Truce or war: Hamas’s bipolar rule in Gaza

As terror group blames Israel for humanitarian conditions in Strip, it continues to pour money into its military activities and profit off Gazans

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority stand at the gate of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main passage point for goods entering the Gaza Strip from Israel, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, on July 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority stand at the gate of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main passage point for goods entering the Gaza Strip from Israel, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, on July 9, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Several hundred Palestinians participated in clashes at the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip last Friday, the remnants of the so-called “March of Return” demonstrations, which at times advocated for Palestinian refugees’ return to their homes — in Israel, of course — and at other times pressed for breaking Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza. Hamas is putting considerable time, energy, and money into keeping up a presence at these demonstrations, even though the number of participants has been steadily decreasing.

As the clashes went ahead, thousands of Gaza residents went to the Gaza beach, simply to enjoy themselves on family outings, just like old times. Gaza’s coast is unsafe for bathing due to pollution, but many people went into the water anyway to cool off from the oppressive July heat — an attempt at normalcy in one of the least normal places in the region, or on Earth.

Gaza is a place where poverty, with its accompanying economic and humanitarian hardships, is only growing more severe — a place that gets only four hours of electricity per day followed by a 16-hour blackout. Ice cream and even cold water are in short supply because there is insufficient power to keep them cold. The generator-powered elevators in high-rise buildings only operate on the hour and are idle the rest of the time. Of the water that flows through the pipes only once every five days, approximately 97 percent is undrinkable. Almost every home in Gaza has a device for filtering and improving the water that comes from the faucets.

These are only small examples of the mad state of things in the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s bipolar nature is also evident in bigger issues: Hamas, the terror organization that controls Gaza and seeks Israel’s destruction, has been intermittently working in recent weeks to keep things relatively calm with the Jewish state, even amid periodic escalations of rocket fire and endless fire kites and incendiary balloons flown into and burning the fields of southern Israel. It has also been intermittently trying to reach a long-term cease-fire agreement with Israel, even as it continues to dig terror tunnels and produce long-range rockets.

This file photo taken on July 3, 2017, shows Palestinian boys swimming in the Mediterranean Sea next to donkeys in the sewage-polluted waters of Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

While ever howling of “hardship” and “the blockade,” Hamas consistently chooses to spend its funds on its terror infrastructure rather than investing in the population. Examples of this abound, from the enormous budget of its military wing to its collection of money from Gaza’s residents to fund its ongoing military activity. A classic example is recent events at the Rafah border crossing.

Siphoning precious fuel

For some time, the Egyptians have been bringing through the Rafah crossing merchandise and products that they previously barred from entering Gaza, such as construction materials, fuels and other products. Approximately 30 million liters of diesel fuel, supposedly intended for Gaza’s power station, have been brought in since the beginning of the year. Hamas buys the diesel fuel from Egypt, but instead of using it all to fuel the station and produce more hours of electricity per day, it has been using some of the diesel fuel to make a profit.

Of the 30 million liters, 17.8 million were taken to Gaza’s power station. Another 12.2 million liters were either sold on the black market to those willing to pay the maximum price for it, or diverted for Hamas’s military purposes. Hamas makes a profit of NIS 2.5 on every liter of diesel fuel sold in Gaza.

The Rafah border crossing has become Hamas’s most significant economic lifeline. It has been open for 70 days since the beginning of the year, compared to only 36 days throughout the whole of last year (This is partly the result of the dramatically improved security situation in Sinai). Hamas collects a tax on all merchandise that enters through the Rafah border crossing, unlike at the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel, where the taxes go to the Palestinian Authority.

Two large companies are in charge of the transport of merchandise. On the Egyptian side, the company in charge is Ibna’a Sina’a (The Sons of Sinai), and has ties with the Egyptian security forces. On the Palestinian side, the company in charge is Multitrade, a company that has ties with Hamas.

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 16, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

If a Palestinian merchant wants to bring merchandise into Gaza, he must pay close to $5,000 per truck. He must also pay both companies for unloading and loading the stock. In this way, each kilogram of merchandise brings more and more revenue to Hamas’s dwindling coffers. Here it must be added that Hamas is dealing with a severe budgetary problem, even if taking into account Iran’s willingness to provide it with financial aid — a willingness that is once more uncertain due to the economic sanctions that have been imposed upon Iran.

Anyone in Israel who hopes that these measures by Hamas, which every Gazan is aware of, will lead to unrest or demonstrations against the terror group, is bound to be disappointed. According to polls in Gaza, most of the residents believe the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas are primarily responsible for the situation in Gaza, followed by the “occupation” — meaning Israel, which has no presence in Gaza — and only then Hamas, which controls Gaza.

The question, even before Friday night’s escalation, is where all this is leading, and whether another major conflict is around the corner. Hamas has been exerting quite a bit of effort to let Israel know it has no interest in open conflict. On the other hand, it is doubtful that Hamas will maintain this trend if the humanitarian situation directs public anger in its direction.

Economic deterioration

Israel’s decision this week to close the Kerem Shalom border crossing to all but essential and humanitarian supplies, as a response to the ongoing barrage of incendiary and explosive kites and balloons, has brought Gaza to new depths of economic hardship. Admittedly, there still are no signs of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza of the sort we are used to seeing in African countries — no children with swollen bellies, no severe food shortage. Food products are available at Gaza’s markets in abundant quantity. The more pressing problem is that Gaza is slowly dying economically, and closing the border crossing is only speeding up this process.

A picture taken on July 13, 2018, shows tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces landing amidst Palestinians during clashes along the border with Israel east of Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

If up until a year ago, 800 to 900 trucks entered the Gaza Strip every day, recently only about 350 trucks have entered each day due to the shortage of cash. This week only 150 trucks per day entered Gaza. Electrical appliances, spare parts for cars, construction materials, raw materials for industry — all these have stopped going in.

The export of products from Gaza to the West Bank or other places — such as agricultural products, furniture and textiles — has stopped. It is unknown how long the decrease in the volume of activity at the Kerem Shalom border crossing will go on. But here, at least, the Israeli message is clear: If the incendiary and explosive kites cease to be flown into Israel, routine activity at the border crossing will resume.

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