Hamas thrives in Gaza's besieged economy

GAZA CITY, Sunday 25 July 2010 (AFP) -- The tranquil lawns of the seaside Garden Resort are a high-end oasis in the impoverished Gaza Strip -- and a new source of income for the Hamas-linked charity that owns it.

The beach club, one of several commercial ventures recently launched by groups and individuals linked to Hamas, illustrates the Islamist movement's growing dominance of an economy crippled by a four-year-old Israeli blockade.

The 1.25 million dollar (one million euro) resort is owned and operated by the Islamic Foundation, a charity established by Hamas's spiritual founder, Ahmed Yassin, that has long provided aid to poor families and orphans.

Some 2,000 people have visited each weekend since the foundation established the club and an adjacent fish farm earlier this year, with most paying the eight dollars per family admission fee and many dining at its restaurant.

"These projects provide a service to citizens in order to relieve the burdens of the (Israeli) occupation and the devastating war," said foundation chairman Abdelrahim Shihab.

"The project encourages economic growth... But our priority is the citizen and not the investment."

Israeli and Egyptian border closures imposed after the capture of an Israeli soldier in June 2006 and tightened when Hamas seized power a year later have devastated Gaza's private sector, sending unemployment above 40 percent.

But the sanctions have had little visible impact on Hamas, which taxes and regulates a thriving trade carried out through hundreds of smuggler tunnels beneath the Egyptian border that supply most of Gaza's daily needs.

Hamas regularly pays the salaries of over 20,000 civil servants and security forces, and at the start of the year the Hamas-run government approved a 540-million-dollar (377-million-euro) budget, with nearly 90 percent of revenue coming from undisclosed foreign aid.

Iran and several international Islamic charities provide aid to the group -- which is pledged to Israel's destruction and listed as a terrorist organisation by the West -- through mostly secret channels.

"The economy in the Gaza Strip has thrived in the face of the Israeli siege," Hamas economy minister Ziad al-Zaza told AFP. "But the government is determined to invest firstly for the benefit of the citizen."

He attributes Hamas members' growing role in the economy to the ouster of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority led by the rival Fatah movement, which sidelined Hamas until the Islamists drove it out in June 2007.

"The sons of Hamas were prevented in the past from working and participating, but today there are opportunities for them," he said.

"They can start to have a clear presence because of their expertise."

The Islamic Foundation has launched eight projects in all, including bakeries, farms, a supermarket and a restaurant, and had a nine million dollar budget in 2009, according to Shihab.

"Fifty percent of the revenues of these projects go to establishing new projects to serve the people," he said. "Any for-profit project must advance the goals of the association and its expansion and continuation."

Just down the beach another Hamas-linked charity, whose headquarters were destroyed by an Israeli air strike during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, has established the Freedom Resort, which includes a new 250,000 dollar wedding hall, according to its director, Saber Abu Kirsh.

Hamas is also widely believed to be behind a new shopping mall that opened this week in Gaza City with a ceremony attended by several Hamas ministers and professors at the Hamas-linked Islamic University.

The mall's manager, Siraj Abu Selim, denied Hamas was involved in the three million dollar (2.3 million euro) project, but refused to give the names of any of the mall's owners or chief investors.

Zaza said the government had encouraged the establishment of several commercial projects but had not provided any funding for them.

It plays a more direct role in other projects, however, including the Bisan City tourist village on the northern edge of the territory.

The sprawling facility, which includes gardens, playgrounds, football fields, a petting zoo and restaurants, attracts some 6,000 people every weekend, many of whom are brought in on government-subsidised buses.

And despite the fact that almost all building materials have to be smuggled into the territory, the park includes a new wedding hall and work is under way on what managers say will be an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The 1.5 million dollar project, built on government land under the supervision of Hamas interior minister Fathi Hammad, charges 75 cents for adult admission, with children entering for free.

The 270 dunam (67 acre, 27 hectare) park abuts an 84 dunam cattle and chicken farm as well as food processing facilities, also operated by the interior ministry.

Some visitors on a recent weekend were surprised by the charges.

"The ticket price is fine for me, but it would be a lot for some people," said Umm Jalal al-Ayubi, who came with her three children. "It's a government-owned place. It should be free."

The high-end beach resorts have also proven popular, but many wonder how Hamas-linked groups can build new facilities when thousands of homes severely damaged or destroyed during the war remain in ruins.

Abu Kamal, a 53-year-old man whose home was destroyed during the Israeli assault launched in December 2008 in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket attacks, grumbled at the eight dollar admission fee at the Garden Resort.

"The priority should be to rebuild Gaza and build new homes for those of us who had ours destroyed by the occupation during the war," he said. (By MAI YAGHI/AFP)

MySinchew 2010.07.25