Gaza under the siege

article published following an extended visit in February in Gaza for a month. An Arabic version is available in the newspaper “Thawra Dai’ma”  number 2:   http://prjournal.socialist-forum.org/content/gaza-under-seige

The last Israeli military offensive in March causing the deaths of more than 20 Palestinians and the ongoing electricity crisis prove that the Gaza strip is still not free from the Zionist occupation and its illegal siege imposed in 2006 by Israel after the victory of Hamas in the legislative elections, while Egypt closed the Rafah terminal to both human and commercial traffic when Hamas took complete control of the Gaza strip in June 2007. The Zionist state launched also a destructive military offensive on the strip in late December 2008 until mid January 2009, causing the deaths of more than 1400 Palestinians.

In 2010, the Egyptian government started to build an enormous subterranean steel wall along the border with Gaza, in order to block the tunnels, which according to the director of the UN Relief Works Agency 60 percent of Gaza’s economy depended on it at this period and may be more today. The Gazans have used the tunnels to undercut the international embargo upon their territory. This project has now been frozen by the Egyptian authorities following the fall of Mubarak.

The illegal siege was very slightly eased for some nutrition goods in June 2010, following the killing by Israeli commandos of nine activists who were trying to break the siege.

Today, the Egyptian authorities have slightly eased the siege to human traffic at the Rafah Border Crossing, allowing more Palestinians with Palestinian Authorities (PA) ID to enter and exit the strip.  A high number of Palestinians are nevertheless still forbidden to travel because their names are reportedly on an Egyptian travel-ban list, while on daily basis hundreds of Palestinians are delayed, exceeding very often few days and sometime a week, or are simply denied entry to Egypt.

The illegal siege on the Gaza strip has had catastrophic human, social and economic consequences. Gaza has been isolated from the rest of the world, depriving its roughly 1.6 million inhabitants of most basic commodities, including food, medicine, fuel and desperately-needed building materials. The population is still suffering from the siege in all aspects all of their life.  The refugees, who make up two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.5 million populations, suffered the most in this period from the blockade which condemned hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution. The number of people living on just over 1 dollar a day has tripled to 300,000 since the blockade was imposed and with many reconstruction projects still awaiting approval. Around 80 percent of Gazan households are reliant on food aid provided by international organizations. The Gaza strip remains today the region with one of the highest rate of unemployment and poverty in the world.

Contextualizing the article

First, one ought to reiterate the fact that Hamas has suffered enormous sacrifices that many of its leaders and cadres have paid by their lives. Hamas resistance was one of the main reasons in the departure of Israeli troops from Gaza in 2005 and of its defeat in the war against the people of the strip in 2008 and 2009.

In the same time, this article will focus on the Gaza strip and Hamas; and we will therefore not address the West Bank and the corrupt rule of the PA. This latter has limited the democratic rights of the Palestinians, while implementing neo liberal policies impoverishing the people as a whole. Repression against Hamas members and institutions, as well as any groups or individuals challenging its authority have been widespread in the West Bank.

The PA is also guilty of collaborating on security issues with Israel. The Palestine Papers revealed by Al Jazeera channel in January 2011 how deeply this collaboration went, including PA officials urging Israel to tighten the illegal siege of Gaza, efforts by the PA to block Israeli releases of Palestinian prisoners,  and secret committees to undermine the previous Palestinian national unity government established in 2007.

The PA has also been more interested in continuous and fruitless negotiations with Israel and collaboration with the international community, while still trying to weaken Hamas’ power.

This made clear; there are nevertheless number of issues that are subject to criticisms from Hamas’s rule in the Gaza strip and its policies.

Hamas in power

The Gaza strip has been under the authority of Hamas since 2007, following the political division between the Gaza and Ramallah when Hamas forces launched a military offensive in order to prevent an attempt of Fatah members to take power in the Gaza strip.

The initial objective of the illegal siege to weaken Hamas has actually resulted in the exact opposite: the Islamic movement is now dominating the Gaza strip politically, socially economically and on a security level as well with the assistance of the powerful and well armed Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas armed wing, turned into security services ensuring the control of Hamas on the territory.  Hamas has extended its power to nearly all sectors of society.

The tunnels, exceeding 1200, have been used to bypass the illegal siege imposed on the Gaza strip and allow the population to provide itself with a variety of necessary products. It has been used as a form of resistance against the siege. The tunnels economy has nevertheless been an instrument for Hamas to impose its power and political, socio economic changes in its favor.

