A dozen residents of the Gaza Strip demonstrate every week in front of one or more centers of UNRWA – a few dozen of the some 120,000 residents whose homes the Israel Defense Forces destroyed in the war last summer, or the 80,000 whose houses were damaged.
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The protesters, and not just them, blame the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and the United Nations in general, of responsibility for the delays in rebuilding their homes.
The contrast between the arrogant and arousing military display Hamas held recently to mark 27 years of its founding, and the mountains of ruins and high levels of unemployment and poverty in Gaza, makes one remember just how brilliant a move the Islamic resistance movement made last April. That was when it gave up the government it led and returned responsibility for the disaster-stricken Strip to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. This included the responsibility for rebuilding the enormous physical, economic and mental destruction caused by the IDF's 50-day Operation Protective Edge in the summer, for which Hamas prepared no less than Israel.
The military parade accorded Hamas glory and enthusiasm over its ability to outsmart Israel and build an army that promises to continue its resistance to the occupation. Accusations of abandoning the residents of Gaza to a miserable fate were publicly aimed at the UN, the donor nations that still have not transferred the money they promised at the October Cairo conference on Gaza reconstruction to the Palestinians, and the PA.
Transferral of the donations, one Western diplomat told Haaretz, depends on the functioning of the reconciliation government in Gaza. The donors want to be sure the money reaches a leadership it approves of. But the ability and willingness of such a government to function depends on the relations between Fatah and Hamas, and they are now bad, once again.
The rift between the two movements comes in addition to the split within Fatah itself: between those known as supporters of Mohammed Dahlan – a native of Gaza, who was ousted from that movement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and against whom a court in Ramallah is preparing an indictment on charges of corruption – and the supporters of Abbas.
The Palestinian agency Sama News reported last Thursday that it had been decided to fire dozens of Fatah members affiliated with Dahlan’s faction from the Palestinian security forces in Gaza (who have not worked since 2007).
Hamas, which did not allow the holding of a rally recently to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, allowed Dahlan’s supporters to organize a series of public activities, even though the Fatah leadership warned them not to.
Last Thursday morning, after the firings of the Fatah people became known, slogans against Abbas appeared on houses in Gaza, such as: “Enough of the symbol of dictatorship and surrender.” In the afternoon Dahlan supporters demonstrated in the center of Gaza against Abbas, with the approval of Hamas.
Riding the donkey?
Beyond the internal friction within Fatah, the demonstrations against UNRWA testify to true distress. “Whoever, does not succeed in riding on the donkey rides on the saddle,” said an UNRWA employee. In other words, in the vacuum of government that exists in Gaza – after the Hamas government was officially dissolved, although its security agencies are still in control, and as the reconciliation government is practically absent – the only "address" for expressions of frustration and despair is the UN refugee agency.
UNRWA will also not arrest or harass the protesters or those who criticize it, which both nonexistent governments are able to do and indeed actually do.
The UNRWA employee thinks that at least some of the demonstrators were sent by Hamas, which wants – not for the first time – to divert possible criticism against it, and to increase popular pressure on the international organization, the oldest and most stable institution on the ground since the 1950s, the supplier of education, health and welfare services, a major employer and representative of the world.
The Gazans, including those whose homes were not destroyed by Israel, have many reasons to despair. The blockade on the Strip, whose removal was the first, official condition raised by Hamas in the cease-fire negotiations last summer – has become even worse since the Egyptians block the Rafah crossing most of the time, and Israel has not revoked its draconian restrictions of movement through the Erez checkpoint. Gaza students who were accepted for studies abroad, for example, cannot leave.
The ongoing strike by the cleaners in Gaza hospitals (suspended last Saturday) and the garbage piling up in the hallways have caused the cancellation of a number of operations. The Palestinian Health Ministry has not been paying its contractors who employ the cleaners and other service-providers at the hospitals, including those involved in catering, laundry, maintenance, etc. Patients are complaining that funds allowing them to receive treatment in Israel have been stopped, and there are reports of a shortage of medicines.
