By Jasmin Rasheed* —
For over a decade now, Gaza has been under siege. Taking into account the financial policy adopted by the Hamas government and the fact that salaries to government employees are delayed by the Palestinian Authority and the Rafah crossing is closed for long periods every now and again, it appears that the civilian population in Gaza is going through the most profound financial crisis it has faced in years.
The US recently announced its intention to scale down activities of its humanitarian aid organizations in the Gaza Strip. Other Western NGOs followed suit, stirring up lively discussions in the Arab world and Western countries.
Over the past several days, a number of news sites in Lebanon and Egypt have reported about clashes between Hamas government in Gaza and volunteers of international aid organizations. According to these reports, an unusual incident took place in mid-January, when Hamas police officers in pursuit fired at a vehicle with three Italian nationals inside. The Italian civilians fled to UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City, where they barricaded themselves until the crisis was resolved. Information we have received indicates that the incident was over only after Hamas investigators questioned the Italian nationals and confirmed that they were employees of the Italian Embassy.
Despite Hamas’s attempt to downplay this matter, claiming this was merely a misunderstanding caused by the fact that enforcement officers at the border crossing had not reported the entry of the Italian nationals, it is clear this was not a one-time event.
According to a high-level employee of an aid organization, this is a method regularly employed by Hamas members – causing difficulties to Western aid volunteers, threatening them and intimidating them by stopping them at border crossings and checkpoints, frequently searching through their belongings, and sometimes even arresting them for questioning.
Exclusive information we have been able to obtain suggests that many European nationals have fallen victim to this rampant violence by government authorities in Gaza.
One such incident involved Mohammed Abu Mughaiseeb, a doctor at the French branch of Médecins Sans Frontières; he was stopped by Military Police and asked to show an ID. As he did not have an ID on him, he was taken in for questioning by Internal Security.
Helen Marie Ottens-Patterson, a nurse at the Belgian branch of MSF, has told us about rising concerns among the organization’s employees, who are worried about the possibility of being held in detention by the government if they continue to arrive in Gaza as volunteers.
Arab countries are well aware of the importance of humanitarian aid as the crisis in Gaza continues to escalate. Much pressure is brought to bear in an effort to regulate the activities of aid organizations in Gaza, particularly in light of increasing reports about clashes with the Hamas government and the drop in motivation among volunteers from Western countries, who are becoming increasingly reluctant to arrive in Gaza.
Needless to say that those who suffer most as a result of the government’s actions in Gaza are Palestinian civilians who pin their hopes on receiving food and medicines from aid organizations and are now venting their frustration in protests, demanding a solution to the ongoing crisis.
*Jasmin Rasheed is a journalist based in Brussels.