The tunnels business or the tool of political hegemony

The tunnels’ business is under the control of Hamas as we have said, nothing that comes in or goes out is unknown by the Islamic resistance movement. The government of Hamas actually closed tunnels not respecting their rules, such as in 2010 when it closed at least five tunnels for smuggling tramadol, a drug medicine, and two tunnels for evading payment of tobacco taxes.

Following the overthrow of Mubarak, tunnels business exploded.

The Gaza strip has witnessed since the beginning of 2011 an “economic boom” according to a September 2011 World Bank report, GDP growth reach 28 % in the first six months of 2011. This growth nevertheless did not benefit the Palestinian of Gaza as we can see with large amount of the population still dependant on foreign aids, but primarily Hamas and people around the party.

Various sectors of the society, including agriculture, the hotel and restaurant industry, transport and manufacturing have seen growth in 2011. The labor market in 2011 was characterized by relatively significant growth in employment. The broad unemployment rate actually declined to 32.9 percent today from 45.2 percent in second-half 2010.

The public sector continued to expand as well, despite employment being firstly attributed to people close to Hamas, while the private sector employment grew by more than 50 percent, accounting for the vast bulk of growth.  Construction, commerce and agriculture constituted for more than 70 percent of all new job opportunities in this period.

The tunnels industry and the activities linked and or benefiting from it were the main factor in the surge in private employment, including increasing importation of much needed building materials and other productive inputs.  The Real estate sector was the main beneficiary of this situation. According to World Bank figures, construction in the first half of 2011 grew by 220 percent. By mid-2011, the number employed in Gaza’s construction sector had almost doubled over a year earlier.

The reconstruction and construction boom in Gaza has included various sectors from addressing housing demand pent up by five years of closure, renovation or building of new hotels, resorts, new malls,  and finally rebuilding the mosques and government offices Israel destroyed in the military offensive in 2008-2009.

The construction boom created a situation of high inflation in the real estate prices sector throughout the Gaza strip. At $5,000 per square meter, property in Jabalya, Palestine’s largest refugee camp, became a fraction less expensive than in Tel Aviv. These high prices have had consequences on young couples unable anymore to afford a house or an apartment. Hamas government has not dealt with this problem and has ignored it.

The informal economy provides for the wider imports, while the blockade continues to restrict exports, which today stand at just over three per cent of pre-blockade levels.

The tunnel economy has been the main reason behind this boom, estimated by Gazan businessmen at over $700 million annually, and has reinforced the power of Hamas on the Gaza strip.

Collectively, the tunnels constitute Gaza’s largest non-governmental employer and its largest employer of youth, amounting to around 25000 workers linked to it. Workers earn as much from burrowing to Egypt as Palestinians in the West Bank do building Israel’s Jewish settlements.

Hamas controls the imports through the tunnel and imposes taxes on nearly all the products coming in the Gaza strip. With around 80 percent of Gazan households reliant on food aid provided by international organizations, Hamas’ tax hikes have only added to the discontent. In the same time, , they did not increase the direct taxes on wealthy individuals and companies making high benefits which are limited to 17%, despite the socio economic crisis and high level of poverty .They instead decided to impose and increase indirect taxes on a vast variety of products which harm the great  majority of the people already in socio economic difficult situation.

The foreign aid is also given primarily to institutions and NGOs linked to Hamas, and only then to public institutions and other NGOs.

The Hamas government has created the Border and crossing Authority to regulate Gaza’s the tunnels economy. This authority is under the Interior Ministry control, and includes 300 Interior Ministry armed force, which patrols the Egyptian border on motorbikes and checks the papers of all those entering and leaving the closed zone. In addition to this, 200 customs officials, from the Economy Minister ‘Ala’ al-Rifati, oversees tariff payments, performing spot checks of cargoes to ensure compliance. Trucks have to register their merchandise to offices in the tunnels zone before leaving to destinations in the Gaza strip. All the trucks are weighted on an electronic machine and they then receive a printout results which they have to present when exiting the tunnel zone.

Among the quantities arriving daily by tunnel, according to UN figures collected from local merchants, are 800,000 liters (around 5,000 barrels) of fuel, 3,000 tons of gravel, 500 tons of steel rods and 3,000 tons of cement — about as much as Israel shifts in a week.

