ministries. Now they appointed 11,000 civil service employees without a committee - only those close to the plate, relatives of ministers, friends and neighbours.”

Among other things, Hamas ministers have appointed 67 new directors and deputy directors to the government ministries, and another 300 assistants and advisers. “They are smuggling millions via the crossings and paying their people salaries. They have appointed 20-year-olds as deputy directors. There is great anger among the residents of Gaza, not only at the occupation, but also at the government that has destroyed Gaza,” said the officer.

The same officer claims that a Palestinian unity government will not serve Fatah, but will rescue Hamas. “They want a unity government because for them it’s the last opportunity to remain in power. That’s why Fatah must not join such a government.”

Abbas is actually the one person who is enthusiastic about the idea of a national unity government and is trying to convince Hamas to agree to it. “It’s not that he’s interested in rescuing Hamas,” explains a Palestinian commentator in Gaza. “Although Haniyeh has become somewhat weaker and his organisation is guilty of many negative phenomena, Abu Mazen knows that there is no substitute at the moment for a Hamas government except for the dismantling of the PA. Even if the government resigns and there are new elections, Fatah is so divided and weak that it will lose the elections again.”

Ramadan celebrations

In early September, 3,000 new visitors entered Gaza, young calves imported from Australia for Ramadan. A few thousand more are making their way to the strip at present, along with dozens of tons of hay that will serve them as food. The operation is being run by the Israel Defence Forces Coordination and Liaison Administration, which is located at the entrance to the Strip.

Its director, Colonel Nir Peres, must have one of the least enviable jobs in the Army. He has to manoeuvre between conflicting interests: the needs of the Palestinian population, on the one hand, and the security demands of the IDF and the Shin Bet security services. When the commercial crossings are closed, the Palestinians and the human rights organisations complain. When the crossings are open, the security officials complain about the dangers.

“At the beginning of April, we opened the Karni Crossing to exports. A few days later, a booby-trapped car that was supposed to carry out an attack at the crossing exploded on the Palestinian side. A few days ago we discovered another tunnel and only this week did we begin to renew exports. None of the human rights organisations that come to us with complaints asks why the terror organisations are doing that,” he explains.

Peres, who is a naval officer, looks as though he is still not quite used to a job that requires the skills of a politician. In early September an Israeli delegation from Physicians for Human Rights visited Gaza. They returned with severe complaints about the Israeli policy that prevents the sick from being treated in Israel and makes it difficult to transfer medical equipment to the Strip.

“The complaints are simply untrue,” he says. “In recent months there were 800 entries into Israel by the sick and those accompanying them. No medical equipment was held back. But, of course, an Israeli doctor who is used to the standards of Tel Aviv hospitals will come to the Strip and say that the conditions there are terrible.”

In their statement to the media, representatives of the Israeli organisation who met with Palestinian Health Minister Bassam Naim did not mention the initial policy of the Hamas government not to permit the exit of sick people to Israel because of “budgetary problems.” Miraculously, the Palestinian Health Ministry managed to find money to pay for the treatment of a few well-connected people in Israel. The father of one of the children whose treatment in Israel Naim initially rejected, said at the time that if Hamas were to draft 1,000 fewer soldiers for the “operational force” and use the funds for the Health Ministry, there would be no problem paying for his son’s treatment in Israel.

But, as noted, the occupation must be to blame.


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