Ausgabe 32/2008

Gaza's Lifelines Tunnels to Egypt Keep Hamas in Business

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Part 2: Ceasefire Proves Bad for Business

At the height of the embargo, prices quadrupled and, for a time, cement in Gaza cost 10 times as much as it did in Egypt. But now the cease-fire of June 19 has thwarted the smugglers' plans. For the past few weeks, about 90 trucks have been allowed to pass through the Israeli border crossings every day. Though only a fraction of the 400 trucks that made it through daily before the embargo, it was enough to cause prices to go down immediately in Rafah. Two weeks ago, a few dealers fired a homemade rocket in the direction of the Israeli city of Sderot, hoping that it would prompt the government in Jerusalem to seal off the borders again. "The ceasefire may be good for the people of Gaza, but not for us," says Abu Yakub.

Gaza's lifelines are the series of tunnels to Egypt.

Gaza's lifelines are the series of tunnels to Egypt.

The ceasefire has also been detrimental to Hamas, because the underground border traffic is one of its key revenue sources. The Islamists are believed to collect about $10,000 (€6,450) a day from the tunnel owners in the form of "usage fees," as well as "value-added taxes" -- all payable in cash to armed money collectors who wait at the tunnel exits. If a pack of cigarettes costs 74 cents in Egypt, it goes for €1.85 ($2.87) in Gaza, with half of the profits going to Hamas. And a lot of people smoke in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamists also control the distribution of gasoline. Anyone who wishes to buy gas must first buy an "insurance policy" from Hamas, for about €170 ($264), in return for a coupon that entitles its holder to buy 20 liters (5.3 gallons) once every two weeks -- even now, with Israel allowing 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel for cars into the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, many residents still drive with a mixture of vegetable and used deep-frying grease. As a result, the Gaza Strip smells like a French-fry stand.

But for the Islamists, the issue is not just money, but justice and the question of whose justice. After the Hamas coup, Abbas called upon the judges in the Gaza Strip not to report to work. This prompted Hamas to take over the courts last November and appoint new judges amenable to their cause. Some people, however, would even like to see these courts abolished.

One of them, and perhaps the most influential, is Marwan Abu Ras, known as "Hamas' mufti." The organization's political leaders prefer not to be mentioned in the same breath with Abu Ras and describe him as "peculiar." But Gaza's top administrator, Ismail Haniya, and Mahmoud Zahar, one of the founders of Hamas, like to discuss religious matters with Abu Ras, who studied in Medina. The religious scholar wears a floor-length jalabiya robe, and his stomach is pressed against the edge of his desk, where a Koran rests on a mat made of red imitation crocodile leather. His bear and the Palestinian flags on his desk flutter in the breeze coming from his office fan. He looks more sleepy than dangerous, and yet it was no coincidence that a bomb also exploded in front of his house two Fridays ago. In his case, the attempted bombing was presumably an act of revenge by Fatah.

Disappointed by the Islamists

That's because it was a fatwah, or religious edict, issued by Abu Ras that cost about 100 Fatah members their lives during and after the four-day power struggle last year. "Anyone who has committed murder must also be punished with death," says the mufti. "Before Hamas came into power, there was a lot of crime here. Now we have restored order."

Order also means torture, even if this isn't exactly something Abu Ras is willing to admit. Palestinians who have fled to the West Bank report being nailed to the wall, confined in coffins or subjected to mock executions by Hamas. "We will take the best aspects of the Iranian and the Saudi Arabian system," says Abu Ras, stressing that women, of course, can continue to attend the university, go to the market and drive. "We aren't the Taliban, after all," he says.

The Islamists' influence is becoming more and more visible. Most men now wear full beards and many women are fully veiled. New minarets are being built throughout Gaza, alcohol is no longer available, and Hamas has restricted mixed dancing at weddings and extended religious study in schools. There have been arson attacks against Christian organizations and Internet cafés, and a few months ago radical Islamists even launched a grenade in front of the Hotel Deira, because it had been said that a waiter there had served whisky in espresso cups. The terrace at the Deira is a refuge for the bourgeoisie, and extended families spend their evenings playing rummy there.