The tunnels became a source of domestic revenue for Hamas. Taxes imposed on products entering Gaza has able Hamas to raise high level of money locally, notwithstanding the financial assistance from abroad provided by its solidarity supports network, rich individuals and some governments.  In September 2008, the Rafah municipality introduced a one-off license fee of 10,000 shekels per tunnel plus a 1,000-3,000 shekel supplement for connection to the electricity grid. Levies on select goods gradually rose. By the autumn of 2011, Hamas was collecting more than a 100 percent surcharge on fuel from the tunnels, selling fuel that cost less than a shekel per liter in Egypt for 2.7 shekels in Gaza (still not quite a third of the prevailing price in the West Bank). Hamas similarly profited from the nightly blackouts, when the din of diesel-guzzling generators reverberates in Gaza City. Imports of Libyan cars earned Hamas $3,000-10,000 a piece in custom duties and registration. In the streets of Gaza, expensive and new cars can be witnessed such as the big four wheels Hummers, belonging most often to Hamas members or people close to the party.

Taxes have able Hamas to raise over half of its $300 million annual budget locally.

In relation to individuals entering the Gaza strip through the tunnels, they face a quasi official border. Anyone going through the tunnels is asked by whom he is invited, if he has relatives in the Gaza strip or does he have coordination with an institution in the Gaza strip.  As soon as one of these information are confirmed he is allowed to go through the tunnel in which he is accompanied usually by a young man, child labor is actually very widespread, to reach the other side of the tunnel. On the Gaza side, a security man from Hamas interrogates you on the reasons of your visit, while also checking your luggage.  Following this, the person has to register to the office in charge of the tunnels, where he has to name someone who will take responsibility of your venue to Gaza. Before leaving Gaza, you also have to register your departure to the authorities, while explaining a last time the reason of your visits.

These restrictions were actually imposed since October 2011, by the Interior Ministry. They establish a computerized immigration system, requiring foreigners to obtain a local sponsor before entering Gaza as my experience showed it. A computer program devised by the ministry’s IT department instantaneously updated records processed centrally in Gaza City at the immigration desks in Rafah and Bayt Hanoun, the point of entry from Israel.

Hamas domination on the public and private sector

The tunnels business benefits have been used since then by Hamas to increase its influence and power throughout the society in the private and public sector. Money laundering from the tunnel economy is the reason behind Hamas important activity in the economic sector.

The Islamic national Bank, founded in 2009 by businessmen and academics closed to Hamas, is mainly used to pay the employees of the Hamas government and ministries.  The head of the bank Al-Rafati was mentioned as a Hamas candidate for Minister of Economy in March 2007 and has served as the dean of the business school at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). The bank has been promoted as an Islamic financial institution free from Israeli authority and restrictions, and therefore able to provide its customers with cash on demand.

In the service sector, new resorts on the beach appeared or are renewed, as well as for restaurants, malls and hotels. The Commodore 5 stars hotel is owned by a rich businessman very closely linked to Hamas Abdel Aziz al-Khaldi. He is known to manage some sections of Hamas money and transactions. The Andalusia Mall, which cost 4 millions $, opened in June 2011 belongs to businessmen close to Hamas or part of the movement as well. The liberated lands from the Israeli settlements have also been distributed mainly to people from the party or close to it, while most of the charitable institutions established on these lands are linked to Hamas.

The price of lands increased importantly as we saw above, while most of the new buildings and new business projects are given to people close or from Hamas.

The tunnels became actually a key driver of upward mobility, nurturing a new mercantile elite that owed its prosperity to Hamas’ new order and is very often directly from the movement. Traditional Retailers and businessmen have to struggle to keep their market share and are complaining in front the current situation, while members of Hamas and people close to the movement are benefiting from it. A new generation of businessmen rose in Gaza and is linked to Hamas, while weakening the old generation of independent traditional businessmen.

New charitable institutions appeared in Gaza increasingly linked to Hamas and people close to it, as well new institutions funded by governments allied to Islamic movement such as Turkey Qatar, etc.

The Qassam brigade, armed wing of Hamas, is also an important actor in the Gaza strip today. The heads of the armed wing of Hamas are Ahmad al-Ja‘abari, and Mohammad Deif, they became prominent and wealthy personalities.  The Qassam Brigades have actually made some investments in various sectors and they hold shares in some companies. Their main income is also offering protection to companies and retailers.

