Revealed - Gaza's mini-boom

Sections of the media are finally noticing the green shoots of recovery growing in the former war zone

By Alex Brummer, April 8, 2010

The conventional wisdom on Gaza is that it is the largest prison camp in the world. The liberal US Daily Kos website quotes former US President Jimmy Carter saying that the blockade of the territory is "a crime and atrocity". It also notes that the UK's luvvie lobby, Independent Jewish Voices, has accused Israel of breaching international law in the area.

Sure, four years of blockade and Israel's all-out Israel war against Hamas in 2009 did enormous social and economic damage as Jerusalem sought to silence the thousands of rockets aimed at its own people. However, an article in the April 3-9 edition of the Economist - Britain's bestselling global periodical - goes some way towards altering the impression that Gaza is an economic basket case.

It notes that the tunnels that connect Gaza to Egypt have multiplied so fast that the supply of goods travelling through them, from cement to" Chelsea tractors", now exceeds demand. Israel still keeps strict control on goods entering Gaza from its side of the border with only 73 categories of goods approved. But the Economist reports that more than 4,000 different items are now on sale inside Gaza.

Indeed, Israel itself has also been loosening the blockade, with Haaretz and the international news agencies reporting this week that, for the first time in three years, the Israeli authorities are allowing shipments of clothes and shoes to pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing, with more than 10 truckloads going over the border.

There is, of course, still plenty of misery inside Gaza but the economic data is increasingly encouraging. Cement, which cost 300 Israeli shekels per sack a year ago, has dropped tenfold in price. Petrol being pumped into Gaza from Egypt via underground pipes sells for one-third of the price paid on the West Bank and imports travel much faster through the tunnels than via Israel with its intrusive, security-laden bureaucracy.

There is still plenty of misery but the economic data is encouraging

So where does the income which is producing a mini-Gazan boom come from? As the Economist reports, much of it derives from subventions provided by official development assistance. The United Nations, largely through the Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) employs some 10,000 Gazans to provide assistance in areas such as health, housing and education. The local Hamas government has its own civil service but the biggest employer of all is the alternative civil service provided by Salam Fayyad's West Bank government.

What is seldom reported in the Western media is that the Islamic University put out of action by Israeli weaponry 14-months ago is rebuilt and up and running again. New cafes have sprung up across Gaza City and while the power is still sometimes cut, there is a surfeit of generators for sale.

Hamas is collecting considerable tax income, which it recycles into various projects. And Gaza's informal hawala banking system, that straddles the strip into Egypt, is fully solvent.

Despite the welcome economic upsurge, the territory remains politically isolated. Egypt is reportedly frustrated by Hamas's refusal to concede the Palestinian Authority some autonomy in the running of Gaza's affairs. Similarly, increased prosperity means that extremist Islamic groups are aching for a share of the spoils and are challenging the authority of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's regime.

The Economist suggests that this may well explain the recent spate of rocket attacks organised by radicals against Israel as well as the bombings of internal leaders including the recent attack on the mayor of Rafah.

What is really remarkable about much of this reporting from Gaza is how little we have heard of it before. Admittedly, access for Western journalists to the territory is tricky and dangerous. Nevertheless, the narrative of humanitarian disaster - often served up by the Western press - looks for the moment to be wide of the mark.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:51pm, May 21 2010


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