The Problem with Aid: International Donations Not Always Welcome in Gaza

By in the Gaza Strip

The aid shipment that the Palestinian activists' flotilla was hoping to bring to Gaza before they were halted by Israeli commandos is now awaiting delivery. But Hamas will only let the badly needed goods into the territory under certain conditions. In the Gaza Strip, aid is not always greeted with enthusiasm.

Photo Gallery: Aftermath of Raid on Flotilla Photos
AP

Having built a three-storey house in Jabalia, north of Gaza City, Zaed Khadar used to be a proud homeowner. He ran a supermarket from the ground floor and made enough profit there to provide for his seven children. His wife bred chickens on the roof. Then came the Gaza War, a three-week conflict between December 2008 and January 2009, and suddenly Khadar's life was in ruins. His neighborhood, his house and his business were all destroyed. Since then, the 46-year-old has been helpless in every sense of the word. Donations coming to the Gaza Strip from both large and small aid organizations never arrive at the Khadars'.

"People who are not in with Hamas don't see any of the relief goods or the gifts of money," Khadar says. On the sand dune where his house once perched, there is now an emergency shelter. The shelter is made of concrete blocks that Khadar dug from the rubble, and the roof is the canvas of a tent that provided the family with shelter for the first summer after the war. "Hamas supporters get prefabricated housing, furnishings and paid work. We get nothing," Khadar complains.

Hamas Members Take and Distribute 'at Their Own Discretion'

The reason his family receives nothing: Like many of his neighbors, Khadar is a die-hard supporter of the Fatah party, the sworn political enemy of the more radical Islamists in Hamas. That's why Khadar has little hope of seeing any of the 10,000 tons of aid that the activist flotilla heading for the Gaza Strip tried to bring to Gaza's harbor at the start of this week.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Attack at Dawn
"We knew Hamas would take the goods for themselves and distribute them at their own discretion. For us, and for many of our friends, it doesn't make any difference whether the world is trying to help us. Our situation will only improve if the blockade is lifted," Khadar explains.

The mostly Turkish-flagged aid convoy that attempted to break the Israeli blockade never made it to Gaza. Israel stopped the flotilla by boarding the flagship in a bloody commando mission. Nine activists died and more than 30 were injured, along with seven Israeli soldiers.

Humantarian Aid Becomes a Political Game

The bulk of the goods, which were temporarily confiscated, have since been released by Israel and brought to the Gaza border. But now there's another problem: Hamas is playing politics. The autocratic rulers of the Gaza Strip have placed conditions on aid delivery. The goods are not to be brought into the territory piece by piece, but all at once. All or nothing. By making these demands Hamas wants to ensure the building materials are all handed over. Since the end of the war Israel has impeded delivery of cement and steel because these items could be used for military facilities, including tunnels and bunkers.

Aid has become a political football, which is why a sack of cement, smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt, still costs $50 (around €40). Before the blockade it would have cost $7 (around €6). "I invested my total savings -- $5,000 -- in cement for our emergency shelter," Khadar notes. And he appeals to aid organizations to do everything they can to try and deliver their goods directly to the citizens of Gaza. Hamas should not be allowed to get hold of it. Khadar becomes particularly enraged when he talks about his neighbors behind the dune. The Hamas prime minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, recently gave them a brand new house, complete and ready for them to move in.

'I Just Happened to Be the Winner'

And indeed, Khadar's neighbor, Aderauf al-Batsch's front door boasts a commemorative plaque celebrating that memorable event. The 35-year-old homeowner does not dispute his relationship to Hamas, but he does dispute any accusations of preference. "The construction ministry held a lottery to win a new home. And I just happened to be the winner," Batsch explains. Does he think it's a strange coincidence that he, the neighborhood's only Hamas supporter, should have won the contest? No. "Sometimes in life you get lucky," he says.

Since Israel's retreat from Gaza in the summer of 2005, Israel has enforced economic sanctions on the territory, and gradually tightened them. Whenever something happens -- when Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, when militants captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006, when Hamas took control of the coastal strip in 2007 -- Israel has restricted the flow of goods even further. Egypt, the other nation adjacent to Gaza, keeps its border closed most of the time. (The border did open for humanitarian aid this week, after the naval raid.) The administration in Cairo worries that a perceived Hamas success in Gaza will only inflame Egypt's own radical Islamists' fantasies of political power.

'We Will Not Take Any Gifts That Are Blood Stained'

The United Nations (UN) has called the Israeli blockade of goods and people a form of "collective punishment." According to UN estimates, around 80 percent of the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are living under the poverty line, and 42 percent are unemployed as the economy has virtually ground to a halt. On Thursday, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, again called for an end to the blockade.

Hamas has consistently called for Israel and Egypt to open their borders to Gaza, which makes Hamas' obstruction at the border incomprehensible. On Thursday, Israeli newspapers were writing that the situation must not be all that bad if Palestinians are not accepting the aid. Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan was unimpressed. "We will not take any blood stained aid," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "If we accept the delivery of aid then we are legitimizing Israel's violent actions." Yet Radwan did leave a way out, adding that: "If the Turks ask us to let the aid shipments in, we would do it."

Donations Are 'Bad For Business'

There are people in Gaza though who will never be happy about the arrival of the aid. "Everything that arrives here, and is distributed free of charge, is bad for business," says one Palestinian pharmacist, who studied in Germany but preferred not to give his name for fear of reprisals. Every medicine and every toy that well-meaning Westerners donate endanger the few jobs that still remain in Gaza, he explains. A colleague at another pharmacy agrees. "We are being bred into dependency," he says, repeating the universal adage that guides international aid: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. But if you give him a fishing rod, you feed him for a lifetime."

Before Gaza can stand on its feet again and take care of itself, however, the Israeli blockade must end. That is the one thing that former homeowner Khadar, the pharmacists, Hamas, and the UN seem to agree upon.

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