Gaza: A way out?

Nicolas Pelham writes: This week’s arrival in Gaza of the Emir of Qatar and his entourage of fifty Mercedes revived the frenetic pace of activity in the coastal enclave, which has been uncommonly quiet in recent months. On his day-trip spent laying foundation stones for cities, hospitals, and schools all bearing his name, the Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, came pledging gifts of $400 million in reconstruction, and promised to end the political and economic isolation Gaza has endured since the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took power six years ago.

For Hamas leaders the trip, the first by a head of state since the siege on Gaza began, heralds their latest attempt to escape political pariahdom, after their hopes of deliverance by the new Muslim Brotherhood–led Egypt ran aground this summer. On August 5, sixteen Egyptian soldiers were gunned down by militants just across Gaza’s borders from Egypt; Egypt suspected the killers had crossed over from Gaza. Fearing the ire of its powerful neighbor, Hamas temporarily barred access to the border, including the vast tunnel complex connecting Gaza with Egypt that serves as Gaza’s economic lifeline. The trucks that cart thousands of tons of raw materials and fuel every day lay silent, and a few of the Gazan government officials and 9,000 tunnel workers who had bothered to make an appearance sat on stools disconsolately counting the lost revenue, which they estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.

The tunnels symbolize Hamas’s paradox: on the one hand, they have enabled Palestine’s main Islamist movement to thrive amid an external siege, and despite a Western boycott to take their place amongst the Islamist parties that have gained or strengthened their hold on power in many parts of the Middle East. Thanks to Gaza’s supply lines to Egypt, its GDP outpaced by a factor of five that of Hamas’s Western-funded rival, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. Further propelling Gaza’s economy, Arab governments across the region, like Qatar’s, have been shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money from the PA to Hamas, signaling what may be a historic shift in Palestinian politics.

Yet the tunnels are also a reminder of just how much of a clandestine underground authority Hamas still is, and how fragile the territory’s recovery may be. Gaza continues to rely on smuggling for even basic goods, and the underground trade can be turned on and off as easily as a tap. The current restrictions, if they continue, could have devastating effects not only on the economy, but on Hamas’s own longevity. “We can’t keep ourselves imprisoned much longer,” a Hamas commander tells me as he and his patrol slouch bootless on mattresses under a makeshift tent erected between the tunnel mouths. [Continue reading…]

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