Palestinians Worry About Economic Future
SIEGEL: In the Gaza strip today, a senior Hamas official appealed to the European community and the U.S. not to cut off aid. The prospect of diminished aid and revenue is worrying many Palestinians. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, they fear that their already battered economy could get even worse.
ERIC WESTERVELT, reporting:
Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh today urged the European Union and other Western donors to respect aid agreements already in place and reconsider ending financial support for a Palestinian authority which soon is expected to be headed by Hamas.
Mr. ISMAIL HANIYAH (Hamas Leader): (Through Translator) We ask you to understand the priorities of our Palestinian people at this stage and continue the moral and financial support in order to push the region toward stability instead of pressure and tension.
WESTERVELT: With Hamas ready to take power, fears of ever deepening financial troubles are the talk of the Palestinian territories. In her modest cement brick home in the West Bank's Kalandia refugee camp 26-year-old Samar Hamad (ph) scrubs the dishes from the evening meal.
For the last seven years Samar Hamad's husband has worked as a Palestinian authority policeman in Ramalah. It's a decent job. The Hamads have built a humble, relatively stable life for themselves and their ten-month old son Mohammed. Samar is a few months pregnant with their second child and worries that reduced foreign aid and changes under Hamas mean harder times are on the way.
Mrs. SAMAR HAMAD (Palestinian Resident): (Through Translator) How will the different employees get their salaries? How will we put bread on the table? I'm going to save. I'm going to be very careful with spending because I don't know what the future will bring me. I hope things will be for the better, but I am worried.
WESTERVELT: The Palestinian authority's deep economic troubles began long before Hamas swept Parliamentary elections last week. The authority is bankrupt. Its budget shortfall this year is estimated to be about one billion dollars. For January alone the authority needs more than 100,000 dollars to pay the people on its payroll. Samar's husband Raulf Ali Hamad (ph) is one of them. The 27-year-old patrolman says since the elections he and his police colleagues have heatedly debated whether to stay, go, or wait and see what a Hamas-run West Bank might look like.
Mr. RAUL HAMAD (Palestinian Resident): (Through Translator) Some say they want to resign anyway because they don't want to work under Hamas administration. Others say we join the police to serve our country and not to serve Hamas. People are shocked, confused and they don't know what to do.
WESTERVELT: Armed Hamas and Fatah militants, some employed in the security services have already clashed in Gaza and the West Bank. There's concern any pay freeze or wage reduction would aggravate an already explosive situation. Exacerbating fears is the prospect of Israel cutting off delivery of some 47 million dollars a month in tax and customs revenue it collects for the Palestinians under an existing agreement. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that after Hamas sets up a government Israel will not transfer money "unless we can be assured it won't be used for terrorism."
Ending those transfers analysts say could devastate the already broke Palestinian authority. While some Hamas figures are sounding conciliatory, others are defiant. Gaza Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar says the group will look to friendly Arab countries for money "without conditions."
Mr. MAHMOUD ZAHAR (Gaza Hamas Leader): We are not going to allow Israel to interfere in our life. Even if that is costing us too much confrontation.
WESTERVELT: The Palestinian economy is intricately linked to Israel, but Hamas's Zahar believe the group can build a viable Palestinian economy completely separate from Israel. For example, Zahar says, tourists will eventually visit Gaza's sandy beaches and enjoy what he calls educational tourism of the martyrs to see how our people have suffered, not tourism, Zahar says, of the corrupt American kind of decadence and sin.
Mr. ZAHAR: Swimming is allowed, but it is not allowed men and women. I'm (unintelligible) to consider alcohol and homosexuality and illegal sex as a modern, modern items. I visit America in 1990. I watch what is called the homeless and I watch the homosexuality, this is an animal act.
WESTERVELT: Meantime, Palestinian economist Sulah Abdul Shafi says Palestinian trade agreements with Israel need to be reformed, but unilateral economic separation, he says, is a recipe for disaster.
Mr. SULLY SHAFEY (Palestinian Economist): You cannot just overnight detach yourself from Israel and survive. We can't survive. We will starve.
WESTERVELT: Back in the Kalandia refugee camps, Samar Hamad sits in her well-kept living room, a picture of Yasser Arafat with her husband hangs front and center. Food on the table, she says with a hint of anxiety in her voice, doesn't come from America or Europe or Israel she says. It comes from God. Somehow, she adds after a pause, we will manage.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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