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Is Hamas robbing the poor?

Hamas is said to pay for a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy by taxing Gaza laborers ... and robbing the odd bank.

Members of Hamas' security forces shout as they march in formation during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City March 1, 2010. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

GAZA CITY, Gaza — On a hot day in early April, men and school-age boys dig for stones and pieces of brick in the crumbling ruins of the Erez Industrial Zone. This former settlement housed Israeli and Palestinian textile, clothing and furniture factories that employed 4,000 Gazans before Israel’s 2005 unilateral disengagement. The raw materials now scavenged from the Erez rubble are largely forbidden under the Israeli blockade, yet desperately needed for construction projects across Gaza.

Three months ago, when the scavenging industry at Erez was attracting more than 1,000 workers and at least 50 teams of traders, the Hamas government declared it public property and imposed a fee of 30 shekels ($8) per ton of rocks collected. Last month, after traders resisted the fee, police bulldozers sealed off the roads and donkey paths and impounded the trucks of traders caught without receipts.

“The government is living off the blood of the people,” said one trader, whose anger was shared by many. “This area had a good income for a huge number of [people] who did not have jobs. Now we have almost no profits.” This trader had been earning 1,000 shekels a day and now earns about 100 shekels a day. He is the sole breadwinner for a big extended family and had been unemployed before buying and selling materials from Erez six months ago.

Many traders have slashed the rates they pay to scavengers, citing the new Hamas fees. Nasha’at Hamad, 17, and his 14-year-old brother together used to earn about 300 shekels per day collecting about one ton of rocks. In poverty-stricken Gaza, this is a sizable income for unskilled laborers. Most taxi drivers earn 80 to 100 shekels for 12 hours of work. After Hamas imposed the fees at Erez, the brothers together brought home only 50 to 70 shekels a day. Both left school two years ago to scavenge at Erez because their family had no other source of income. “The situation is a disaster,” said Nasha’at Hamad. “It’s very hard work. You have to wake up at 5 a.m. Sometimes we go home sick.”

At Erez and across Gaza, Hamas has introduced new fees that directly impact ordinary civilians, including a 25 percent tax on suppliers of cheap petrol smuggled from Egypt, a 20-shekel application fee for the thousands of Gazans seeking teaching jobs and a 900-shekel vocational license for small businesses.

Analysts suspect that Hamas is struggling to finance its bloated bureaucracy, which has grown from about 20,000 employees in 2008 to 30,000 employees, about half of whom are connected to the military or police. Over the past few months, Hamas — which once prided itself on always paying salaries on time, in contrast to its Fatah rivals — has paid the salaries of its teachers and doctors more than two weeks late.

In another apparent sign of financial trouble, Hamas policemen raided a local bank on March 29 and forcibly seized $270,000 from the account of a Hamas-affiliated charity. The account had been frozen by the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority.

Economist analyst Omar Sha’aban said, “There is a financial crisis. There is a shortage of resources. It’s very clear. Like any country in financial crisis, Hamas is going to the people. But they’re not thinking about how to reduce their expenditure.”