The lifting of the siege in June gave the Gazans room to breathe. With the money in the Strip – and there is quite a lot of it in dollars, dinars, and even shekels – they can buy whatever they want.
Food and other products flow into Gaza with hardly any restrictions. What doesn't come from Israel, because the price is too high, continues to flow in through the Rafah tunnels.
"There are a slew of products here, and beautiful restaurants. Is this the Gaza we have been hearing about?" A Sudanese official, who arrived in the Strip about a month ago with hundreds of visitors from Arab countries on the "Viva Palestina" aid convoy, was quoted by Palestinian news agency Maan as saying.
"Where is the siege? I don't see it in Gaza. I wish Sudan's residents could live under the conditions of the Gazan siege," he reportedly added.
One of the main characteristics of the economic change in the Strip is the renovation and construction drive. Buildings are being built in every corner. Hamas is renovating the public buildings destroyed in Israeli air raids during Operation Cast Lead, including the bombed Legislative Council building on Omar al-Mukhtar Boulevard and the police headquarters.
But the renovation of public buildings is nothing compared to Hamas' flagship project: The building of 25,000 new housing units in the city, some on lands of the former Gush Katif settlements.
The goal is not only to overcome the huge apartment shortage – which stems mainly from the natural growth, the damages of the war, and the halt in construction in the past three years – but mainly to benefit the people, whose support Hamas seeks in order to establish its rule.
The plan is to construct multi-story buildings ("we have no land to spare," explains a Gaza housing ministry official) and neighborhoods built as independent residential areas. A mosque will be set up at the center of each neighborhood, alongside shopping centers, schools and kindergartens. Access roads will be paved and even playgrounds for children.
Neighborhood of 72 virgins
Bulldozers have begun clearing the land and preparing it for the new residential neighborhoods, some of which have already been named.
The neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip, west of the town of Beit Lahiya, will be named after the residence of the 72 virgins waiting in paradise. The al-Buraq neighborhood, named after the horse Prophet Muhammad rode from Mecca to the al-Aqsa Mosque, will be built on the lands of Gush Katif. The Andalus neighborhood is aimed at reminding the Muslims of their days of glory in Spain.
Only one neighborhood, set to be built near the Netzarim Junction, remains nameless. The Gazans will likely keep its original name, Juhor ad-Dik.
Who are the apartments for? Hamas' housing minister Yousef Alamanti announced recently that the new homes would be sold in full transparency, according to a series of criteria of social justice.
First in line will be the families of 'shahidim' (martyrs), prisoners and casualties of war. Next in line will be young couples who have no apartment of their own and whose family doesn't own a plot they could build on. They will be followed by families whose homes were destroyed by Israel, especially during Operation Cast Lead, which cannot be rebuilt. The remaining apartments will be handed out according to a housing ministry raffle.
And what about the prices? Apartments in the new neighborhoods will cost $25-40,000, a significant sum in Gaza. Buyers who have a safe and regular job, like Palestinian government workers, will be entitled to a bank loan. The rest will be able to take mortgages provided by Islamic associations. Islamic charity organizations will help the families of shahidim and prisoners.
A similar apartment in the nearby southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, by the way, costs a bit more: About NIS 500-600,000 ($135-163,000) for a new three-room apartment, and some NIS 800,000 (almost $220,000) for a four-room flat.
Dahaniya Airport's runways crushed (Photo: AP)
Hamas has allotted tens of millions of dollars to the building project. There is apparently no shortage of money. Generous donations are flowing in from Iran, Islamic associations across the Arab worlds, and governmental elements in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Western elements.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been mercilessly pursuing Hamas in the West Bank, is aiding Gaza with millions of dollars, boasting that 57% of the Palestinian Authority budget is directed at the Strip.
Abbas pays the salaries of 70,000 government workers from the post-Hamas era, maintains the health and education systems, and even funds some of Gaza's electricity production expenses.
International organizations are also operating in Gaza in full force. Since the Turkish flotilla, Israel has approved – through the Civil Administration – 70 projects of building infrastructure for the health, education and sanitation systems by international elements.
At the request of the United Nations secretary-general, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has approved the transfer of building materials – including gravel – for the construction of a large residential neighborhood for refugees in Khan Younis.
