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As Hamas' power grows, life for Gazans worsens

JERUSALEM – A year since the militant group Hamas engaged in bloody street battles with its rival Fatah and seized control of the Gaza Strip, the group's hold on power in the area is stronger than ever, but the lives of many ordinary Gazans has grown worse.

After Hamas took power in Gaza – one radio announcer described it as "a second liberation," in reference to Israel's withdrawal of military bases and settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 – Israel and Egypt swiftly sealed their border crossings with the territory.

The move effectively locked 1.5 million people into the tiny coastal patch and killed off most trade – allowing only humanitarian aid, fuel and a trickle of commercial goods in. Months later, Israel also began restricting fuel further in response to continued militant attacks, prompting shortages that have forced cars off the streets, hours-long power blackouts and an expensive black market trade in gas.

Image: A Palestinian woman
A Palestinian woman sits outside a family house that was destroyed in an Israeli army operation near Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on June 5. 

Hamas' move politically divided the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the two swathes of territory Palestinians want for their future state, which are geographically separated, lying to the north and south of Israel.

'Stronger than ever'

"Hamas a year on is stronger than ever before," said Avi Issacharov, a reporter who covers the Middle East for Haaretz, a major Israeli daily newspaper.

Cash still flows into Hamas coffers from ad-hoc taxes on Gaza residents and Palestinian expatriates, as well as Iran and private benefactors in Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. State Department. 

And according to the Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials, Hamas uses the tunnels that cross into Egypt from the southern Gaza Strip to bring in weapons, commercial goods and cash. The tunnels are also used as a form of safe passage for militants to leave the territory and undertake training in Iran and Syria.

The militant group has strengthened its grip on Gaza's residents, who rely on the group for fuel rations. According to residents, Hamas seizes the limited fuel rations that Israel provides, and distributes it with little transparency.

Image: Hamas militants
Palestinian Hamas militants walk after a news conference in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 9.

Meantime, opposition to the group is essentially mute: Hamas has ruthlessly crushed dissent to its rule, harassing reporters, detaining activists from the rival group Fatah and outlawing gatherings without its consent.

Hamas' growing strength has weakened the argument that Israel and the West should not speak with the militant group. Israel has now begun indirect negotiations with Hamas by working with Egypt as a middleman in truce talks trying to halt rocket fire targeting weary southern Israeli communities. 

Despite the fact that Israel refuses to deal directly with the militant group that rejects the Jewish state's right to exist – there is simply nobody else to talk to: Hamas is in charge. "Israel can't deny that Hamas are the only people to deal with there," said Haaretz's Issacharov.

In many ways Israel's siege of Gaza has backfired. Since Hamas has grown stronger, Israel now has to negotiate with two different Palestinian groups – both Hamas and Fatah – at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has essentially been left powerless because he can't negotiate a peace deal with Israel without Hamas' approval.

'Collective punishment'

But while Hamas political power has grown, the lives of many of Gaza residents has grown worse because of Israel's lockdown on the area.

Issam Younis, from the Gaza-based human rights group al-Mezan, explained how the crackdown from Israel adversely affects civilians – not just Hamas militants. 

"Smart weapons usually hit specified targets," said Younis, referring to when Israel specifically use airstrikes to attack militants. "But, the closure and collective punishment (of Gaza) is a stupid and blind weapon that harms every person, and every part of life in Gaza."

Ali AbuShahla, a 62-year-old businessman, feels desperate and ruined – his two businesses shut down as a result of the Israeli-led blockade.

He was one of Gaza's leading consulting engineers and employed 800 engineers, but now he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in business because of the blockade. Now it's just him and his son with a secretary in the office. "I can't even pay the salary of my son and the secretary," said Abu Shahla. "3,900 factories were closed in one year, including my snack food factory," he said.

Most Gaza residents, some 80 percent, rely on food handouts by international organizations to get by, 97 percent of Gaza's industry has shut down for lack of raw materials and the ban on exporting abroad, leaving 33,000 factory workers out of jobs. Palestinian officials estimate about 100,000 people have lost their jobs since last June, and that is in addition to the 40 percent of Gaza residents who were already unemployed. A ban on cement entering Gaza has also halted all construction, including around $90 million dollars in U.N.-funded building work.

Education has also suffered. Around 500 of Gaza's brightest students, accepted in universities abroad can't leave the territory. Israel was censured for not allowing out seven Fulbright scholars, but even after international condemnation, only four have been able to leave the territory so far.

Fuel shortages have forced some 80 percent of Gaza's registered vehicles off the roads, and there is no electricity in the territory for around eight hours every day. That's meant most Gaza residents don't have more than a few hours of drinking water around three times a week, because there's no power to work well pumps, according to the aid group, al-Mezan.

Then there's the violence: Palestinian militants have been bombarding southern Israel with rockets and mortars for years, but the attacks have grown in strength and frequency since Hamas took over Gaza. According to an Israeli rights group B'Tselem, more than 360 Palestinians have died this year in Israeli attacks – over a third of them civilians and children. According to the Palestinian human rights group Al-Mezan, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli attacks is as high as 551.

Despite the problems from the Israeli blockade, many Gazans blame both sides for the humanitarian crisis crippling the Gaza Strip. "I blame Israel and Hamas, both are guilty for the suffering," said AbuShahla.