Gaza Has No Savior

While Gazans experience insufferable economic distress, Hamas is losing its status in the Arab world.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
The rubble of a destroyed house in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, July 10, 2014.
The rubble of a destroyed house in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, July 10, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“What do they give us here? Three pitas and a little food; it’s not enough even for a small child,” Alaa Kullab complained to the Palestinian news agency Safa. He said his eight-person family, which has been living in a school in Rafah ever since this summer’s war in the Gaza Strip, received only five beds.

“We have no heaters, and we’re forbidden to use hotplates,” added Kullab, who began a hunger strike along with another resident of the school a few days ago.

More than 20,000 of the 450,000 people displaced by the war still live in schools or other shelters arranged by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Last month, UNRWA announced that it would no longer pay displaced families’ rent or fund reconstruction of their houses, because it was out of money, having received only $135 million of the $725 million it needs.

“People come to our offices crying and threatening, but we have no way to help them,” an UNRWA employee told Haaretz. “Children are freezing cold, they suffer from malnutrition and even the little food they get is unsuitable.”

Next week, cleaning workers at Gaza’s hospitals are expected to strike again, since the Palestinian government hasn’t produced the back pay it promised to persuade them to end the last 16-day strike. Some 45,000 government employees in Gaza have yet to receive their January salaries, and they may get only 60 percent, as they did last month, because Israel has frozen tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority. The PA says the transfers amount to over half the costs of these salaries.

In October, a donor conference netted pledges of $5.4 billion for Gaza’s reconstruction, but only about 2 percent of this amount has arrived. Both the reconstruction and the reopening of the border crossings, especially with Egypt, depend on implementing a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas, but due to disputes between the rival organizations, this still has not happened.

Some Gazans are trying to rebuild their lives without help. Many children collect construction material from bombed buildings, straighten out bent girders and sell them to people who are tired of waiting for the promised construction materials to arrive from abroad. Students buy books through Amazon, though according to blogger Wasim Alatrash, they sometimes take six months to arrive. On his blog, he tells readers how to enter their address: “Country: Israel; city: Gaza Strip.” Amazon’s country list doesn’t include “Palestine.”

“On a personal level, people are learning to cope,” the UNRWA employee said. “The problem is that lacking public infrastructure, fearing blackouts at any moment and with no ability to travel to and from Gaza, people’s lives are simply stuck between the fences – on one side, Israel, and on the other, Egypt.”

Hamas, too, is stuck between the fences. Its ability to raise money is shrinking, mainly due to its poor relations with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who views Hamas as an extension of the hated Muslim Brotherhood and deems it complicit in attacks on Egyptian forces in Sinai. This week, an Egyptian court declared Hamas’ military wing a terrorist organization, exacerbating its problems.

There’s no clear proof that Hamas is actually involved in the Sinai attacks, but the court ruling for the first time strips the anti-Israel “resistance” organization of formal Arab legitimacy. And it could worsen Hamas’ fund-raising problems, because funding it will now be considered material assistance to terror.

That is also why, prior to this summer’s war, the PA refused to let banks pay salaries to civil servants in Gaza: Israel had threatened to sue the banks for supporting terror if they did so. This pressure was one of the factors that pushed Hamas to start firing missiles at Israel.

Due to this financial pressure, Hamas is reportedly trying to either repair its ties with Iran or convince Turkey to increase its aid. It is also trying to restore its ties with Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah last month.

The bad blood between Hamas and Abdullah dated to 2002, when Hamas rejected the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Five years later, Hamas also foiled Riyadh’s effort to arrange a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Moreover, Abdullah loathed the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization, and feared that Hamas’ close ties with Iran gave Tehran too much influence over the Palestinian issue.

Since then, Hamas has damaged its ties with Iran by publicly breaking with Tehran’s Syrian client, the Assad regime. Qatar and Turkey took Iran’s place, but the Qatari alliance suffered a blow last March, when Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Doha over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as what Riyadh viewed as a war on al-Sissi’s government by Qatari television station Al Jazeera.

About 10 months later, Riyadh reconciled with Doha, reportedly in exchange for the latter’s promise to stop “interfering in other Arab countries’ affairs.” Qatar subsequently deported several senior Muslim Brotherhood officials – though not Hamas leader Khaled Meshal – and closed the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo. Thus its reconciliation deal with Saudi Arabia has undermined Doha’s ability to serve as Hamas’ patron.

All this has created a window of opportunity for Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior Fatah official who now seeks to topple PA President Mahmoud Abbas, serves as the prince’s military adviser and has also been building a support base in both Gaza and the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Dahlan’s wife Jalila – who is also a good friend of the crown prince’s mother – reportedly came to Gaza in late December to distribute money to the needy. According to Dahlan’s rivals, her goal was to buy support for her husband.

Dahlan is also a bitter enemy of Hamas. And as the UAE’s “representative,” his job is to continue blocking Qatar’s influence in Gaza while also thwarting any chance of Hamas reconciling with Saudi Arabia. It’s not clear how much of a threat Dahlan’s activity really poses, but it does show that Gaza is a focus of the inter-Arab rivalries over control of the Palestinian arena.

Gazan journalists predict that eventually, “something will blow” in Gaza. If it isn’t the economic distress, it will be the Israeli and Egyptian pressure. And if not that, then the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas.

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