The Gaza Strip is currently facing a difficult and complex humanitarian situation. Gaza, with its lack of natural resources and its densely-packed population of 1.4 million1, has long been seen as the most troubled of the PA territories: beset by poverty, more inclined – by comparison with the West Bank – towards Islamic extremism and riven by complex clan and family rivalries and turf wars. The current situation, however, derives from the anomalous and undefined status of the Strip since the Hamas coup in June. The violent takeover of power by the Palestinian Islamist organisation has led to a dilemma for the states bordering Gaza – Israel and Egypt – and for donor states and international bodies responsible for providing aid and essential services to Gazans. The dilemma is how to prevent innocent Gazans from suffering hardship, while at the same time not affording legitimacy to the administration established by Hamas following the coup. This difficult situation shows no sign of imminent resolution, since the Hamas rulers of the Strip appear to be consolidating their power, and remain impervious to compromise.
The aid situation in Gaza
Gaza is almost entirely dependent on outside sources for its medical, fuel and food supplies. These have in the past been largely imported from Israel, the EU, and the US. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have also played a major role in providing essential services to the residents of Gaza.2
Following the Hamas victory in the PLC elections in June 2006, the new government formed by Hamas refused to conform to international norms in committing to existing agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, recognising Israel and abandoning terror. The result was that the US and EU cut off direct aid to the PA. In order to prevent suffering to Gaza’s civilian population, however, the Quartet in June 2006 created an emergency aid mechanism designed to provide “needs-based assistance directly to the Palestinian people, including essential equipment, supplies and support for health services, support for the uninterrupted supply of fuel and utilities, and basic needs allowances to poor Palestinians.”3
A process then emerged, in the year between the creation of the mechanism and the Hamas coup in June 2007, in which the international community found itself funding essential services in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Overall aid to the Palestinian Authority areas actually skyrocketed in the year following Hamas’s election victory, despite the western boycott of direct aid to the government. Aid in 2006 totalled $900 million, a three fold increase from the figure of $349 million a year earlier.4 Simultaneous with this, the Hamas government of the PA focused on other areas – engaging in the large-scale smuggling of funds and weaponry into its Gaza stronghold. Thus, on 15 June 2006, the PA foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, was caught trying to smuggle in the sum of $20m in cash into Gaza, in 12 separate suitcases.5 Hamas spent the last year creating, funding and training its Executive Force militia, which played the key role in the June 2007 coup.
So the international community, not prepared to see humanitarian disaster in the PA areas, provided resources to prevent it. At the same time, the Hamas rulers of the PA spent their own time and resources in building up a militia in order to seize power.
The June coup has sharpened this problem, rather than alleviated it. Even before the fighting was over, Israel, the EU and US made clear that humanitarian aid would not cease, while at the same time expressing determination that no funding would go to the new Hamas government. Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that “We will work together with the international community to avert a humanitarian crisis.”6 On 19 June, nine trucks of food were delivered from Israel, in coordination with the WFP, and since then, aid agencies confirm that deliveries of fuel resumed, and the supply of water and electricity continued.
Deliveries have since continued on a daily basis. Thousands of tonnes of wheat, meat, milk, animal feed, medicines and medical equipment, fruit, rice, cooking oil, beans, sugar, salt, gas, petrol, and diesel for private and power plant use, basic commodities and other goods have been transferred. Arrangements have also been made for Gaza residents in need of urgent medical care to enter Israel to receive it.
This week, however, a crisis erupted when suspicions arose that Hamas was exploiting Gaza residents by charging them for electricity supplied by the EU and keeping the payments. The crisis led to the EU refusing to pay for fuel from an Israeli company used to power a major Gaza power plant. The result was that for five days, about half of Gaza’s population found themselves without electricity.
While Israeli and Egyptian companies responsible for supplying power to the rest of the Strip made efforts to supply some electricity to the affected areas, a potentially serious humanitarian situation loomed.7 Out of humanitarian concerns and following guarantees from PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad, the EU re-commenced supplies after five days. It is not clear, however, if a real resolution was found, or if an ambiguous compromise was reached in order to alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s residents.
The aid dilemma as part of the larger Gaza crisis
As starkly depicted in Jane Corbin’s recent Panorama documentary, the situation in Gaza is bleak.8 Hamas attacks have caused the closure of the northern and southern exits from the Strip.9 Arms smugglers, meanwhile, are hard at work bringing in weaponry from the south.10
Hamas shows no sign of exhibiting the pragmatism and flexibility which alone could make possible the alleviation of the situation. Rather, the movement appears to be slowly tightening its grip on power in Gaza, and there is the real possibility that as the economic situation in the Strip stagnates or worsens, Hamas will require increasingly repressive measures to remain in power.
Last Friday saw clashes between thousands of Fatah supporters and Hamas’s Executive Force. The Executive Force fired into the air to disperse demonstrators.11 Over the weekend, Hamas gunmen tried to arrest an Agence France Presse reporter based in Gaza, and observers say that harassment of reporters is becoming increasingly common.12
Palestinian political sources consider that the current situation in Gaza is anomalous, and cannot continue indefinitely. The dilemma of how to alleviate the plight of Gaza’s civilian population, meanwhile, while avoiding assistance to the Hamas government is part of a larger problem: namely, how to relate to a government in Gaza which appears indifferent to international norms, which adheres to an extremist, politicidal ideology, which allows and facilitates the launching of attacks on civilians from the area under its control, and which sees the plight of the civilians who live under its jurisdiction as secondary to its own political strategies.
1 UNRWA Website. http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/gaza.html
2 The ICRC in the Palestinian Territories, page with link to various articles on this subject. http://www.cicr.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/palestine?OpenDocument&style=custo_morenews
3 “Diplomatic Quartet backs international mechanism to aid Palestinian people, ” UN Department of Public Information, June 17, 2006. http://domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/db942872b9eae454852560f6005a76fb/f756f87b3c2622bc85257192004cae58%21OpenDocument
4 Amira Hass, “Aid to PA nearly tripled in 2006, despite international boycott, Haaretz, May 16, 2007. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/860220.html
5 Conal Urquhart, “Hamas minister takes $20m into Gaza,” Guardian, June 15, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1797729,00.html
6 Martin Patience, “Supplies ‘urgently needed’ in Gaza, BBC Online, June 18, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6764155.stm
7 “EU resumes crucial fuel aid to Gaza,” Associated Press, August 22, 2007.
9 Herb Keinon, “EU monitors to stay away from Rafah,” Jerusalem Post, June 28, 2007. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1182951031929&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
10 See Panorama report on Gaza, August 22, 2007. http://www.bicom.org.uk/latest_from_bicom/s/2734/lorna-fitzsimons-panorama-provides-a-timely-spotlight-on-the-brutal-reality-of-life-for-palestinians-under-hamas/
11 Khaled Abu Toameh, “Fatah, Hamas clash in worst fighting since Gaza takeover,” Jerusalem Post, August 24, 2007. http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1187779151273&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
12 “Gaza journalists protest Hamas arrest attempt,” Jerusalem Post, August 26.http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1187779161382&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull