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Ramadan In Gaza: Short on Cash, Not Chicken

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Residents and visitors will tell you that there is plenty of food in Gaza now. As the month of Ramadan is upon us, the options available in the local market are much better than they were last year. While the prices have also gone down due to increased food supplies, many Gazan families continue to find it hard to afford basic food supplies for the holy month where families observe fasting from sunrise to sundown. Hamas, the party in control of Gaza, has found ways to thrive despite Israel's embargo. However, the burden on the worst off is still great. Israel would be wise to end the siege this Ramadan.

The whole message about Ramadan applies to Gaza. Muslims are told that the purpose of abstaining from food is to remember those who are less fortunate and their struggle to find something to eat. That's why many charities working in Gaza, especially groups like the Islamic Relief-UK, Network of Turkish's charities and the Abu Dhabi foundation, triple their efforts to distribute food and supplies among Gaza's needy families.

Hamas is running low on cash, so one of their latest attempt to raise money is to auction off government cars of which they have little use. In light of the Israeli siege, cars and car parts are not allowed into Gaza, making them a very rare and expensive commodity. In the awake of the Hamas takeover, they have put their hand on many government-owned properties. The closed envelope auction will be held this week and the top bidders will be going home in an Israeli banned item--a pre-owned car.

To get an idea of the large number of cars Hamas controls, the motorcade for Prime Minster Haniya is no less than 20 cars. In Gaza, it's not unusual to find cheap European, Japanese and Korean cars selling for outrageous amounts, in most cases the price is triple and quadruple the value. With the lack of car supplies and constantly increasing demand, you can understand the price increases. Though Gaza's roads are broken roads, unemployed Gazans turn those cars into taxis and earn a living in Gaza's fragile economy.

In an effort to ease the sky high unemployment, Hamas now regulates the Gaza job market. In Gaza, it's illegal for any public servant to operate a taxi. This law aims to create more jobs to the less educated, unemployed Gaza men. Also recently, the Gaza government has passed regulations forbidding all government employees from working for civil and non-governmental organizations. The aim is to create jobs for the unemployed college degree holders. Those regulations make it virtually impossible to hold two jobs in Gaza. Other efforts to help the thousands of unemployed Palestinian laborers include increasing tax on tobacco to create a fund to help unemployed laborers who can neither work in Israel nor get local gigs due to Israel's blockade on construction material.

Hamas has also turned to other ventures to help them raise funds. They've gotten into concert and movie sponsoring. Last summer, the Gaza government backed a motion picture about a local armed man who died in the early 90s. It generated them income when screened in Gaza's sole movie theater, and the movie was screened in Hamas-friendly countries elsewhere. One Gaza marketing executive for the film told me they made thousands of dollars from the project. Obviously this is not just a business transaction. This movie served as publicity for Hamas and its militant armed wing.

Last week, the Gaza government hosted a concert with Toyor Eljanah (Birds of Heaven), a popular children's band based in Jordan (and loosely linked to the Islamic Brotherhood in Jordan). Tickets to the show were sold to the public, even though the band was volunteering their time and talent. One news source put the total funds raised at 184,000 dollars. Many concert goers who took their children to see their favorite band perform were disappointed as they learned more tickets to the concert had been sold than there were seats.

Hajj donations, of course if it's Ramadan, and other religious fundraising is helping Hamas raise money. As many Muslims prefer to do an Ummrah (a pilgrimage outside of the holy season) during this time, Palestinians head to Mecca for the same purpose. Hamas sends some of their fundraisers to Mecca where they meet with Muslims from all corners of the earth to ask for donations to Gaza. Since Almsgiving, or zakat, is a pillar of Islam, it is a religious duty to give what you can to help those in need. Thus, Hamas during this month, usually has a surplus due to the surge in donations.

Many Gazans joke about how Hamas and their supporters have a special place in their heart for rice and chicken (Israel allows limited supply of beef into Gaza). One activist returning from a recent solidarity trip to Gaza raved about the trays of yellow rice topped with rotisserie chicken that the Gaza government serves for its guests. Even though Hamas has not made full payroll to their employees in more than 2 months now, they continue to serve rice with rotisserie chicken.

It's believed that Hamas has a network of cooking kitchens in Gaza that provide them with those meals. Hamas provides the kitchens with rice and raw chicken, paid for by what they receive in aid from Hamas-friendly entities; the kitchens take a cut and deliver the ready meals. I know this because The Gaza government often delivers those meals to their various government entities and functions. I saw this when we were at the Rafah border awaiting the opening of the gate to Egypt. The Hamas police force came out and handed us ready meals and bottles of Dasani water just in time to break the fast. Most people traveling that day were not allowed to leave Gaza, but many were happy with a warm meal after a long day of almost escaping the Gaza siege.

Other money-making ventures Hamas has gotten into are prime real estate deals in downtown Gaza but there is little credible information on this subject. The Gaza government does own and manage a number of fish and livestock farms, as well as greenhouses. Many of the facilities were converted from Israeli settlers who were withdrawn by Israel in 2005.

Despite the effects of the Israeli siege, Hamas is finding ways to generate income flows and bring food to their constituents in Gaza. Of course many are being left out, especially among Gaza's many impoverished. Lifting what remains of the siege would make their lives better. And it is not like Israel's policies are undermining Hamas, they may actually be empowering Hamas as the governing party of Gaza. Israel must accept the failure of this embargo, end it, and engage with Hamas in a reality-based policy framework, as a party to pressure and negotiate with. Lifting the siege of Gaza during Ramadan would be a powerful symbolic gesture and shift the pressure on Hamas to reciprocate.