Since 2007, government’s employees are in their vast majority Hamas members. This situation is also a direct consequence of the PA’s decision to forbid any government employee to work in the ministries under Hamas authority, while threatening anyone continuing or going back to work to cut their salaries and pensions. Hamas took the opportunity to fill in the ministries with their members. In the same time the Hamas government has issued on 11 February 2010 a law banning public employees from working in charities and NGOs while off-duty, even if it was voluntary and without wages. The public employees’ dependant on the PA salaries are therefore condemned to stay at home and forbidden of any activity.

The Hamas government has recruited more than 30 000 public employees in the various ministries and 25 000 in security services. Discrimination against non-Hamas supporters is nearly a rule and has actually reached an unprecedented level, for anyone outside the party applying for a government job.

Aid sent to the Palestinian people through convoys is not fairly distributed, Hamas network is given priority, according to many analysts and many in Gaza.

Corruption among the administration and Hamas is also increasing according to many in the strip and as a World Bank survey in May 2011 revealed 46.5 percent of Gazan respondents believed large-scale corruption was commonplace in the public sector.

Hamas’ will to control society

Hamas wants to dominate the society and is opposed to any political force challenging the status quo in Gaza. Fatah members and institutions were the main targets of Hamas security forces, just as these latter were the ones of the PA in the West Bank.

Hundreds of activists of Fatah movement, including a number of women, were repeatedly summoned to the headquarters of security services throughout the Gaza Strip, and a number of them were arrested and even tortured in some cases. The most serious case was the death of Nazira al-Swairki, from Gaza City, while in the police custody.

The closure of Sharek Youth Forum, a liberal organization challenging Hamas cultural hegemony and policies, in 2010 is a famous case in the Gaza strip of the repression of Hamas as well. This decision came after a series of abuses and attacks perpetrated against this organization since May 2010; beginning with the main office and branch offices being stormed and followed by interrogations of its staff by security services.

In the same time the Palestinian NGO Network and human rights organizations criticized recently the law project of Hamas government to grant more power to the Ministry of Interior to intervene into the affairs of NGOs and restrict their work.

Violations of the right to freedom of expression and assaults on freedom of the press have been the case. Palestine Television’s reporters and correspondents as well as al-Hayat al-Jadeeda newspaper were prevented from working in the Gaza Strip.

Repression by Hamas security forces is widespread in the Gaza strip for various reasons, going from simple criticisms against the party to organize demonstrations.

Mahmoud Abu Rahma, director of international relations for Gaza’s Al Mezan Center of Human Rights, was stabbed twice by masked men after writing an article criticizing Hamas governement.

Hamas security services actually cracked down on March 30 2012, a peaceful protest marking the land day in Gaza, several people were injured and many others were arrested.

In March 2011, activists and protesters of the 15th march movement asking for the end of the division were repressed and attacked by security forces and thugs from Hamas in Gaza on the demonstration day.  Hamas has tried to undermine the organizers’ efforts, accusing its leaders in Medias of receiving foreign funding and wanting to create instability in the Gaza strip.

Several peaceful demonstrations has been repressed as well violently by Hamas security forces like in 2010 when 500 PFLP activists came out to protest against the electricity supply crisis in Gaza. Any activity not controlled by Hamas is defined as a threat to the movement’s rule.

And create an Islamic Alternative society

Hamas has promoted and implemented laws targeting individual freedoms, particularly those of women. Likewise, female students in some schools and universities, (in addition to the IUG which is a special case and dress code is imposed in the constitution of the university) are now forced to wear the jilbab and the hijab. Some internet cafes have been closed as well to protect “moral values” and prevent mixing of male and female. The Ministry of the Interior has launched intimidation campaigns to forbid male hairdressers from doing a woman’s hair, while hairdressers not respecting this rule were targets of attacks.

Hamas appoints police officers to the Mabahith al-Adab Al-‘Aama (Department of Public Decency) to monitor public spaces. Women and men walking together can be arrested if they are not married or relatives. Arrested young women are released when their parents collect them from police stations, and when they sign a statement (ta’ahud) agreeing to not partake in such activities

These practices are claimed to protect the customs and traditions of the Palestinians, according to Hamas.

The Hamas government has attempted to segregate the genders into separate spaces and categories in many areas of Gaza, but failed to impose it everywhere following campaigns by popular organizations opposing such decisions. The order that forced female lawyers to wear the hijab in court was also revoked after important protests and threats from Human rights organizations to contact Medias.

Hamas security officers repressed violently as well a demonstration against Palestinians performing Shiite rituals in January 2012 and arrested them after, in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya.

Hamas has also tried to Islamize some laws since 2007 when the government in Gaza established a separate system, which the population in the Gaza Strip is subject. The Judiciary system has been under the domination of Hamas since then.

