Monday

25th Mar 2019

Hopeless Gaza Strip ripe for Islamic State, says UN head

The Islamic State may gain a foothold in the Gaza Strip given the widespread desperation and hopelessness among the trapped Palestinian youth, says a senior UN official.

"A scenario where extremist elements that are linked to Isis gain more ground is completely possible and realistic," Matthias Schmale, who leads the UN office for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), told reporters in his Gaza Strip office last week.

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Schmale said social unrest following an intensified Israeli-imposed blockade in the Gaza Strip over the past decade, coupled with massive unemployment and zero prospects from the Palestinian leadership, are among the factors that will create a space for the Islamic State to exploit.

The agency runs a number of schools and provides food in Gaza but with president Donald Trump-led US funding cuts, fears are also mounting that young people may turn to extremism.

"You can imagine if the agency that supports half the population of a million people with food has to reduce or adjust that, it will not just impact the individuals but I think the stability of Gaza," he said.

The EU has since stepped it in to ease the US funding gap and is now UNRWA's largest donor. Germany alone is UNRWA's second-largest single donor.

The EU's official line is that excessive restrictions on movements and very limited access to Gaza prevent any meaningful socio-economic development. But its political leverage on Israel to ease such restrictions is weak.

A permit system imposed by Israel has effectively created a blanket ban on the some two million Palestinians from ever leaving the Gaza Strip. The UN has since warned that the entire Gaza Strip will become unliveable by 2020.

Over half the population is below 18 and face abject poverty amid the repressive grip of the Gaza Strip de-facto leadership under Hamas - that is itself warring with the discredited Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank.

During the same week as EUobserver's visit to the area, a car driving a top Fatah official in central Gaza Strip was sprayed with bullets, a 15-year old boy was shot dead by Israeli gunfire, and Israeli fighter jets pummelled Hamas targets inside the territory.

Schmale said the Islamic State is already active on the southern border with Egypt but "are not very present now inside Gaza".

Last month, the Islamic State claimed it killed 20 Egyptian troops in the north Sinai.

His warnings were echoed by a left-wing member of the Knesset, as well as Palestinian civil society groups operating inside the Gaza Strip, a territory enclosed by Israeli-built fences and eight-metre tall concrete walls.

"It is [a] real risk," said Mossi Raz, an Israeli politician from the left-wing Meritz faction of Knesset.

"The Islamic State is now in a very weak position everywhere in the area but it is still possible because the Egyptians are pushing them out from Sinai," he said, noting that entry into Gaza via the southern checkpoint would not be difficult.

Great March of Return

Skirmishes along the Gaza buffer zone with the Israeli military has already seen over 250 Palestinians killed and well over 6,500 shot with live ammunition, in response to weekly demonstrations held since last March.

The Israeli forces have also targeted children, medics and journalists in their efforts to stop Hamas militants from sending explosive-laced balloons and kites over the wall, according to a UN investigation published in late February.

"They are pushing us to extremism," said Hamdi Shaqoura, deputy director of the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights, noting however that "Gaza hasn't fallen yet into the hands of ISIS".

People in Gaza suffer chronic energy shortages, lack clean drinking water, and have to contend with the equivalent of 42 Olympic-sized pools of raw sewage dumped daily into the Mediterranean Sea.

The blockade, also imposed in part by Egypt, prevents even basic goods like plastic pipes to ensure clean water and sanitation out of fears it may be weaponised by Hamas militants against Israel.

"The worst thing in Gaza is the loss of hope, mainly among the youth," said Amjad Shawa, who heads Palestinian NGO's Network, a civil society umbrella group in the Gaza Strip.

He said kids are going to the fence to demonstrate "to show to the world that we are losing hope and we are dying," noting that such isolation has been forced upon an entire generation of Gazan youth.

Among them is the 24-year old son of Fatima Al Boraay, who is unemployed and stays at home in the small family house in the Al Amal neighbourhood of the Gaza Strip.

Fatima told reporters that the combination of Hamas and PA fighting and joblessness has affected all aspects of life, including security.

For years, she had to send her kids with buckets on a two kilometre trek to fetch dirty municipal water until Oxfam, an aid agency, installed a small solar powered desalination plant last October some 700 metres away.

When artillery fire begins, they huddle in the small kitchen area where the walls are made out of concrete and tell each other stories to ease the fear.

Even people seeking medical treatment, mostly for cancer, are not guaranteed an exit permit by the Israelis to go to a better equipped hospitals outside the enclave.

The crumbling infrastructure and the legacy of some 19,000 Israeli heavy artillery shells that hit the Gaza Strip during the 2014 offensive remain visible even today.

"There is intense pressure here to accept what cannot be accepted," said Shawa.

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