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Suffering intensifies in Gaza

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Times Staff Writer

The streets are quiet now and the electricity works most of the time. Crime is down and even weapons smuggling is at least being regulated. But four months after Hamas seized control of Gaza, the already precarious economy has been sent into a tailspin as the militant Islamic group reigns over a pariah state.

Although Hamas’ claims that its June takeover has brought peace and order to Gaza bear some credence, its four-day military rout of the Fatah faction has ushered in an abysmal new chapter for the 1.5 million people crowded into this impoverished coastal sliver.

Now more than ever, Gaza is besieged: from the outside by economic sanctions and from the inside by a continuing battle of wills between Hamas and Fatah loyalists.

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“Nothing is moving. It’s never happened before,” said Omar Shaban, an economic analyst here. “The backbone of the economy is being destroyed.”

Meanwhile, the government in Gaza, led by deposed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, continues to hang on through a combination of guile, force and repeated calls for steadfastness from a beleaguered population.

Fatah activists are rounded up and beaten. Members of the security forces are paid with handfuls of cash. New taxes levied to boost revenue have doubled the price of cigarettes and other items.

In response to the Hamas victory, Israel sealed Gaza’s borders in an attempt to strangle an organization that still calls for the Jewish state’s destruction. The international community has largely gone along with the closure. Only Israeli commercial goods and limited humanitarian shipments are allowed in. On Sunday, Israel reduced fuel shipments into Gaza. Nothing is allowed out, leaving merchants on the brink of bankruptcy with their goods accumulating storage fees at border terminals.

In theory, the economic cordon is designed to turn the population of Gaza against the Hamas government. Polls have suggested that support for Haniyeh’s government may be slipping among Gaza residents as their suffering deepens, but Hamas officials seem serenely untroubled at the prospect.

“Our people are very politically aware,” government spokesman Taher Nounou said. “People know what is the real source of their problems.”

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Speculation abounds regarding how Haniyeh’s government is keeping afloat. Many of the rumors center around cash-stuffed suitcases smuggled through tunnels or brought in by government officials returning from trips to Iran, Qatar and Kuwait.

“They’re able to smuggle a bit here, launder a bit there,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Palestinian analyst with the International Crisis Group.

On Saturday, officials said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads his government and Fatah from the West Bank town of Ramallah, has tightened up Palestinian money-laundering laws.

Observers and analysts in Gaza say Hamas seeks to claim victory by simply surviving, enduring to proclaim itself the legitimate elected Palestinian government in the face of an internationally backed stranglehold.

Residents cite some improvements. Although Hamas has done little to discourage the various Gazan militant groups from firing rockets at Israeli border towns, Gazans say the leadership moved quickly after the takeover to establish control over the weapons and explosives being smuggled through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

But Gaza’s economy, normally powered by civil service salaries, income from jobs in Israel and overseas remittances, has been pushed into uncharted territory by the border closures.

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In recent years, Gaza had built up the beginnings of an agricultural export industry, sending vegetables and flowers to Israel and to Europe. But that market has been decimated in the last year. In addition, hundreds of factories, producing mostly textiles and furniture, have shut down, with estimates of up to 70,000 newly jobless private sector workers. A large segment of the population already depended on international aid relief before June; those numbers have dramatically increased, aid workers say.

Dominique Sbardella, child protection coordinator in Gaza with the international aid group Save the Children, said malnutrition in children, once found mostly in impoverished refugee camps, is spreading through the general population.

“They’re not buying any more fresh meat or fish,” she said. “They’re living on canned food.”

Shaban, the economist, worries that the economic cordon is damaging the psychology and culture of his home.

“It’s transforming Gaza from a productive community to a relief-based community,” he said. “The education system, industrial base, the character of the nation are all deteriorating. What we’re losing now will take us years to recover.”

Residents speak of shortages of everything from car parts and medicine to underwear. Even hard currency is starting to become scarce amid dire predictions that Gazan banks will begin shutting down in January.

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“It’s very hard,” said Bassem Naim, a member of Haniyeh’s Cabinet. “But we’re still ready to pay the price for our freedom.”

Naim reels off a list of deprivations facing Haniyeh’s administration: broken hospital elevators and generators left unused for lack of spare parts, patients having limbs amputated because of delays in their transfer out of Gaza, preventive and prenatal care all but abandoned.

But, Naim said, the real villain is “Ramallah in collaboration with the Israelis with the support of the Americans.”

“Ramallah” in the Gazan vocabulary has become shorthand for Fatah. When the short-lived Fatah-Hamas unity government collapsed into open warfare in June, Abbas fired Haniyeh and named his own Cabinet. Fatah largely retreated to the West Bank and became an active partner in the international campaign to destabilize Hamas.

The Palestinian Authority continues to pay hundreds of thousands of civil servants in Gaza, but also orders most of them to stay home from work.

“The aim is to show that Hamas is unable to continue providing services,” Naim said.

Trash collectors have refused to work, leaving piles of garbage in the street that clog up the already collapsing sewer system.

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A recent 10-minute drizzle left pools of foul black water that blocked Gaza City intersections.

“If it rained for two hours, Gaza would drown,” said one resident, who wouldn’t give his name.

The standoff has placed some government employees in an ethical bind, forcing them to either abandon their responsibilities in a time of crisis or risk having their salaries withheld.

“Many of the teachers loyal to Ramallah are staying home. Others who believe in their mission are still working,” said Sbardella of Save the Children.

Hamas has also faced accusations of politicizing the civil service ranks. Shortly after the June takeover, Naim fired the head of Gaza City’s flagship Shifa Hospital and the hospital’s spokesman, the latter a prominent Fatah loyalist. Shifa doctors responded with a partial strike, working three-hour days. The strike was called off last month.

In its attempt to maintain control of Gaza, Hamas has also cracked down against the remnants of Fatah.

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Khalil Abu Shammala of the Gaza-based Dameer Assn. for Human Rights said militiamen rounded up hundreds of Fatah loyalists in June and July. A second crackdown ensued in September after Fatah launched a series of protests, praying on the sidewalks outside Hamas-controlled mosques.

In most cases, the detainees were beaten and released within a day or two, Abu Shammala said. But at least a dozen remain in custody.

Fatah’s efforts and the international campaign against Hamas’ rule have done little to budge the leadership.

Rabbani, of the International Crisis Group, compared the economic squeeze to the decade-long international sanctions that failed to dislodge Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“These indiscriminate bludgeon tactics tend to backfire,” Rabbani said. “Rather than alienate the people from their leaders, the effect tends to make them more dependent on their leaders.”

Continuing the Iraq analogy, he said that Hamas had yet to act like Hussein and his family did, siphoning off oil-for-food profits and building palaces amid the poverty.

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“But then,” he added, “there’s nothing to steal yet and no concrete to build palaces, anyway.”

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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