• Nothing to do: Youth unemployment in Gaza is more than 50% (Photo: un.org)

Gaza on edge of instability, EU diplomats warn

24.03.14 @ 09:22

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The Ukraine crisis does not mean that problems in the EU’s southern neighbourhood have gone away, with diplomats warning that Gaza is on the edge of instability.

The miserable living conditions in the strip risk seeing Hamas, the militant group which holds power, being ousted by religious radicals or becoming more violent itself, EU countries’ ambassadors to the region have said in an internal report.

“[The situation] is putting significant pressure on Hamas' internal unity,” the paper says, noting that a “collapse of Hamas . . . would leave a potentially dangerous power vacuum”.

“If left unaddressed, the situation could have serious consequences for stability in Gaza, for security more widely in the region, as well as for the peace process itself,” the report, drafted in January and leaked to press, adds.

Hamas is designated as a terrorist entity by the EU.

It advocates armed resistance against Israel and rejects the peace process, but on political rather than religious grounds.

Between January and October last year, 56 rockets and six mortar shells were fired from Gaza at Israeli targets. But the figure is a fraction of the hundreds of attacks in 2012 or 2011, “making 2013 one of the quietest years” in the confrontation, and indicating a level of Hamas restraint.

The EU report says its main Gaza rival is the Iranian-funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

It notes that Hamas has “been able to tie PIJ into the ceasefire with Israel” but adds that it “does not appear to control several small Salafi-Jihadi groups”.

It also says that if Hamas feels itself cornered, it “could intensify armed attacks on Israel including from the West Bank.”

The new threat arises from Gaza’s extreme isolation.

On one hand, Israel intensified its blockade in October after finding a concrete-wall tunnel built to launch attacks.

On the other hand, Hamas lost support in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power, with Egypt’s new military rulers shutting down tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.

Just 200 or so people a day are currently allowed out of Gaza via official crossings, compared to 26,000 in normal times.

Just 10 truckloads a day of construction materials, medical supplies, food, and other goods are getting in via tunnels, compared to 200 in Muslim Brotherhood times.

The result is “a dangerous and pressing humanitarian and economic situation” the EU ambassadors said.

Fifty seven percent of the 4.4 million Palestinians in the strip now rely on UN food parcels to eat. People do not have electricity for up to 16 hours a day and many households get fresh water once every four days.

They are also surrounded by their own excrement and by rotting garbage.

The report notes: “90 million litres of untreated wastewater [is released] into the sea every day. Tens of thousands of [litres of] untreated sewage have been spilled in various locations . . . [and] garbage-collection vehicles are running at half capacity.”

Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of 15- to 29-year-olds, who make up the bulk of the population, are out of work.

The EU is trying to help: the European Investment Bank is studying a project to build a desalinisation plant to improve water access; the EU is also paying €40 million a year in social aid for “vulnerable families”.

The EU report says “the primary duty bearer” for the problem “is Israel as the occupying power”.

But it has little sympathy for Hamas, noting that things are unlikely to get better until it ends its 27-year-long rebellion against Israeli rule. “A categorical renunciation of violence by Hamas as a means of achieving goals would have a transformative effect on the situation in Gaza,” the report says.