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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.

Sha’aban emphasized two key issues regarding the fees collected at Erez and elsewhere: how the money gets spent and whether the people make enough money to afford the fees. He also challenged the notion that Erez was legitimate government property. “[The ruins of the Erez factories] are nobody’s property now,” he said. “They should be used [by Hamas] in a moral way — a government project to build schools and homes, for example — not to pay for soldiers’ salaries.”

Ibrahim Al-Jaber, deputy minister at Hamas’s Ministry of National Economics, said that 30 shekels per ton was a “reasonable, minimum fee” and consistent with Hamas’s policy of charging fees for extracting metals and stones from any destroyed building in Gaza. “The demand is very high for these resources, and the traders are selling these materials and getting good profits,” he said. Al-Jaber declined to estimate the amount of money that Hamas has collected in fees at Erez, but said it was a “limited amount that doesn’t deserve to be mentioned.”

However, rough estimates of Hamas’s financial gain can be surmised from the reports of the traders themselves. For example, one novice team of three traders paid about $7,600 in Hamas fees over a 15-day period. If 50 other teams paid similar amounts, this would mean that Hamas collected $760,000 in one month’s time at Erez. Sha’aban estimates that the Hamas government requires about 20 million shekels ($5.4 million) a month to pay employees’ salaries, which represents 70 to 80 percent of the government’s total monthly budget.

In addition to enduring the burden of backbreaking labor at a much lower salary than before, the rubble scavengers at Erez worry derelict structures will collapse on top of them or that Israeli troops guarding the border will shoot at them. Workers report that Israeli snipers have fired warning shots in their direction. Others report that Israeli soldiers have killed their donkeys and horses. On March 20, Israeli troops raided the buffer zone near the border and arrested 17 rubble workers, some of whom remain in Israeli prisons.

Workers at Erez are now concerned about a seemingly positive development: pervasive but unconfirmed rumors that Israel might soon allow construction materials to enter Gaza. If true, these materials would provide great relief to the besieged coastal enclave, but would also eliminate these workers’ only source of income. Workers report that some traders have stopped buying from them because they expect cheaper and better quality stones to come from Israel. Some suspect that this is a “trader trick” aimed at forcing workers to sell their materials at cheaper rate.

The number of people scavenging at Erez has sharply declined from about 1,000 in mid-March to only about 200 workers during the first week of April. While more than 50 traders bought from Erez most afternoons, now only a dozen or so come every day. Sha’aban attributes this sharp drop in business to three primary factors: security concerns, the rumored opening of the border for construction materials and the depletion of available raw materials at Erez. He added, “Of course the [new Hamas fees] are another reason because maybe people find that it’s not profitable enough to be worth the risk.”

One trader Abu Bassam Shaheen, who owns a metal-working shop and has collected materials from many destroyed buildings in Gaza, said “it’s a government right” to collect fees at Erez. He added, “This is a very hard situation that an animal would not accept. Sometimes kids bring stones from Erez and I don’t need them, but I buy them because I feel so badly about their situation.”