With Gaza pitted still in the depths of destitution, security officials fear that militant factions may become increasingly radicalised, reports Erica Silverman
Saturday night and the trash-lined streets of downtown Gaza City are pitch black, noise and fumes rumbling from generators. Trash collection has ground to a halt due to fuel shortages after Gaza's main power station was destroyed by Israeli forces 28 June, leaving households, businesses and hospitals across the Strip without electricity and water in sweltering summer heat.
Despite melting ice cream, the lights -- run by a generator -- are still bright at Kazem's Ice Cream Shop. "I have not made a profit since mid-June," says owner Kamel Kazem, "but this is the famous 'Kazem' for all of Gaza. My father started this shop 50 years ago." Like most Gazans, Kamel believes Hamas was not given a fair chance due to sealed borders and the international embargo against the Hamas-led government.
"Israel attacking the power plant was a tactic to hit the Palestinian economy," says Noman Kishawi, owner of Gaza City's largest supermarket. Operation costs have risen 30 per cent since the end of June mostly due to the generators, says Kishawi, who lost thousands of dollars in spoiled food products. "The consumer pays for the closure of Karni (Gaza's only commercial crossing) with high prices," he said.
According to Rafiq Maliha, project manager of Gaza Power Generating Company, a team of engineers is still trying to import a combination of new and used transformers from Egypt. Repairs will take several months and can only restore 35 per cent of the plant's total capacity. Gaza remains in the dark.
Even worse, the lack of electricity means water cannot be pumped into homes. Every incursion has caused tremendous damage to an already dilapidated civilian infrastructure as rolling Israeli tanks crushed underground water piping, septic and water storage tanks and other vital civilian facilities. Water pumping stations and sewage treatment plants are not operating properly causing raw sewage to flow onto the streets. Desperate residents have begun drilling illegal wells and illegally tapping into water pipes, and now contamination of the water supply is a real threat, says a team of Oxfam engineers visiting Gaza this week to assess the damage.
According to the Palestinian Authority (PA) Health Ministry, 234 Palestinians have died with 1,267 injured as a result of the now 10-week-long Israeli incursion into Gaza, purportedly to halt the launching of Qassam rockets into Israel and to secure the recovery of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas 25 June.
Poverty and desperation have come to a head as Palestinian civil servants, including teachers, announced last week they will begin an open-ended strike 2 September, the first day of the school year, demanding salaries, including back pay from the past six months when they have gone unpaid. The strike is expected to affect 40,000 teachers and about 45,000 other civil servants, including healthcare workers, out of 165,000 PA employees. Security forces will not strike.
"We know that our job is to offer salaries, but the government is not the main reason. The international boycott has prevented the government from transferring money," Hamas government spokesperson Ghazi Hamad told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The schools will open on time and we will not accept the strike," asserted Hamad.
Belal Badwan, a 26-year-old elementary school teacher from Shujayeh thinks, "the strike will succeed in the West Bank but not here in Gaza where every house includes a Hamas member. People here are in favour of giving Hamas another chance. They believe the financial crisis is not their fault." Badwan says there are many who support the strike but are afraid to speak out against the Hamas-led government. Negotiations with union leaders, mostly Fatah- affiliated, are underway. Healthcare workers in the West Bank did not show for work on Monday.
Meanwhile, the gates of the Rafah Terminal along the Gaza-Egypt border were pried open just briefly on Friday and Saturday allowing 5,676 passengers to exit and 4,228 to enter Gaza according to the EU mission at Rafah. Rafah, Gaza's only passenger crossing, has been closed by Israel for 10 weeks, ostensibly to prevent the abducted soldier from being smuggled outside the Strip as well as to cut off elicit cash supplies to the Hamas leadership. On Thursday, dozens of angry militants detonated explosives along the wall between Egypt and Gaza in an effort to allow trapped passengers on the Egyptian side to return to Gaza, including hundreds of medical patients, although no one managed to cross. Palestinian officials are trying to convince Israel to resume normal operations at the terminal.
Karni, also, has been sealed shut for 11 days as of Monday, creating a shortage of basic commodities and food supplies across Gaza. According to UNRWA's director in Gaza, John Ging, "food distribution to 830,000 people will not commence as planned next week, unless Karni opens." UNRWA has less than a week's supply of fuel in reserve, to be distributed to municipalities for solid waste management and to refugee camps for pumping water wells.
The security crisis in Gaza is also worsening as crime is rising and foreigners have again been evacuated fearing abductions. A previously unknown Palestinian militant group called the Holy Jihad Brigades released two Fox News journalists -- cameraman Olaf Wiig, 36, of New Zealand, and American reporter Steve Centanni, 60 -- on Sunday after holding them hostage in Gaza for 13 days. The group initially demanded the United States free Muslim prisoners in exchange for their release, although Hamad asserts the group had personal motives for their actions. No demands were met.
Hamas Minister of Interior Said Syiam successfully negotiated their release, although it was not seen as an achievement. "They were kidnapped to exert pressure on the government," said Hamad, claiming the kidnappers will be brought to justice to fulfil Hamas's campaign promise to restore law and order to Gaza. A wave of kidnappings commencing last summer went largely unpunished when Fatah led the government.
Speaking from the Beach Hotel after his release, Wiig said, "My biggest concern really is that as a result of what happened to us, foreign journalists will be discouraged from coming to tell the story, and that would be a great tragedy for the people of Palestine."
"The kidnappers have no link to Al-Qaeda or any other organisation or faction," said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, asserting that Al-Qaeda as an organisation does not exist in Gaza. Yet this episode was ominous, the drama including the release of videotape of the two journalists being forced to read anti-Western statements and to convert to Islam at gunpoint.
Their period of captivity was longest time foreigners have been held in Gaza, and also the first time a Palestinian group declared affiliation to Al-Qaeda. Behind closed doors, UN and Palestinian security officials fear Al-Qaeda's philosophy may become attractive to militant groups as the backlash against Washington's policy decision to boycott the Hamas-led government grows.