In recent weeks, a somewhat different aspect of the war against Hamas in Gaza had been revealed to us – the economic aspect. Simultaneously, we saw oscillating rocket attacks, which came to a complete halt in recent days, granting us a peaceful Yom Kippur. What’s the connection between all of this? The surprising answer: Cars.
In June, upon the lifting of the Gaza siege in the wake of the Marmara fiasco, Israel opened Gaza to Israeli exports. After all, Gazans are excellent customers: They pay in advance using all the aid money poured into the Strip by the world.
Every grain of rice, egg, apple, or veal transferred to the Strip from Israel sees someone gaining a commission. The world clears its conscience via donations, so that there’s no shortage of money in Gaza. In fact, the Strip is a “world champion” in per capita donation receipts, by far outpacing states like Congo, Malawi, Pakistan, and Haiti.
Upon the official declaration of the lifting of what was known as “the Israeli siege,” Israeli sales to Gaza grew tenfold. If up until a year ago, about 40-60 trucks entered Gaza every week with fruit and vegetables, by early August of this year the number rose to 563 trucks of fresh food.
Meanwhile, Israel announced that it will allow new cars into Gaza, for the first time since Hamas took over the Strip. Of course, that announcement was not directly conveyed to Hamas authorities – the official Israel prefers to pretend that Ramallah’s Palestinian Authority still rules the Strip.
Everyone, all across the military and economic establishment, plays along with this pretension, highlighted by the shekels used by Hamas to pay Gaza salaries – shekels transferred to Gaza by the Bank of Israel and seemingly handed over only to authorized banks. Similarly, messages about car imports are also conveyed via a game of pretend: Only to representatives of the official Palestinian Authority. Yet this time we were in for a surprise.
An old trick
Maher Abu-Aluf, the PA official in charge of coordination with Gaza, quickly approved the move. However, the transportation ministry’s director general on behalf of Hamas in Gaza, Hassan Ukasha, announced that he will not allow the vehicles to enter the Strip.
Ukasha explained his decision to the stunned Gaza press as follows: The Palestinian Authority has a financial interest in bringing vehicles into Gaza. Israel imposes high taxes on each vehicle (a 50% sales tax and a 14% value added tax) – these funds are directly transferred from Israel’s Treasury to the PA’s accounts in Israeli banks. The PA doesn’t have to make any effort to collect the money from the importers – Israel does everything.
Ukasha made it clear that he does not wish to undermine importers and impose more taxes on vehicles entering Gaza. Hence, he proposed a simple solution: Let’s establish a joint committee with the PA that would discuss the distribution of funds received from Israel.
Officials in Salam Fayyad’s government realized that they’re about to lose millions and rushed to convey a message to Ukasha suggesting that he shut up: There is no reason for Israel to be aware of the nature of financial ties between Hamastan and the PA, to the tune of billions of shekels annually.
Ukasha got the hint, and proposed a joint committee about a wholly different issue. Within less than a week, a committee was set up, seemingly for the sole purpose of discussing “a shared transportation vision for Palestine and connecting Gaza to the West Bank.”
And so, with discussions about vision not arousing suspicion of money transfers to Hamas, the committee completed its work. Officially, the PA informed Israel about a week ago that it managed to convince Hamas authorities to lift their objection to the entry of vehicles into Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas announced that it is no longer interested in vehicle tax revenues, as long as the Fayyad government earmarks more funds to Gaza municipalities.
Everyone was pleased and the convey was ready to depart, in line with an Israeli agreement to bring 60 cars into Gaza every week – yet at the same time, the rocket fired directed at southern Israeli communities intensified. And then, some Israeli security official recalled an old trick that used to work before Operation Cast Lead. They used to call it, with a wink, “sealing off the crossings.” Today we can no longer use this tactic, yet it doesn’t mean we should grant rewards to Hamas in the form of cars and customs revenues.
And so, unexpectedly, Israel stopped the transfer of cars and spare parts to Gaza. Hamas again quickly got the message, and we therefore enjoyed a quiet weekend.
The question is whether the security establishment finally got the hint about its ability to undermine Hamas’ thriving businesses, thereby securing quiet for southern Israel residents without being accused of war crimes. As it turns out, vehicles are a weapon too.
Avi Trengo is a journalist
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