Salaries for employees hired by the former Hamas government are not being paid and sometimes state-run schools have been going on strike. Inmates in local prisons are not being fed and have to depend on food brought by their families.
Because the funds to cover current expenditures have not arrived from Ramallah, Hamas officials in Gaza started collecting “taxes” from those supplying cooking gas and cement a month ago. The move aroused fierce public criticism in the Strip and anger in Ramallah, and was canceled. But another method of raising money that has been a source of complaint was not stopped: issuance of traffic tickets and operations to find vehicles whose owners have not paid all their required fees. These are reasonable and logical steps for a government, but not in the current reality of profound poverty in Gaza, where teachers and other public employees buy cars fourth hand so they can work as taxi drivers, and earn a paltry 30 shekels ($8.5) a day.
For the past two and a half weeks, under the direction of the director general of the Finance Ministry in Gaza, Hamas officials have been collecting taxes on some 50 items, mostly imported goods: clothing from Turkey and China; food products; cleaning supplies; furniture; sports accessories; spare parts for vehicles; toys; spices; bags and suitcases; and blankets. The taxes vary from item to item, and range from 1,000 shekels to 5,000 shekels per container of goods, which arrive through the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
The government of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has already ruled these taxes are illegal. But anyone who refuses to pay at present sees their goods confiscated and stored on the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing.
A Hamas government employee told Haaretz that these taxes are a necessity and are intended to cover the current expenditures of the government ministries, since Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara is not “interested in Gaza and is not sending it money.”
According to one Western diplomat, “Mahmoud Abbas is after all president of all Palestinians, not just those in the West Bank.” His words echoed a common claim: that Abbas is not interested in Gaza and that lack of interest is reflected in the actions of his government.
The mass firings of Dahlan’s supporters fit in with other steps taken by Abbas in recent weeks. Abbas fired a news editor from the official television station who criticized the station for broadcasting an interview with an Egyptian media personality who is hostile to Hamas; he deprived Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the PLO’s executive committee, of his financial and political authority because of criticism he expressed; and last week he sent Abed Rabbo’s associate, Jamal Zakout, a close adviser to former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, off to early retirement.
Last month, the heads of the public employees' union (which was declared illegal and dissolved) were arrested at Abbas' orders, and a member of the legislative council was removed for criticizing the arrests and dismantling the union. These steps, which the public views as dictatorial, strengthen the assumption that the neglect of Gaza is an intentional act by Abbas, who is concentrating all the authority and decision making in his own hands.
Diplomats and social activists in the Gaza Strip wonder why Abbas has not visited Gaza, and why Palestinian government ministers do not visit the Strip regularly. Senior officials in government ministries who are identified with Hamas do not share the information needed to carry out their jobs properly, say sources in Ramallah. For example, they are not providing data about the revenues collected by the various ministries in Gaza, such as from hospitals for the Health Ministry.
However, a senior Hamas official told Haaretz that no one is preventing the reconciliation government from collecting revenues in the Gaza Strip. In any case, the official added, the revenues of the ministries in Gaza are less than their expenditures. For example, the Health Ministry has revenues of 1.7 million shekels ($433,000) a month, while its monthly expenditures are 25 million shekels.
The physical presence of the ministers in the Strip is not necessary, they say in Ramallah: In fact, four important ministers actually reside in Gaza.
Quietly and only behind closed doors, those who do not support Hamas wonder how the Islamist movement has the money to arm itself, but leaves critical cleaning workers without salaries. But as one senior Hamas official says, “There is no connection between the two. You must separate between Hamas the organization, and the government which Hamas is not part of. True, Hamas as an organization is getting stronger, but the arming is not done with money of the Palestinian people.”
The thousands who enthusiastically viewed the recent military display in Gaza certainly accept the official explanation that it represented Hamas’ resistance to the occupation and its ability to rebuff an Israeli invasion in the Strip. But there are social activists and political observers who understand the military spectacle in a different way: as a message to Fatah and its leadership to abandon their illusions that Hamas is disintegrating because of the blows it has suffered at the hands of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. They also understand it as a signal to the entire population in Gaza not to dare rise up against Hamas, its de facto ruler.