The state of Gaza: Five years after Hamas took power in the city, how has life changed for its citizens?

Donald MacIntyre writes: The front office of Kamal Ashour’s small family clothing factory in Gaza City opens on to Izzedine al-Qassam Street, named, like Hamas’s military wing, in honour of the Islamist mujahid who led the anti-Zionist, anti-Mandate, Black Hand gang and was shot dead by British police in 1935.

Which makes it serendipitous to see the mannequins on one of its shelves triumphantly displaying four samples of the 2,000 acrylic cardigans and polo sweaters Ashour has just shipped off to the UK firm of JD Williams in the first clothing exports to leave Gaza for five years. And a lot more so to be talking on Ashour’s landline to a Jewish-Israeli clothier in Tel Aviv about how fast, if he had half a chance, he would revert to buying his goods from here, as he once did.

Having made the call, Ashour, a short, spry septuagenarian who used to export at least 80 per cent of his clothing to Israel, has thrust the phone into my hand to demonstrate just how highly his most favoured customer values his business. Sure enough, the Israeli trader explains that, since the blockade imposed in Gaza by his own government in 2007, he has been forced to find a Chinese supplier instead of Ashour; that, yes, the sweaters may be slightly –though “not much”– cheaper, but that he would still prefer Ashour every time. “Look, I’ve been working with Gaza for 30 years and with this guy for 11 or 12. The overall quality is high, better than China. He’s very, very good to work with. I trust him completely. If he says he will do something, he does it. He never changes his mind.”

Such is his nervousness about discussing a politically sensitive topic that, unlike Mr Ashour, his Israeli client, whose name we know, begs us not to use it. For this is a conversation across enemy lines. Gaza is still officially classified by the Israeli Cabinet as a “hostile entity” and since the turbulent events that unfolded in June 2007 the exports to Israel and the West Bank on which its economy depended have been prohibited.

Five years ago this week, Gaza was in chaos. The BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was being held as a hostage by the criminal jihadists who had kidnapped him in March. The Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, seized by militants on the Gaza border, had already been in captivity for a year. But in the streets outside, a brief but bloody civil war was raging between militants in the two biggest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Two years earlier, Ariel Sharon had pulled Israeli troops and the 8,000 settlers they had been protecting out of Gaza. Then, in January 2006, Hamas unexpectedly beat Fatah in notably clean parliamentary elections held throughout the occupied territories. The victory was not primarily because of ideology. (Fatah was committed to a two-state solution with Palestine, consisting of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem living side by side with Israel, while Hamas had always refused to recognise Israel.) Rather, it was because Palestinians were fed up with Fatah’s corruption, the failure of negotiations to bring any results, and perhaps because some, at least in Gaza, initially bought into Hamas’s extravagant boasts that its militants had “liberated” the territory from Israel.

Finding itself leading the new Palestinian Authority in uneasy co-habitation with a Fatah president in Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas was faced with a boycott by a US-led international community which effectively refused to recognise the results of the election it had sanctioned in the first place. The outcome was a coalition with Fatah; but it was a shotgun marriage that quickly degenerated into civil conflict.

Hamas, despite partially covert American help for the Fatah forces, was victorious. When the bloodshed ended on 14 June 2007 Hamas was left in charge of Gaza, Fatah of the West Bank. And Israel responded with its blockade of Gaza – central elements of which are still in force today – which the senior UN official Filippo Grandi said 12 days ago had “completely obliterated” the territory’s economy, and which leaves a deeply puzzling question: why is Israel still maintaining an export ban which, in Grandi’s words, has “penalised” the “common people” and the “business community” of Gaza but has left its Hamas rulers intact and unscathed? [Continue reading…]

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