Qatar Changes Plan, Decides To Use Money For Humanitarian Aid In Gaza, Not Hamas
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In recent months, Israel has let cash flow through its borders to one of its biggest enemies, Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. The money - millions of dollars - is from the country of Qatar. It was used to help Hamas pay the salaries of workers in their government.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have criticized the practice, and now it's being changed. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Gaza City.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The main post office in Gaza City isn't very exciting. It's just a mid-rise tan building. But in the last few months, witnesses say something unusual happened here. Several cars pulled up to the back courtyard with a lot of security guards, and they took out suitcases stuffed with $15 million in $100 bills. This happened even though Israel has been trying to isolate Hamas since it took control here 12 years ago.
Economist Omar Shaban was as surprised as anyone.
OMAR SHABAN: Israel transfer cash, money, dollar to Hamas. If you had said this two years ago, said, what are you - are you crazy? It's unbelievable.
ESTRIN: Now, the money isn't from Israel. It's actually from Qatar, which had an envoy literally drive the cash across the Israeli border into Gaza. The idea was that Qatar would give Hamas $15 million a month for six months, and Hamas would reduce tensions along the fence between Gaza and Israel. That's where there have been months of protests with Israeli troops confronting Palestinian protesters. Officials say more than 180 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier were killed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in foreign language).
ESTRIN: Hamas used some of the money to pay its government workers, like this man, who leads the call to prayer at a local mosque. He would only give his name as Mohammed. Hamas hasn't paid its civil servants full salaries in years, and Gaza's economy is in shambles. Mohammed says he really needed the cash, but he still criticized the deal.
MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: He said it was hush money, so Hamas quiets down the border protests.
Israelis didn't like it either. Many accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of rewarding Hamas and buying quiet as he seeks re-election. The deal unraveled. There was violence. Israel blocked the cash. And then, when Israel finally allowed the cash again, Hamas refused to take it.
HAZEM QASEM: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem says Hamas had been quelling the protests but also expected Israel to relax restrictions on Gaza. With the whole deal stalled, Qatar announced a new plan. The cash would be used for humanitarian projects and to aid the poor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)
ESTRIN: Now the money's flowing. At the Gaza City post office, $100 bills flutter through cash-counting machines, and men from needy families line up to get $100 each.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: Some tell me their hundred dollars will be gone at the end of the day, after they pay off part of their tab at the supermarket and buy new groceries. In Gaza, unemployment is estimated at around 50 percent, and imports and exports are tightly restricted by Israel and Egypt.
Omar Shaban, the economist, says Gaza needs much more.
SHABAN: Gaza is in need for $100 million a month to revive its economy. The situation in Gaza for the last 12 years was under emergency. Everything was tried except the right medicine. Make election, get rid of Hamas in a very peaceful way and bring a new leadership, and then you can have development in Gaza.
ESTRIN: It's unclear how long Qatar will keep the money coming, and Hamas' efforts to quiet down the protests may run out at some point, too. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.