In the same time, Hamas is trying to build an alternative society with its networks of business, unions, education and charity institutions and information and research centers.

They opened new media’s companies like SAFA, Shehab for information, Al Qods and Al Aqsa television. They established as well civil organizations such as House of Wisdom (beyt al hikmah), al khobra (the news), while creating institutions linked to Human rights and family issues based on am Islamic perspective and which as an objective to challenge the other ccivil institutions dealing with the same matters.

In education they took over the administrations of some universities like Al Aqsa University in Gaza city and the College of Science and Technology in Khan Younes. They have also established a new university called Umah to compete with al Qods al Maftouh University which is not under Hamas control by suggesting the same programs as this latter.

They are creating new unions as well to build alternatives to the current ones which they don’t control and repress the ones that challenge their power. In 2008, the office of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in Gaza had been seized by Hamas authorities and when staff refused to negotiate over their future role, several were subjected to assassination attempts and other harassment. The Hamas led government has also dissolved Fatah-dominated local councils and replaced them with Hamas ones.

What strategy for resistance?

Hamas has repeatedly declared its will to be recognized by the international community: Hamas leader Khaled Mechaal declared during the official ceremony for the May reconciliation agreement that Hamas wanted the ‘establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital’, i.e. a state on the lines of June 1967, the basis for negotiations in the eyes of the international community and the PA.

Hamas has long signaled its desire to move away from armed struggle toward purely political means. They have stopped nearly any form of military resistance since its takeover in 2007 and even prevented military resistance from Gaza, arresting any groups attempting to launch rockets on Israel. In the last Israeli attacks on Gaza, it was Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other small groups that launched rockets on Israel to respond to Israeli bombings, while Hamas so called resistance movement was absent in the resistance.

Hamas leaders, as well as the rest of the Palestinian political parties, have shown no clear understanding and indications within the movement either of the apartheid nature of the State of Israel or of the tools used by the South African anti-apartheid movement. One such tool is the international boycott campaign, without which the apartheid regime would not have ended. This demonstrates Hamas’s failure to understand the role of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) campaign presented as delegitimizing the State of Israel and posing a threat to its very existence.

Hamas and regional changes

Hamas’ withdrawal from Syria and rapprochement with the Gulf moderate countries has been called a first step to the moderation of the party. The Islamic movement has a long record of good relations with the Gulf countries since its inception in 1988, and Hamas also wants to maintain good relations with Iran, despite differences on Syria. However, there is now a new consolidation and a closer rapprochement between Hamas and the Gulf countries allied to the US, linked especially to the revolutionary processes in Egypt and Tunisia which gave more power to the Muslim Brotherhoods. The Muslim Brotherhood movement, of which Hamas is a part, is looking for recognition from the international community, especially the US, and sees Western imperialist governments as potential partners in consolidating their power. In this context, the danger that Hamas may follow the same path as Fatah, putting the demands of the international community over those of the Palestinian people, is clear. However, there are contradictions inside Hamas, and opposition from a section of it to move towards even more moderation.

Conclusion

Hamas has failed to be a sustainable resistance alternative to Fatah and has been more interested in their struggle for power than building a resistance program to liberate Palestine.

The central issue is actually to build unity based on principles and from below, including all the different sectors of the Palestinian community from refugees, to 48 Palestinians citizens, Palestinians of the occupied territories and the Diaspora, to rebuild the Palestinian resistant movement. The reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah is not the way forward and is actually still far from being implemented, due to the partisan interests of both parties.

A year ago a campaign, led by number of Palestinian activists inside and outside of Palestine, was started to demand the re-democratization of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and this is still ongoing. The PNC is the highest Palestinian legislative body, and it represents all Palestinians, whether they are refugees or not. The PNC is the body that creates the national strategies, platforms and policies of the Palestinian people, which the PLO executive committee should implement. Only a rejuvenated, progressive and democratically-elected PNC can lay the foundation for effective representation of Palestinian rights, including the right of return, the end of occupation and colonization and end of discrimination against 48 Palestinian citizens. The externally-imposed fragmentation of the Palestinian people can be overcome by means of reclaiming the Palestinian parliament in exile.

The voices of all the Palestinians have to be heard and power has to be given back to them. The Palestinian national movement also must be reconnected to the ongoing popular movement in the Arab world, to reinforce the struggle of the Palestinians and the people of the region against Israeli and Western imperialism.

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