In addition, Hamas has been implementing a new tax system: 14% value added tax, 8% income tax. For each liter of gas flowing into the Strip from Gaza and sold for about NIS 2 (50 cents), the government charges 60 agorot (16 cents). A fee is imposed on all goods arriving from Israel. Each new motorcycle smuggled through the tunnels carries an NIS 300 ($82) tax.
In order to settle the contradiction between the new taxes and the laws of Islam, which state that the only taxes which can be collected are 10% of the Muslim's income which must go to charity, Hamas says it is working to create a social justice system.
And so, in measured steps, without a siege and with a lot of foreign aid, Gaza's economy is starting to recover, as is the agriculture and some of the industries. The Hamas government has recovered from Operation Cast Lead, emerged from the financial distress and is now focused not only on improving its military capabilities, but also on strengthening its hold of the government and imposing an Islamic rule in Gaza.
It's safe to say that the Turkish flotilla has only benefitted Gaza. It led to the end of the siege imposed on the Strip as a means to pressure Hamas to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel gave into international pressure and opened the crossings to put an end to global complaints of shortage and hunger in Gaza.
Global pressure on Egypt following the deadly flotilla raid led to the opening of the Rafah crossing, which now gives Gazans direct contact with the world. The land crossing has been open to passengers and goods since then, and long aid convoys have been flowing into Gaza from Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and even Indonesia and Malaysia.
The naval convoys, aimed at aiding Hamas and de-legitimizing Israel, continue. At least three or four flotillas are expected to set sail in the coming months.
"In Gaza, the days are counted according to events," Yusef Najar, a Gazan merchant, says in phone conversation. "The Turkish flotilla is such an event. Before it happened we experienced very difficult times. After the flotilla everything changed; things are much better."
Civil Administration officials, who supervise the crossings, admit that all the goods entering Gaza are in the volumes required by the Palestinians, and all are brought in through Israel – apart from cement, iron and gravel, the basic building materials, which Israel prohibits for fear that they would be used by Hamas to build posts and bunkers.
But the Gazans have quickly adjusted to the situation. Cement and iron are smuggled into the Gaza City and Khan Younis markets like the new cars, televisions, sunglasses and Viagra pills, as well as rockets, missiles, and other weapons – through the tunnels.
The only thing missing is gravel. The Gazans have yet to find a way to transport it through tunnels, and the Strip does not have stony mountains which gravel could be grinded from. Without gravel, one cannot build houses and establish new neighborhood.
Gravel industryThe Strip's residents won't despair, however. The infrastructure in sandy Gaza is built on layers of gravel, as in the case of the Dahaniya Airport in the southern Strip. It was built by former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as one of the Palestinian national symbols, the Americans and Europeans help set up modern concrete runways, and all on a layer of gravel.
The same applies for the roads and infrastructure of buildings in the large Erez industrial zone, and the hundreds of homes destroyed in the recent war. All they have to do is dig in deserted construction sites and reuse the gravel.
And so gravel has become Gaza's white gold and a source of income for thousands of Gazans. One ton of gravel is sold today for NIS 500 ($662) – five times more than before the siege, and there are those who are willing to pay even more. Everyone – men, women, elderly people and children – search for gravel with simple work tools in their hands.
The Dahaniya Airport is no longer visible. The gravel collectors have completed the crushing of the runways. The concrete platforms were dismantled and underwent a grinding process. Millions of tons of gravel have already been removed from the sand, sifted and transferred to Gaza's construction markets.
The ruins of the Strip's houses are worth a lot of money today. There are even gravel contractors, who buy the right to collect the gravel from the owners of the destroyed homes. One of these contractors is the Abu Varda family from the northern Strip, which has forcibly created a monopoly for removing the gravel from the old Erez industrial zone.
The gravel miners dismantle one building after another, dig under roads, grind the concrete and sift the sand of gravel. Their problem is the Israel Defense Forces, which shoots every time one of them approaches the border fence. Not one day passes without a gravel miners getting hurt.
"Gravel has turned into a leverage for moving Gaza's weak economy forward," says Ahmed Hamid, a Khan Younis merchant. "The gravel miners benefit from it, the owners of destroyed houses get money, and the contractors will build the new neighborhoods and employ many laborers. Gaza's unemployment rate will drop, there will be more money, and perhaps, God willing, we'll be slightly happier."
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