The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind bloody Gaza clashes, economic misery and piles of debt

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones at Israeli forces during clashes this month along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/For The Washington Post)

GAZA CITY — Every Friday for the past month, thousands of Palestinians have surged to Gaza’s border fence with Israel in a show of anger and defiance, some throwing stones and molotov cocktails, others simply wanting to be there.

“Young people have nothing to lose,” said 31-year-old Mohammed Sukkar, a few hundred yards from the boundary fence on the first day of protests last month as the crowd retreated after pops of gunfire. Sukkar is unemployed and said he is hard-pressed to feed his six children.

Across the 140-square-mile territory, Gazans are struggling to finance their daily lives. Young people — unable to pay for weddings or homes of their own — are delaying marriage, figures show, while health officials say suicide, once virtually unheard of in Gaza, is on the rise. 

Universities say students are dropping out because they cannot afford the fees. At the Islamic University in Gaza City, a third of the students did not re-enroll this semester. Graduates have little hope of finding work in their specialized fields. 

Unemployment in Gaza is nearly 50 percent, and 68 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 24 are jobless, according to figures from the Palestine Trade Center. 

Renewed clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces broke out April 20, with Israel warning protesters against approaching the border. (Video: Reuters)

The Gaza Strip’s economy has been crippled by a more than ­decade-long blockade by Israel, which maintains tight controls on trade and movement in and out of the territory, citing security considerations. But Gazans are also frustrated with the territory’s rulers, the Hamas organization, for its failure to provide basic services, and with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for cutting the salaries of its Gaza employees.

The United Nations is warning that something has got to give. Even Israeli security officials have sounded an alarm in recent months, warning that a humanitarian crisis could set off an explosion of violence, putting Israel itself at risk.

 “We are on the edge of economic collapse,” said Judge Mohammed Nofal, sorting through a pile of case files in his courtroom in central Gaza, where plaintiffs and accused debtors shuffle in and out to have their financial cases heard. 

Nofal’s courtroom, nothing more than a small office stacked with files, provides a glimpse into Gaza’s economic hardships. From behind his desk, he hears about 20 cases a day and rules on another 80 just from the paperwork. 

Nofal, one of two financial judges in the Gaza court, said he heard 12,000 cases last year, up 50 percent from the year before. The value of checks bounced in the territory surged to $112 million last year, according to the Palestine Monetary Authority. In 2016, the figure was $62 million. 

Desperate for small loans, Gazans seek credit wherever they can, Nofal said. Often, for instance, people turn to electronics stores that offer products on credit, signing up to buy televisions or washing machines on installment plans, then immediately selling those appliances to get cash. 

When they fail to pay their creditors, a domino effect of defaults is triggered, Nofal said. 

Nabil Abu Afash, 58, used to sell furniture on installment. But customers stopped paying him and he had no way to recoup the losses, he said. He sold his house to cover $90,000 of his own debt and now owes rent to a landlord.

On a recent day, he was in line outside the courthouse, waiting to request that his overdue rent be deferred, when his landlord happened to pass by. 

“I owe him $3,000,” Abu Afash said. 

“Four thousand,” countered the landlord, Hatem Qalaga, who said he came to court to petition that his debtors be imprisoned. 

“What am I supposed to do?” Qalaga continued. “I’m owed $100,000, and now I’m $30,000 in debt myself.”

“It’s collapsing, collapsing,” he said of Gaza’s economy. 

As they spoke, a man nearby was bundled off to prison in a police car. 

Nofal said prison is a last resort. But he signed 20 arrest warrants on his desk that day.

Everyone is feeling the pinch, he said, acknowledging that his own salary was cut by the local government by 60 percent, to $800 a month. 

The only solution, he said, is for Israel to ease border restrictions.  

“People need to work,” Nofal said. 

Beleaguered Gazans do not blame only Israel; pressure is building against Palestinian leaders, too. 

“It’s because of Hamas,” Ahmed Hamouda, a 25-year-old worker on Gaza’s seafront, said without missing a beat. “This is the reality. We are fed up.”

Gaza is suffering because of Hamas’s isolation from the rest of the world, he said. The group is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union, and it has been increasingly ostracized within the Middle East.

Although Hamas’s relationship with Egypt has warmed somewhat in recent months, the group’s fortunes took a dive when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt in 2013. Since then, Egypt has shut down smuggling tunnels to Gaza that had generated taxes for Hamas and breathed some life into Gaza’s economy. 

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority has cut wages for its employees in Gaza to squeeze Hamas, a rival political force.

As economic pressure mounts, Hamas has tried to hand over the burden of administering the strip to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas. But talks to mend a long-standing rift have failed, with Hamas ultimately unwilling to give up its control over security in Gaza. It has, however, handed over the main border crossing with Israel, ceding with that control over the taxes collected there.  

With Hamas cornered and unable to provide basic services, analysts speculate that another war with Israel could be imminent as the militant group seeks a way to divert attention from the internal crisis. 

But Hamas has found another release valve — for now, at least. 

The idea for the weekly protests, dubbed the “March of Return,” has been widely attributed to Palestinian activist Ahmad Abu Artema, who disavowed any political affiliation and said he believes in a one-state solution to the conflict, an arrangement in which Palestinians are given rights alongside Israelis in a democratic state. 

He said the “hardship of Gaza” spurred the “revolutionary step” of peacefully protesting Israel’s occupation and the loss of Palestinian land when Israel was created in 1948.

Abu Artema said it was important for the protests to have the backing of the political parties that rule Gaza. “We cannot deny them,” he said. “They are part of society.” 

But for Hamas, the march — however it came about — came at the right moment. 

“They decided, I wouldn’t say to hijack the march, I’d say to lead the march,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University. The aim was to deflect attention to Israel “instead of anger and frustration building up against Hamas in Gaza.” 

Hamas is testing a new strategy, Abusada said. “Hamas has realized very late that in military confrontation, we lose,” Abusada said. “They are not quitting the military resistance. They are trying to use nonviolent resistance alongside.” 

Israel, however, argues that the protests are in no way peaceful, calling them a cover for Hamas to carry out attacks. Israeli officials blame the Palestinians for hostile activity at the border, including gunfire and the planting of explosives by militants. 

Ahmed Yousef, a former senior adviser to Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, said the demonstrations have provided needed relief. 

“We are a little bit happier than before,” Yousef said. “We can see something with this demonstration that the issue of Palestine is seen by the whole world.”

 Protest organizers say they hope to sustain the demonstrations until at least mid-May, when Palestinians commemorate what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, marking the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians seven decades ago upon Israel’s creation.

The numbers of protesters, though, are declining with the passing weeks, and the toll of the demonstrations continues to rise. More than 1,500 Palestinians have been shot in the past month.

And none of this is kick-starting the economy.

Wissam Sabah, 34, runs a mechanics shop and imports building materials in Rafah, a city in southern Gaza. 

He pulls out a wad of bounced checks from people who owe him money.

“See all this? All paper, no cash,” he said. He said he was taking the checks to the police to file a report.

Construction is virtually at a standstill, he said. International aid to the territory is declining, and just over half of the $5.4 billion dollars pledged for Gaza’s reconstruction in 2014 has been delivered, according to the World Bank. 

Tragically, Sabah and others here say, another economic solution exists.

“When there’s a war, they pay attention,” he said. “When there is destruction, there will be reconstruction.”

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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