Hamas is building strength in Gaza by helping to build an economy

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Gaza's smuggling tunnels are veritable cornucopias of consumer goods. ¶ Out come refrigerators and stoves. Washing machines and mattresses. Motorcycles, tuk-tuks and a $50,000 Porsche Cayenne. ¶ And most urgently, tons of building supplies.

"I am very proud to help my people reconstruct their houses,'' says a wiry 20-year-old. On this steamy fall afternoon, he is one of several young men hauling 110-pound bags of cement out of a tunnel that runs a half-mile under the border to Egypt.

It has been nearly two years since Israel destroyed thousands of homes, schools and other buildings in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip during a three-week war to stop rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Although Israel has slightly relaxed its blockade of Gaza, cement is among the many items still not legally allowed into the area except under rare circumstances.

Hence the tunnels or, as Gazans call them, "underground crossing points.''

The Israeli government imposed the restrictions in 2007 to drive Hamas from power or, alternatively, force it to recognize Israel, foreswear violence and release a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit.

None of that has happened. And while the blockade has hurt Gaza's 1.5 million people, there is a growing sense it is helping Hamas.

Instead of weakening the Islamist group, the blockade has strengthened Hamas' control of Gaza. And due in part to the tunnel economy, Hamas has shown it can govern effectively — even better, some experts say, than its West Bank rivals who get $1.5 billion a year in foreign aid and have the support of Israel and the United States.

"Hamas has demonstrated its ability not merely to survive, but also to rebound and even innovate,'' writes Yezid Sayigh, professor of Middle East studies at King's College in London.

Or as Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, puts it: "Which of the two governments would stop functioning without foreign aid? Answer: the West Bank one.''

Dirty job, clean hands

This is the image many Westerners have of Hamas: masked men in black, waving AK-47s and shouting anti-Israel slogans.

This is another reality: well-educated technocrats, worrying about sewage treatment and agricultural output.

The man in charge of rebuilding Gaza's shattered economy is a bespectacled civil engineer named Ziad Shokry El Zaza. Because he is minister of economics in the Hamas-controlled government, he announces at the start of an interview that he will speak only in Arabic.

But his English is so good he frequently breaks in to correct the translator. "That's 100, not 10,'' he interrupts, referring to the number of kilometers of road that Hamas claims Israel destroyed.

A United Nations commission found that both Hamas and Israel committed war crimes during the fighting, which killed 13 Israelis and as many as 1,444 Gazans in the winter of 2008-09. But the commission's 574-page report, which Israel called "biased'' and "flawed from A to Z,'' also concluded that Israeli forces had deliberately targeted civilians, destroyed or damaged 14,000 homes and wrecked "a substantial part of the economic infrastructure,'' including Gaza's only flour mill and cement packaging plant.

"The economy is still very bad,'' Zaza says, "but we are rebuilding it ourselves and with the help of God.''

About 400 of Gaza's 4,000 pre-war factories and workshops have reopened. Though figures are hard to confirm, the government says 10,000 new jobs have been created in the tourism industry, which draws locals to Gaza's Mediterranean beaches in the long, hot summers.

And while 80 percent of the people now get U.N. food aid, Hamas is pushing to make Gaza largely self-sufficient in agriculture within two years. Farmers are being encouraged to plant groves of citrus and olive trees. New fish farms augment sparse catches along the coast, where Israel still bars Gaza fishermen from going more than a few miles out to sea.

To help pay for public services, the government recently slapped a 3-shekel tax (about 85 cents) on every pack of cigarettes. But it also cut the cost of getting a driver's license.

"To implement a tax system during the blockade is not easy because many people have no income,'' Zaza says. "We deal with this in very sensitive ways.''

And, in a dig at the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank, he adds, "our hands are white and clean.''

A force to reckon with

Hamas' rise has been fueled by allegations of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, which governed all 4.3 million Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank until 2006.

That was the year Hamas swept Palestinian national elections, prompting a brutal power struggle with the ruling Fatah Party. In 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza and Israel imposed its blockade.

The isolation keeps Gazans in what they say is a large prison, with Israel controlling the skies, coast and land borders. But within those confines Hamas is totally in charge.

"Hamas security services enforce their will over the entire territory without any intervention from outside powers,'' says Klein of Bar-Ilan University. By contrast, the Palestinian Authority "has power over less than half of the West Bank and even in that territory, it can only operate within parameters set by Israel.''

Hamas also has a loyal cadre of public workers, thanks to a Palestinian Authority order that PA employees in Gaza stay away from work or risk losing their salaries.

Instead of paralyzing the Hamas government, as the PA hoped, the no-show policy enabled it to replace thousands of teachers and other employees with Hamas sympathizers.

Perhaps inevitably, there is some grumbling that Hamas leaders and their families are starting to live far better than the average Gazan. But most of the corruption allegations have come from rivals in the West Bank.

The existence of two separate Palestinian governments vastly complicates the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement since Israel refuses to deal with Hamas. But Hamas' ability to survive shows that it is a force to be reckoned with, and that could eventually lead to a power-sharing deal between the two Palestinian factions.

As Jewish settlements in the West Bank continue to grow, "what we have in the West Bank is a Palestinian security regime that is a subcontractor of Israel and in many ways duplicates the Israeli occupation,'' Klein says. "At a certain point, the Palestinians will say, 'We are losing Palestine, there is no use continuing this strategy, we must replace it with another one' — one of which is to reconcile with Hamas.''

Secure, strict, savvy

Because Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, there long have been concerns about the nature of any Palestinian state partly run by Hamas members.

Gaza provides mixed clues.

Unlike the relatively lax security under the Palestinian Authority, Hamas guards carefully search the luggage of everyone entering Gaza from Israel. Bottles of liquor and wine are confiscated, drained and smashed on the spot.

A mysterious fire earlier this year destroyed a new water park: Talk had it that Hamas was unhappy with reports that women had been there at night smoking water pipes with men.

But Gaza recently got its first Western-style shopping mall, albeit a small one. And Abed Hashis says he has had no trouble with authorities since he opened a market stall that displays thong underwear and skimpy teddies.

Just 19, Hashis also has a new motorcycle. It and the lingerie came through the tunnels, where Hashis worked for six months and made enough money to start his own clothing business.

"Anything you can imagine, we bring in,'' he says.

The tunnels are obvious on the Gaza side, where the digging that began when Israel imposed its blockade produced mountains of dirt and sand that have yet to be cleared away. Most of the tunnels are housed in good-sized encampments that are covered by roofs and have generators to power pulleys and lights at night.

Though Israel and Egypt occasionally destroy tunnels, which have been used to smuggle in weapons, both countries tacitly accept them as a way to relieve pressure on the Gazan economy.

At their peak use, in 2009, the tunnels accounted for 80 percent of the civilian goods coming into Gaza and contributed as much as $200 million to the Tunnel Authority of Hamas, according to Sayigh of King's College.

Since Israel slightly relaxed the blockade this year, many tunnels have stopped operating and hundreds of young Gazan men are again out of work. But the market in Rafah is still crowded with washers, stoves and other big-ticket items smuggled from the other side of the border.

Though few Gazans will say anything publicly against Hamas, they make it clear that they miss the days before the Hamas' takeover when they could get cheaper, better quality goods from Israel. And without the risk of Israeli missile strikes on the tunnels and nearby homes.

"Every day is dangerous,'' says Mohammed Al Ajarmy, who lives close to dozens of tunnels. "Day by day, Israeli F-16s are in the sky, any time they can bomb and no one can prevent it.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Hamas is building strength in Gaza by helping to build an economy 11/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 15, 2010 4:32pm]

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