Sharhabeel Zaeem comes to the Hotel Deira every day with his wife and their four children. He owns the largest law firm in Palestine, and until two years ago he advised international non-governmental organizations and Arab investors. But since the Hamas coup investment has stopped and lawsuits are no longer being filed. Now Zaeem, together with his wife, has completed the state examination in political science and is studying to earn a master's degree in law. "I have a lot of time now," he says.

Tough neighborhood: Israel and its neighbors.

Tough neighborhood: Israel and its neighbors.

Together with like-minded Palestinians, Zaeem is building a new party, the "Palestine Forum," which is supported by Munib Masri, a multimillionaire from Nablus. "We need at least another five years before we can take on Hamas." But he is hopeful, noting that many are already disappointed by the Islamists.

Although people are venturing out into the streets again at night, because there is a police officer at every corner, says Zaeem, this is about the extent of Hamas's achievements. "Hamas is in power, but it still thinks like an opposition party," he says. It ignores the garbage piling up in the streets, does nothing about repairing traffic lights, roads and water pipes and pays no attention to the children begging at intersections.

Hamas has even reneged on its most important promise: to fight corruption. "You can buy your way out of prison, and it's even cheaper than under Fatah," says a man who prefers to remain anonymous. A traffic policeman recently asked the man for a "donation to buy breakfast." But the corruption is emanating from the top rather than the bottom of Gaza's power structure.

Gaza's de facto leader Ismail Haniya, has gained 28 kilos (62 lbs) and set up his office in the former government guesthouse -- with an ocean view, of course. In addition to Haniya, the men in charge include Tahir Nunu, the Hamas spokesman, who likes to hold court at the Hotel Deira and present visitors with his nonstop smile, framed by a carefully trimmed beard. Anyone who listens to Nunu discovers that Hamas is willing to release the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to form a unity government with Fatah, even to make peace.

Nunu smokes his water pipe. He can lean back and relax, because things are going well for Hamas. It has marginalized Fatah to such an extent that the desperate Abbas is even said to have threatened last week to dissolve the Autonomous Authority if Israel were to exchange prominent Hamas prisoners for Shalit. This is significant, because the release of Palestinians had until now consistently been considered a shared objective of all parties.

Nunu is the public face of Hamas. The other face of Hamas doesn't smile. It belongs to Ayman, a 26-year-old with an unkempt beard who dreams of becoming a martyr. "I will die sooner or later," he says. "It would be best to die in an attack on Israel." He shows a video clip on his mobile phone of him firing a Kalashnikov, then a photo of his daughter, who is only a few months old.

Ayman joined the Al-Aksa Brigades as a fighter six years ago, later becoming of member of Fatah's presidential guard. He defected to Hamas after the coup. Today he is a police officer by day and a member of the Qassam Brigades at night. He doesn't even have to change clothes from one job to the next. It's the same uniform for both.

Before the ceasefire, he transported rockets to the northern Gaza Strip and fired them from there. But now there is a ceasefire, and yet he still isn't any less busy. "On the contrary," he says, "we are training for the next major attack." This means spying on Israeli positions and depositing explosives near the border. Explosions are often heard these days, as Qassam fighters train for guerilla warfare. At the same time, Hamas is trying to reshape the brigades into an effective army with a clear chain of command, an army that, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be capable of resisting an Israeli invasion.

"We are disappointed, because Israel isn't opening up the borders completely, as promised. That's why we will soon end the ceasefire," says Ayman. He hopes that this will finally give him the chance to make his dream come true.

Abu Ibrahim, the tunnel king of Rafah, will also be pleased.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


© DER SPIEGEL 32/2008
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