In the midst of the dramatic war raging in Gaza, there is an economic demand that cannot be avoided, because it continues. In Italy, as in international public opinion. I will express it with an undoubtedly excessive summary: Can the hatred towards Israel that exploded on October 7th be at least partly explained by the impoverishment of the Strip, in turn caused by the border blockade imposed by the Jewish State since 2007?
Analysis of the economic data of the Strip
I’ll immediately anticipate my negative response. Without going into political, religious or values issues – they do not concern this newsletter – an analysis of the data and information available on the economy and society of Gaza before the war suggests a different picture. The blockade imposed by Israel was much less stringent than is usually said, and became increasingly less so. Gaza was a place of great poverty and high unemployment, but above all of blatant inequality. And the poverty of the territory was explained, even more than by the filters on the border with Israel and Egypt, by what the economist Daron Acemoglu and the anthropologist James Robinson call in their classic “Why nations fail” an extractive system . Gaza was poor, in large part, because Hamas managed it as a mafia structure controls a territory deeply infiltrated by it: every resource extorted, everything bent for the purposes of enrichment and power of those who control the system with force and intimidation . After all, the inhabitants of the Strip themselves had understood this. In a credible poll taken by Arab Barometer between September 28 and October 6, two-thirds of the local Palestinian population say they have no or not much trust in Hamas; 72% said there was a high or medium level of corruption in the area. Hamas, completely uninterested in the well-being of the inhabitants, plundered Gaza’s resources.
The blockade and precarious balances
The first issue is that of the blockade of Israel (and Egypt). How stringent was it? By political choice, less and less. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had bet that he would only have political benefits if he allowed Hamas leaders to enrich themselves by managing Gaza peacefully.: those were his ideal enemies, because in their extremism they allowed him not to reopen the Palestinian question. Netanyahu deluded that the leaders of Hamas would be satisfied with grabbing billions and controlling the Strip, ensuring some precarious economic balance.
Certainly the blockade had eased a lot. THEThe graph you see above produced by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows the number of authorized exits from Gaza to Israel in recent years. They had never been as high as in 2022 for eighteen years, since well before the border blockade following the violent suppression of the role of the Palestinian Authority in the Strip by Hamas in June 2007. Almost half a million exits from Gaza had been recorded to Israel: 83% were commuters who worked in Israel, the rest were hospital patients admitted for treatment in Israel. Even Egypt, which had maintained the blockade since 2007 like the Jewish State, had softened it: 145 thousand exits in 2022, compared to 14 thousand in 2015. Entries from Gaza into Israel had quadrupled because the Jewish State had significantly increased entry permits jobs for the inhabitants of the Strip, which rose to 18,500 in the first half of 2023. And since the average compensation of these commuters was about four times higher than those employed in the Strip itself, the flow of new income from jobs in Israel was almost a tenth of the wage bill of the Palestinian territory: a very strong impact.
Israel had eased the economic blockade in other ways as well. Last year the border remained open for 237 days and 74,000 trucks loaded with products passed through. In the first half of 2021, around three thousand trucks full of goods had entered from Israel per week: not exactly an embargo. Cogat (a unit of the Israeli Ministry of Defense that deals with civil issues with the Palestinian territories) records that many goods with dual military and civilian use had been deleted from the list of products whose sale in Gaza was prohibited: cement, hydraulic pumps , solar panels, welding material, steel cables, drainage technologies (many of which, according to former Israeli military intelligence officer Yigal Carmon, later used by Hamas for its tunnel network). Cogat also records that recently the number of people employed in the textile sector in Gaza had increased more than tenfold to 20 thousand people, fishing exports had doubled and agricultural exports had also grown. Gaza also had a higher level of human development than even much higher-income Middle Eastern countries. From the CIA Factbook we see that it had an infant mortality rate similar to that of Jordan and lower than that of Turkey; it had a lower maternal mortality rate at childbirth than China, Thailand, Cyprus and Mexico, as well as Tunisia and Algeria; it had more doctors per thousand inhabitants than Morocco or Iran.
The inequalities and greed of Hamas
None of this removes the fact that Gaza was poor. It was, one of the most deprived territories in the Middle East. Again according to the CIA Factbook, just 5,600 dollars of income per capita in 2021 is one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. And the blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt has something to do with it, of course. But in the meantime something else was also happening: an economy of opulent consumption was being born there, for the rich people of the Strip. Memri, Yigal Carmon’s open-source intelligence center, showed me reports from Turkish TV, Al-Arabiya, Arabic Al-Jazeera or local advertisements showing expensive restaurants, markets overloaded with luxury goods and the birth of sought-after resorts tourist. People are buying as if there were no siege, the Al-Arabyia report proclaims. Alongside poverty, there was an affluence economy in Gaza.
How is this possible? Partly because – estimates former Mossad and Shin Bet agent Uzi Shaya – the Hamas oligarchy captured for itself part of the 2.3 billion dollars in foreign aid (more than a thousand dollars per inhabitant per year ) that arrived in the Strip every year: in part, also liquid money from Iran or Qatar transported by shoulder from Istanbul, through Tel Aviv airport, right into Gaza.
This is partly because Hamas manages what the US Treasury defines as a secret portfolio of investments: according to Shaya, the former Israeli intelligence agent, assets worth around 500 million dollars in real estate investments in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan or in Algeria.
It is partly possible because Hamas extorted – and extorts – between 20% and 40% of all imports, exports and all proceeds from economic activity of Gazans outside and inside the Strip. That is not a nationalist movement. And not just a terrorist organization: a mafia cartel that enriches itself and impoverishes the territory on which it insists. In the meantime, he was building a war infrastructure under civilian Gaza and preparing for October 7th.
Yet Netanyahu had even sent his army general Herzi Halevi to Qatar to give his approval for the Al-Thani ruling family to continue financing Hamas. Both Yigal Carmon and Uzi Shaya confirm this to me. He believed he had an implicit deal with the Hamas leaders, based on money. We responded late, Shaya acknowledges. And he adds: But this is an understatement.
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