Conditions worsen in Gaza as Israel tightens grip

Saladin Sultan and one of his five children stand in the bare family living room in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip.
Saladin Sultan and one of his five children stand in the bare family living room in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip — Day after day, Saladin Sultan sits in his nearly empty corner market as his family's economic lifeblood drains away.

Suppliers come every day and ask Sultan to settle mounting debts he can't afford to pay. There's almost nothing for him to sell, which doesn't matter so much since his customers don't have any money to buy.

To feed his wife and five children, Sultan sold of one of the store's refrigerators. Then, at his wife's urging, he sold his gold wedding ring.

This month, the 39-year-old merchant sold the living room furniture.

Now, with Israel tightening its economic chokehold on Gaza, Sultan and the entire Gaza Strip are heading into a dangerous tailspin from which the World Bank has warned there may be no pulling out.

"The situation is so bad that you really prefer to die," Sultan said. "I prefer to die rather than to live a life like this."

In the four months since Hamas seized effective control of the Gaza Strip in a brutal military takeover, Israel has cut off the desolate region from the outside world and created a political crisis for the Islamist militant group now leading the government here.

Popular support for Hamas appears to be dwindling as frustration builds.

While Hamas managed to restore a semblance of safety to the Gaza Strip, it has failed to do much more. The Hamas-led government enjoys virtually no international recognition. Israel and the United States have rushed to shore up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has championed the international campaign to marginalize Hamas.

Now Hamas is confronting intense internal fissures.

Ghazi Hamad, one of the best-known Hamas pragmatists in the Gaza Strip, has been effectively sidelined after criticizing the militant group for leading the Palestinians into an international political ambush.

Hamad, who until recently served as chief spokesman for deposed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, called the Hamas takeover a "serious strategic mistake that burdened the movement more than it can bear."

Other Hamas leaders in Gaza are vowing to stand fast and not let the latest Israeli steps force them to capitulate. But Israel's actions have created rank stagnation that is permeating daily life.

Stores along Gaza City's main streets are shuttered. Greenhouses along the coast lie abandoned. Factories near the Israeli borders are deserted.

A putrid smell fills the air as sewage trickles past half-finished water treatment projects and out into the Mediterranean Sea.

Since June, the number of Gaza residents pushed into poverty has mushroomed.

Two-thirds of the 100,000 private-sector jobs have been lost. The World Bank has warned that "any economic backbone and private-sector vitality in Gaza risks collapse if the current closure policy continues."

Things are about to get worse. This week, Israel began tightening the screws, closing one of the two remaining crossings used to transfer food and other supplies in and out of the Gaza Strip.

Despite warnings that the actions could be illegal under international law, Israel intends to let nothing but essential food and medical supplies into Gaza. No more than 55 daily truckloads of goods are expected to cross a border once expected to handle 800 or more.

Israel also has begun cutting the flow of natural gas into Gaza by 15 percent and plans to cut off electricity for at least 15 minutes a day, though on Monday the Israeli attorney general barred the move until the impact can be further analyzed.

"This is a signal to Hamas and the Palestinian people in Gaza," said Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli government agency responsible for relations with the Gaza Strip. "The only reason we are doing this is to make the lives of the terrorists harder."

The attempt to squeeze Gaza is drawing widespread international criticism.

The United Nations, leaders in the European Union and a growing number of human rights groups have warned Israel not to go too far.

While Israel officially ended its 38-year-rule over Gaza in 2005 when it removed 9,000 Jewish settlers and razed their homes, the United Nations still considers Gaza to be occupied by Israel because it retains effective control over the population.

Israeli forces guard every exit from Gaza by land, sea and air. The Israeli military continues to stage daily operations to root out Palestinian militants, who fire mortars and rudimentary rockets into neighboring Israeli cities, towns and farms.

"International law very clearly forbids collective punishment," said Sari Bashi, director of Gisha, an Israeli human rights group fighting the sanctions. "It is a legal and moral red line."

Gisha and other human rights groups are asking Israel's Supreme Court to block the latest cutbacks. But Israeli officials say the sanctions will end when Hamas cedes power to Abbas and rocket attacks from Gaza come to an end.

"If I were a Palestinian, I would go to Hamas and ask them to stop the attacks," Dror said. "The responsibility is in the hands of Hamas, not ours."

But Bashi said Israel couldn't escape its responsibilities for the residents of Gaza simply because Hamas is in control.

"We appreciate the difficult position Israel is in trying to prevent rocket attacks," Bashi said. "But the proper response is not to make families in Gaza suffer, too."