Mohammed Omer: Gaza On The Ground – Gaza Government Workers Wonder, “When Will We Get Paid?”
From his post by the wall of the Gaza City headquarters of the International Commitee of the Red Cross, a policeman watches what’s happening across the street. Today he sees a long line of Palestinian Authority (PA) employees waiting to collect their salaries in cash—a typical sight in the early days of every month. While those in line will get their money, the policeman will not.
The difference is that the Ramallah-based PA is subsidized by American and European interests, and thus can afford to pay its workers. The de facto Hamas government in Gaza, however, which employs the local police force and other agencies, has long been out of favor with the West. As a result, Hamas receives no money from Western governments to help with government expenses, including wages.
Until recently, taxes levied on goods smuggled into Gaza from Egypt via the network of tunnels provided much of the government’s revenue. Iran, with its estimated contribution of $200 million per year, made up the difference.
But the tax revenue disappeared when Egypt’s military government closed the tunnels, as punishment for Hamas’ support of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Assistance from Iran evaporated when Hamas turned against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for the alleged atrocities committed by his government in that country’s ongoing civil war, and with Tehran’s entry into negotiations with Western powers.
For the thousands of Hamas government employees, the result has been catastrophic. The policeman, for example, received only half his salary in October. He was paid only half his November salary as well—but didn’t receive it until January. He received nothing at all in December and January, and now must try to support his family on what remains of his November salary.
Fatima Subhi of Rafah, one of more than 55,000 employees of the de facto Hamas government, works in education.
“I am aware that there is no money coming in, so the government is not to blame,” she says. Still, at the end of the day, the grocer must be paid the tab she has run up since October. Subhi is one of thousands of government employees who have created a Facebook page to try and determine “When will we get paid?”
Mahmoud Abdelrahman, 30, who is married with two children, says he has not been paid for two months. He doesn’t have enough money to buy food for his family, and can’t afford to take on more debt. This month his water and electricity bills went unpaid. “As much as I need cash to run my family errands,” he says, “I also ask myself where can they get our money from?”
On the other hand, his downstairs neighbors did receive their salaries in January and were able to pay all their bills. They are laid-off teachers and security police who get paid by the PA even when they sit at home.
According to Ayoub Abu Shaar, Palestinian police spokesman for the Gaza police force, his officers are still coming to work, despite having to wait to be paid, because of incentives for those who do and cuts for those who don’t show up for work.
The Haves and the Have Nots
Gaza has become a tale of two camps—divided by the international community, favoritism, politics and the Israeli siege. In one camp, Palestinian Authority employees receive wages paid by American and European benefactors. In the other, those employed by the current governing body receive none.
Both sides are affected, however, because the lack of income which only some experience is accompanied by inflation, which no one can escape. Additional challenges are posed by Israel’s continued siege of Gaza, now entering its eighth year, coupled with Egypt’s military activities along the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Following the July 2013 military coup, Egypt began closing the tunnels used to transport into Gaza the supplies and materials banned or limited by Israel. Tens of thousands of tunnel workers were laid off, plunging them into poverty. Supplies of such basic necessities as soap, cooking oil, paper, medicine and food, as well as raw materials for construction, became scarce, causing prices to rise as demand skyrocketed. Taxes and revenues to run the government vanished.
While acknowledging the squeeze on its financial resources, Gaza’s de facto government expressed confidence that it would overcome the crisis. Critics believe otherwise, however. They include de facto Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who insists that the only way out is through national reconciliation, a united stand by Gaza and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. As a demonstration of good will, Haniyeh took the unprecedented step of releasing Fatah prisoners held in Gaza jails.
Vanishing Sources of Revenue
Hamas relies for its funds on donations from abroad and pledged deductions from the salaries of Hamas members—generally amounting to 2.5 percent. When there are no salaries, however, there are no pledges.
The annual governmental budget for Gaza is in excess of $700 million, with $260 million allocated to operating costs. Part of this money—about 40 percent, according to Economy Minister Ala Al Rafati, but unofficial estimates are as high as 70 percent—came from taxes levied on tunnel activity. With no tunnel activity, that source of revenue has vanished as well.
Nor have outside donations filled the gap as they once did. Today financial assistance is scarce, even from neighboring Arab states. Qatar assists with infrastructure and other reconstruction projects by sending Gaza building supplies and materials. Through the U.N., the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is building 1,700 housing units in Rafah. These housing units are replacements for the homes Israel has destroyed in its military attacks. Neither country is believed to provide Hamas with direct cash assistance, however. And as a result of the monitoring of and embargos on bank transfers by the U.S. and the international community, Hamas is unable to secure other foreign donations. Observers contend that the majority of Hamas’ finances from abroad were carried in suitcases through the now-closed tunnels.
According to Nabil Abu Moaelq, chairman of the Union of Palestinian Contractors in Gaza, government sources estimate that prior to July 2013 an average of 3,500 tons of cement and 1 million liters of gas entered Gaza daily through the tunnels. Taxes of $5.74 per ton of concrete and 46 cents per liter of gas were imposed, said a tunnel owner who wished to remain anonymous. With the closing of the tunnels, these revenues are now gone.
According to a report published by the de facto government, the tunnel closures have stifled economic growth, causing Gaza’s economic indexes to plummet 500 percent. In June 2013, the Gaza Strip experienced an economic growth rate of 15 percent. By this past January, that had fallen to 3 percent.
The lack of supplies continues to affect private industry as well. Gaza’s de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that the destruction of the tunnel trade resulted in the shutting of 13 flagstone factories, 30 concrete factories, 145 marble factories and 250 brick factories, resulting in the loss of more than 3,500 jobs. Many of these factories have been put up for sale—though few buyers exist.
Economy Minister Al Rafati estimates that 90 percent of Gaza’s tunnels now have been shut down, destroyed or closed, resulting in a loss of $460 million to Gaza’s economy since last June. The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of Gaza’s population now relies on foreign aid to survive—a percentage that is only expected to rise.
Wedged Between Two Enemies
The beleaguered and besieged Gaza Strip with its 1.8 million people now finds itself wedged between two hostile governments: Israel and Egypt. Egypt’s new government, highly suspicious of anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has outlawed in its own country and of which Hamas is an offshoot, has accused Hamas of supporting rebels in the Sinai—allegations Hamas denies. Israel, of course, accuses Hamas of being a terrorist organization and is intent on destroying it.
As a result, all of Gaza’s land, sea and air borders have been sealed by Israel and Egypt, the tunnel business is nearly destroyed, Gaza’s municipal coffers are virtually empty—and the people of Gaza wonder, once again, how things could possibly get any worse.