Pity Gaza’s Palestinians. More than 38 percent of them consider “the spread of unemployment and poverty” a more pressing issue for the Palestinian Authority to resolve than either the Israeli “occupation” (28%) or “the blockade” (26%), according to a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Israel Democracy Institute.
Unemployment in Gaza is at nearly 44% and more than 80% of the population depends on subsistence aid from foreign donors. The survey did not ask respondents who is to blame for their circumstances. One can assume, however, that few would have the courage to be honest and point the finger at Hamas.
A number of countries that pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild in Gaza after the last Hamas-instigated war with Israel have failed to deliver. And now, assistance provided by the UN and non-governmental organizations is coming under new, overdue scrutiny.
Israel’s indictment of a Palestinian employee of the UN Development Program “raised broad questions about the network of humanitarian groups operating in Gaza,” The New York Times reported. He faces trial for diverting material assistance to Hamas that was intended for reconstruction.
World Vision, a global Christian relief organization, has suspended its Gaza operation after Israeli authorities charged one of its Palestinian employees with channeling millions of dollars in contributions directly to Hamas in Gaza.
That disturbing revelation came a couple of days after a New York Times story on World Vision’s questionable use of a five-year-old West Bank Palestinian boy’s photo for fundraising. The boy, now 18 years old, and his family never received direct support nor did they have any idea of where the group’s funds are going.
“Hamas has complete authority to interfere [with] and control all the organizations working in Gaza,” Naji Sharrab, a professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza, told the Times.
Eleven years ago this month, Israel withdrew from Gaza and transferred the entire coastal territory to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Israelis hoped it would enable the Palestinian leadership to invest in developing institutions that would wean Gaza’s populace off international subsistence aid and focus on building an economy and society that could signify a first step toward an independent Palestinian state.
Hamas had other plans. Firmly in control of the area since it violently seized Gaza from the PA in 2007, Hamas chose to prolong the conflict with Israel, rather than working to better the daily lives of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians.
Hamas employed constant rocket and missile attacks, and attempted infiltrations into Israel, in the process instigating three wars – in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
After each destructive round, Hamas, and the PA, came begging for more international aid.
The discovery in August 2014 of a network of sophisticated tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel confirmed the worst fears about Hamas intentions – not to mention the diversion of precious resources. Imagine what the architectural and construction ingenuity invested in tunnels could have produced for Gaza’s Palestinians.
Less than two years after world powers and Arab nations gathered in Cairo in October 2014 and pledged $3.5 billion in assistance for Gaza, Hamas has been digging again.
Israeli officials announced in July that Hamas was carving out 10 km. of tunnels a month. Two of them reaching Israel were destroyed in April and May. Israel found and destroyed 34 tunnels during the 2014 war. Egypt, which also shares a border with Gaza, has been destroying more tunnels.
Even though a number of young Palestinians have died in tunnel collapses, Hamas still denies that it is engaged in such excavations. Indeed, Hamas has even contradicted itself by complaining to the UN about Israeli plans to build a subterranean wall below the border to block tunnels from reaching into Israel.
Gaza’s borders, clearly demarcated with Israel and Egypt, are not in dispute. What to make of Gaza and its population is the challenge. With more than 60% of the population under age 24, and high rates of literacy and life expectancy, there is much potential for progress if Gaza’s leadership is so inclined.
But an Economist magazine feature on Arab youth last month pointed out that the rapidly growing numbers of young people throughout the Arab world pose a major challenge to regimes across the region. “These days life for young Arabs is often a miserable choice between a struggle against poverty at home, emigration, or, in extreme cases, jihad,” the Economist observed.
Meanwhile, Hamas’s longstanding preference for prioritizing terrorism over construction continues to victimize the very Palestinians it claims to lead. Only 23% of Palestinian homes damaged or destroyed during the 2014 war have been rebuilt, despite the huge amounts of donated funds from abroad.
Even Qatar, whose emir was the first Arab head of state to visit Gaza, back in 2012, is far behind in producing the 1,000 homes the wealthy Arab nation promised a year ago. The lethargic pace of construction led one Palestinian, pointing to his neighbor’s reconstructed home bearing the Qatari flag, to tell The Wall Street Journal that “If the Israelis built the house, I’d fly the Israeli flag.”
Gaza’s Palestinians deserve much better leadership, one that will take steps to improve the lives of its citizens and work toward establishing durable, peaceful ties with its neighbors. Short of replacing Hamas, it behooves the UN and Western and Arab nations to acknowledge the real obstacles to growth and peace, and to do a far better job of monitoring how aid is distributed.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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