Hamas hands out land to 40,000 civil servants in Gaza in lieu of unpaid salaries

The land giveaway allows groups of four Hamas employees to share a 500-square-metre plot that they can either build on or sell. Even the sand collected on the land can be sold for about Dh367 a lorryload.

Palestinian diggers dump sand into a lorry at the Al Isra 2 site in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip. Adel Hana/AP Photo
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KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP // Earth movers dig into sand dunes on land in the Gaza Strip where Jewish settlements once stood – prime real estate that Hamas hopes will ease its worsening financial crisis.

Hamas has started handing out plots of this land to 40,000 civil servants who are loyal to the militant group, to make up for the millions of dollars in salaries it owes them for the past two years.

The land giveaway is the latest sign that Hamas is struggling financially after almost a decade of uncontested power in the Palestinian territory.

Gazans complained about lack of jobs, constant electricity shortages and a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt that has confined the territory’s 1.8 million people to the strip. The World Bank said unemployment is at 38 per cent.

Since 2014, Hamas’s main problem has been a lack of cash amid Egypt’s clampdown on smuggling tunnels beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

Before the tunnels closed, Hamas earned millions of dollars from taxes on smuggled consumer goods, including subsidised Egyptian fuel.

Later in 2014, Hamas and its rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority headed by president Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to form a unity government for both Gaza and the West Bank. The PA had lost Gaza to a Hamas takeover in 2007, and this was an attempt to heal the split.

But the deal stalled, partly because Mr Abbas refused to add the 40,000 employees hired by Hamas since 2007 to the payroll of his Palestinian Authority. In time, Hamas resorted to paying its loyalists 40 per cent of their salaries at 50-day intervals.

Since March, after Hamas collected additional taxes, these civil servants have been receiving 45 per cent of their salaries on a monthly basis. The price of cigarettes went up 35 per cent and an additional US$30 (Dh110) in taxes was imposed on each ton of fruit entering Gaza from Israel.

The land giveaway allows groups of four Hamas employees to share a 500-square-metre plot that they can either build on or sell. Even the sand collected on the land can be sold for about $100 a lorryload.

About 13,000 civil servants have signed up for certificates proving their ownership of the plots, most of which were once part of Jewish settlements in southern Gaza, near the towns of Rafah and Khan Younis. The settlements were demolished when Israel pulled settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005.

Earlier this week, earth-moving equipment dug into a high hill near Khan Younis, scooping out sand and loading it onto lorries at one of the sites designated for civil servants.

Riham Khalil, who last month was allocated a 500-square-metre plot on this site, known as Al Isra 2, along with three of her colleagues, said Hamas owed her 64,000 shekels (Dh61,669) in back salaries.

“We had to accept it on a ‘bird in the hand’ basis because there was no cash,” she said. “I wish I could find someone to buy the land and get the money.”

Senior Hamas official Salah Al Bardawil said the land giveaway was a temporary fix, “not yet a strategic one” that would solve the group’s financial problems for good.

If Mr Abbas had put Hamas employees on his payroll, he would have likely encountered major problems with donor governments, including the United States, suspicious of money ending up in the pockets of Hamas, which much of the West considers a terrorist group.

The West Bank-based PA opposes the land-for-money programme.

“No one has the authority to issue decisions to privatise government-owned land in the public interest, except for president Abbas,” said PA spokesman Jamal Dajani.

He dismissed Hamas’ claims that Mr Abbas has neglected Gaza. The PA still pays the monthly salaries of about 70,000 civil servants in Gaza who are loyal to Mr Abbas and left their posts after the Hamas takeover.

Qatar has bailed out Hamas in the past and recently announced it was giving about $30 million to help pay a full month’s salary to all Hamas employees in Gaza. In October 2014, Qatar sent cash to half of Hamas’ public employees, excluding the security forces.

Hamas was also looking to its patron Turkey to help resolve Gaza’s growing electricity and water shortages. Gazans live with rolling power cuts of 12 to 18 hours a day and the strip’s water is polluted and undrinkable.

After an Israeli-Turkish reconciliation deal in early July, Turkey sent an aid ship to Gaza through an Israeli port. A delegation also met separately with Israeli, Palestinian and Hamas officials to explore Gaza’s energy crisis and outline possible solutions.

However, Turkey’s efforts have been band aids for Gaza’s larger woes and could serve to empower Hamas even further, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.

“They increase Hamas’s determination to cling to its unilateral governing of Gaza,” Mr Abusada said. “Time will tell if these promises are enough to convince the Palestinian citizen to keep silent over his living conditions.”

* Associated Press