Saturday, December 29, 2012
Hamas Gains Allure in Gaza, but Money Is a Problem
Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Nevertheless, it is facing serious financial troubles stemming from the revolt in Syria and its expanding military ambitions, and its increasing demands on the impoverished population of Gaza are stirring resentments. In response, and with an anxious eye to the Arab Spring revolts, some Gaza residents say, it has eased up slightly in its religious restrictions on people’s lives.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria had been a stalwart ally and a conduit for Iranian money, weapons and military expertise. But the Assads are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism, and are fighting mostly Sunni rebels, forcing Hamas, which is Sunni, to choose sides. It decided to shut its political bureau in Damascus in March and send its political chairman, Khaled Meshal, shuttling between Qatar and Egypt.
The break with Syria has also meant a sharp cut in the financing Hamas received from Iran, which is also facing economic problems because of Western sanctions against its nuclear-enrichment program, sanctions that have cut the value of the Iranian rial in half in a year.
In response to this gathering financial crisis, Hamas has sought new support from Sunni governments like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But it has also raised taxes and fees considerably, prompting complaints from Gazans.
Mr. Meshal’s first, triumphal visit here last weekend displayed Hamas’s power and organization. In the five years since it drove its Palestinian rival, Fatah, out of Gaza in a brief civil war, after winning elections in 2006, Hamas has established a repressive ministate with a strong Islamist cast that it clearly has no intention of abandoning.
Hamas now requires “entry visas” from visitors, for a fee, and searches luggage to ensure that no one imports any alcohol. Even more striking, Hamas has set up its own lavish civil administration in Gaza that issues papers, licenses, insurance and numerous other permissions — and always for a tax or a fee.
Gazans recognize that there is more order here, more construction and less garbage. But many resent the economic burden of financing Hamas and, implicitly, its military.
Ziad Ashour, 43, a butcher, said that “since the first intifada,” meaning the Palestinian uprising in 1987, “things have steadily declined in Gaza.” But in the last year, he said, they have gotten considerably worse economically.
Another merchant in the Beach Camp market said that Hamas, which tightly controls tunnel traffic on the Egyptian border, had raised taxes on basic items, including canned goods and building materials. There is a tax of about 70 cents on every pack of cigarettes, and around $2.50 on every gallon of gasoline or diesel, fixed even if the final price is roughly half that of Israeli gasoline. People pay to apply for identification cards, drivers’ licenses, building permits — “there are fees for everything,” the merchant said.
Larger businesses are especially targeted for high taxes. “Now businessmen know the difference between Fatah and Hamas,” another merchant said.
Adham Badawi, 22, bought an Egyptian-assembled, three-wheel Chinese motorcycle cart for his family textile shop for $1,500, “imported” through the tunnels. He had to pay $395 in tax, plus registration, insurance and a driver’s license. He says the contraption is better than a donkey because it eats only when in use and does not need to be looked after. But the fees are expensive, he said, and he is nervous about renewing his license, registration and insurance.
Hamas needs money not only for salaries, government and its charitable activities, but also for the Qassam Brigades, which some experts estimate at 20,000 men — most of whom were on show for Mr. Meshal’s visit, in uniforms with good boots and black balaclavas covering their faces, and armed with automatic rifles and other equipment, some of it smuggled from Libya.
The budget for the Qassam Brigades is not revealed, and its main task is to protect Hamas. But it has also been at the forefront of military relations with Iran and Syria, in rocket importation and development and even drone development with Iranian aid, Israeli officials say. The longer-range rocket and drone development was a particularly important target for Israel in the eight-day conflict last month, they say.
But the brigade has also been active in the building of secret underground fortifications, which require many men and large amounts of building supplies, like steel and cement. In a speech on Saturday, Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised the brigade for its “underground work,” saying for the first time that 40 to 50 men had died laboring underground, which he said previously had been described simply as killed in “jihadi missions.” During the fighting with Israel, there were few Hamas fighters or leaders to be seen: they were all somewhere underground or in hiding in what Israel considers to be an intricate system of tunnels and bunkers modeled on those built with Iranian guidance by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Hamas nonetheless sees itself as close to the people and sensitive to public attitudes. The revolts of the Arab Spring were a kind of warning, said one analyst close to Hamas who agreed to speak on the condition that his name not be used. The Islamization of Gaza is “a process,” the analyst said, “and it can move step by step in tune with events.”
In response, Hamas has eased up on its interference in personal life in the name of religious purity. It is still building massive and lavish mosques everywhere (with fortified basements for Hamas members to hide during airstrikes, residents say), but the Hamas police have mostly stopped harassing women for not wearing head scarves, stopped insisting that all high-school girls wear head scarves (though a vast majority do) and stopped preventing women from smoking water pipes in public, and they are more tolerant on the beaches. Fewer young men are arrested for contact with young women not their fiancées. Hamas members have stopped setting fire to Internet cafes in the name of pornography prevention.
But the press is still heavily monitored and controlled, Fatah members are watched, and the sheer visibility of armed Hamas police and militia forces is intimidating. After having confronted and disarmed significant Fatah-supporting hamullas, or clans, Hamas has a near monopoly on arms inside Gaza.
For now, Hamas has the upper hand in dealings with Fatah, and no immediate worries about losing the allegiance of Palestinians in Gaza. But popularity can be fleeting in a period of economic despair, when non-government jobs are scarce and even construction workers, who 20 years ago earned $65 to $80 a day in Israel, now earn around $13 a day.
Yusra Jabar, 50, is a childless widow who helps her sister feed her four children with aid from the United Nations. She was buying radishes recently to pickle because they are cheap — about 18 pounds for $2.65. They rarely eat meat. “It is a life of depression and deprivation,” she said.
In a common plaint, she said: “We wish to live like other people in the world outside. We want to have the taste of life.”
Ms. Jabar is nonetheless proud of Hamas and its ability to hit Israel, and her opinion for now is widespread. “Hamas feels definitely in the lead over Fatah,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City. “Meshal now says that he’s not afraid of new Palestinian elections because Hamas is now much more popular because of the war. But how long will it last?”
He remembered a similar burst of Hamas popularity in October 2011, after the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas held for five years and exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. “But a month later the Palestinians woke up to the same problems: poverty, mismanagement, siege, unemployment, little freedom of movement,” Mr. Abusada said. “If it can’t deal with these same issues, Hamas will find itself in the same position as it was before the war.”
Right to Defend itself
Israel has always cried 'holocaust' tears to the world while singing the old tune of "Defending itself and its citizens". How do they do it? By banning or killing international journalists by bribing their supportive governments. Palestine is destroyed as a State so is Gaza. Meanwhile the "chronically suffering Israel" has developed to a point it does not need Uncle Sam anymore, see their infrastructure, see their military development up to nuclear programs... and they are the eternal "poor" in need. -- --