GAZA — Three years after Israel and Egypt imposed an embargo on this tormented Palestinian strip, shutting down its economy, a consensus has emerged that the attempt to weaken the governing party, Hamas, and drive it from power has failed.
In the days since an Israeli naval takeover of a flotilla trying to break the siege turned deadly, that consensus has taken on added urgency, with world powers, anti-Hamas Palestinians in Gaza and some senior Israeli officials advocating a shift.
In its three years in power, Hamas has taken control not only of security, education and the justice system but also the economy, by regulating and taxing an extensive smuggling tunnel system from Egypt. In the process, the traditional and largely pro-Western business community has been sidelined.
This may be about to change.
“We need to build a legitimate private sector in Gaza as a strong counterweight to extremism,” Tony Blair, who serves as the international community’s liaison to the Palestinians,said in an interview, reflecting the view of the Obama administration as well. “To end up with a Gaza that is dependent on tunnels and foreign aid is not a good idea.”
Businesspeople in Gaza say that by closing down legitimate commerce, Israel has helped Hamas tighten its domination. And by allowing in food for shops but not goods needed for industry, Israel is helping keep Gaza a welfare society, the sort of place where extremism can flourish.
“I can’t get cocoa powder, I can’t get malt, I can’t get shortening or syrup or wrapping material or boxes,” said Mohammed Telbani, the head of al-Awda, a cookie and ice cream factory in the central town of Deir al Balah. “I don’t like Hamas, and I don’t like Fatah. All I want is to make food.”
Israeli officials say they have been working for months on a change of policy, but they want to guard against helping Hamas or bringing renewed rocket attacks on Israel. They are less convinced than foreign leaders about the benefits of a full-scale tilt toward the business community, but they see room for increased activity.
“Hamas is strong,” Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli Defense Ministry official in charge of Palestinian civilian issues, acknowledged in an interview. “It controls Gaza, and it doesn’t look like that is going to be changed in the coming months or maybe years. But we must protect our security while helping interests in Gaza that are not under Hamas’ control.”
For Israel, any shift in Gaza is complicated by the fact that Hamas has been holding one of its soldiers for four years. In addition, Israel does not want Hamas or its associates to gain credit for new relief.
This is a problem for Olfat al-Qarawi,stuck in a makeshift tent with her husband and six children for 18 months after their house was destroyed by an Israeli invasion. The al-Qarawis expected to get a donated trailer last year, but it went to a family loyal to Hamas, she said.