When international aid starts flowing into Gaza for post-Protective Edge rebuilding, what can be done to ensure that cement and steel go to building homes, factories and hospitals and not, once again, for the construction of terror tunnels?
Eyal Ofer, an expert on Hamas and the Gaza economy, has a simple, but potentially effective, idea. “We must bring about a situation whereby no truckload of cement will be allowed into Gaza until a truck leaves Gaza bearing a Fajr missile,” he told Israel Radio’s Keren Neubach last week.
In other words, “land for peace” didn’t work, but “cement for missiles” should be given a try.
“It won’t happen overnight; it may take six months to set up, but if Hamas understands that the rehabilitation of Gaza depends on its giving up its missiles and disarming, it will have no choice.”
Gaza’s economy was in dire straits even before the war, having no industry and no exports. The only growth industry is terrorism, with Hamas growing by a factor of 25 since Israel left Gaza in 2005 in the “disengagement.” The terror organization’s annual budget has skyrocketed over the past nine years from $40 million to $1 billion.
Where does it get the money to pay 45,000 employees, including 25,000 armed police and soldiers belonging to Izzadin al-Kassam? According to Ofer, it operates as part-government and part-mafia, collecting taxes-protection money from everyone from the poor guy who owns a falafel stand to the wealthy businessman buying a BMW.
“When Israel allows a luxury car into Gaza, Hamas collects NIS 150,000 in taxes on it,” he says. “Hamas controls the gas stations and ensures that only someone with license plates that show he has paid the tax can purchase gas.”
Hamas also manages to take a slice out of the international funding that comes via the Palestinian Authority (some $1.5 billion a year) and through UNWRA, which together pay some 150,000 salaries, imposing a variety of indirect taxes.
In exchange, Hamas rules Gaza with an iron hand, ensuring that crime is low and the streets are safe.
Gaza does have natural gas fields that could bring in income, but Israel, under then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, decided not to do business with it, preferring a deal with Egypt instead. For the time being, there are no other customers for the gas and it is failing to produce income.
The result is that Gaza’s population of 1.8 million suffers from 43 percent unemployment and few prospects for the future. Even the cement with which they’ve built their homes is substandard because Hamas seized the top-quality cement for its tunnels.
The only way to ensure that the building materials that will likely flow into Gaza in the months ahead reach their intended destination, and don’t end up below ground, is for Israel and Egypt — through which the materials will come — to use their economic clout, Ofer suggests.
This means that trucks bearing aid will be allowed in only after trucks bearing weapons are sent out. This, he adds, will make Hamas understand that there’s no point in their weapons build-up.
“We have economic weapons which we should be using,” Ofer concludes. “This would save civilian lives in Israel and in Gaza.”