December 23, 2012 4:38 pm

Hamas struggles to land its ‘victory’

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Palestinian fishermen sort boxes containing fish at Gaza Seaport in Gaza City©Reuters

Some of the spoils of the latest war between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas are spread out on the concrete floor of the Gaza fish market: fresh, plump sea bass caught in the waters off the coastal enclave.

The prized fish is on sale in Gaza for the first time in more than five years – a collateral victim of the ceasefire that ended the eight-day conflict between Israel and Hamas last month.

Before the Egyptian-brokered truce, the Israeli navy enforced a strict ban on Gaza fishing boats sailing further than three nautical miles from the coast. Since the fighting ended, Israel has allowed the fishermen to cast their nets up to a limit of six miles, opening up waters where sea bass can be caught.

The change has made an immediate difference – at least to the 4,000 or more Gaza fishermen. One, Mohammed Abu Hasira, says boats now regularly come back with catches twice as large as the average before the ceasefire.

“But there is still not enough to satisfy the local demand,” he said. “The situation is better than before but not good.”

Much the same can be said about the broader political and economic situation in Gaza after the November clash.

The latest conflict ended with scenes of jubilation in Gaza, and declarations of victory by Hamas. The group’s leaders boasted that the barrage of rockets and missiles fired from Gaza at Israeli cities – including, for the first time, at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – had deterred an Israeli ground invasion.

Israel disputes the claim, arguing that it agreed to a ceasefire because it had achieved its military objectives with its air campaign.

Hamas also pointed out that the ceasefire agreement offered hope of a broader improvement for the 1.6m inhabitants of the strip, because it included a commitment to tackle the tight web of Israeli restrictions on the freedom of movement for both people and goods into and out of the territory.

It is a promise that has so far remained largely unfulfilled, however. Gaza fishermen have an extra three miles of fishing ground; farmers have started – in some areas – to cultivate land near the border fence that was once part of an Israeli-enforced buffer zone. But the strip’s broader economic isolation – and its inability to trade with the outside world – has yet to be lifted.

Diplomats and officials say the two sides are still holding “indirect” talks, but that progress is held back both by domestic turmoil in Egypt (which functions as the mediator), and by Israel’s desire to secure a clampdown on weapons smuggling into Gaza as a quid pro quo.

Hatem Owida, the deputy economy minister in the Hamas government, says that so far there has been “no positive answer from Israel to the Palestinian demands”, which include the opening of three border terminals that remain closed and an Israeli agreement to allow imports and exports to cross the border freely.

“We have told the Egyptians that we are ready to export goods such as clothing, furniture and scrap metal,” he said. “We want to start with 100 trucks of exports a day, but it can reach up to 400 trucks a day.”

At the moment, no more than three or four trucks of goods are allowed to leave Gaza every day – mostly flowers and strawberries. Shipments to the West Bank, a natural market for Gaza exporters, remain entirely off-limits.

Economic experts argue that further piecemeal steps, and even a full opening of the crossings to imports, are not enough.

“Gaza needs free imports, free exports and the free movement of traders and workers,” said one Gaza-based official with an international organisation, drawing a comparison between the strip’s economy and preparing a dish of food. “If you don’t put in all the ingredients, it won’t taste good. You need to bring everything together at the same time to have a tangible result.”

According to UN data, 44 per cent of the Gaza population are classified as “food insecure”, meaning they have to rely on UN organisations and charities to secure their food supply. The unemployment rate has dropped by several points over the past year, thanks to a sharp increase in construction, but still stands at above 30 per cent.

Despite the recent improvements, locals say that economic hardship is forcing many Gaza families to marry off their children at a much earlier age, and to take them out of university – in an effort to reduce the number of dependants.

Hamas leaders dismiss speculation that the recent euphoria could turn into frustration unless there is economic progress soon. “Whether facilitation at the [border] terminals happens or not, life will go on, “ said Mr Owida, the deputy minister. “The people of Gaza have always been patient.”

But Khalil Shaheen, of the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, argues that the current situation may yet expose Hamas to uncomfortable questions.

“This is a huge challenge for the government in Gaza,” he said. “They were celebrating victory, so it is hard now for them to say, ‘This is all because of the Israeli occupation, and there is nothing we can do.’”

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