This story originally appeared on The Media Line.
The Islamist Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, has added another burden to the lives of residents of Gaza with the introduction of new import taxes on items considered non-essential. The announcement has local merchants fuming, with some threatening to cease imports into Gaza altogether.
Over 400 items will be affected, including a variety of crops, meat, fruits, vegetables, clothing and electronics. Most of the items are imports from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“The purpose of the law is to ease the suffering of the poor in the Gaza Strip,” said Ahmad Abu Halbiya, a member of Hamas’s parliamentary block who passed the new tax. “We’ll collapse as a society in Gaza if we do not impose these taxes. It’s not much but it will benefit the citizens of Gaza – especially the security police who need money for cars.” Abu Halbiya said that flour and medicines, as essential goods, would be exempt from the tax.
Abu Halbiya acknowledged that Hamas’s 40,000 employees will be the main recipients of the new tax revenue.
The new tax was drafted after members of parliament studied the basic needs of the people of Gaza, said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesperson. Abu Zuhri justified the decision by saying that “The civil servants of Gaza haven’t received regular salaries in over a year. The Strip cannot function without civil servants, who are the pillar of every state.” The tax will be brought in gradually so as to not overly burden Gazans, starting at around 1% and eventually increasing to 10%.
The payment of civil servants in Gaza has been a controversy in the past with Hamas and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, disputing who should cover the cost of workers wages.
“The introduction of these types of taxes, is unacceptable to the Palestinian private sector, at this time,” Nabil Abu Meilq, President of the Palestinian Contractors in Gaza, told The Media Line. He explained that merchants and citizens should have been considered when this tax was proposed and that not enough time was spent discussing the effects that the new ruling will have. In the context of Gaza’s damaged economy, which has deteriorated since the fighting with Israel in 2014, this tax will make things worse as customers will simply buy less and this in turn will affect merchants, he said.
Dozens of merchants recently gathered in front of the Gazan legislative building to demand an abolition to the import taxes.
“Life here gets impossible, we can’t take it anymore,” Saleem Nazal, a merchant at the gathering told The Media Line. “Further decisions like this will lead to more families dying in the Mediterranean Sea, looking for a better life away from Gaza.” Nazal said that if the government decision were to go through then he would no longer be able to afford to import fruit and vegetables.
But not everybody was sympathetic to the merchants. Jamal Nassar, a Hamas member of parliament, said he could not understand the vendors’ rage.
“The [price] increase falls on the consumer, not on you,” he told a group of merchants, “so why this vicious attack? None of you is affected; it’s the citizen who are. If I am bad to the citizen, let him not vote for me.”
Nassar’s comments at a press conference provoked some Hamas parliamentarians, and members of the Popular Front Party (PFP), to publically distance themselves from the tax. Parliamentarians said that the taxation would lead to additional unemployment and poverty and that Nasser’s tone towards the electorate would cause people to turn on Hamas.
“Such laws will defeat Hamas from the inside,” Fathi El-Sheikh, a parliamentarian from the Islamic party, told The Media Line. “More limitations and the imposition of additional taxes on food and clothing will cause people to turn against Hamas for the first time.” Increased taxes and the existing limitations on the hours of electricity available in the Gaza Strip, with unemployment at 55%, risked creating an explosion which Hamas would not be able to control, said El-Sheikh.
Electricity supply in Gaza has long been intermittent with many homes receiving only a few hours of electricity a day.
El-Sheikh pointed to the humanitarian situation in Gaza as the cause of his concern. The United Nations declared a humanitarian emergency in Gaza last July – a crisis which has not dissipated with over 100,000 resident still displaced in January of this year. Gisha, a humanitarian NGO dealing primarily with the humanitarian situation in Gaza, said last month that over 70% of Gaza residents are in need of humanitarian assistance and that even prior to last summer’s fighting 57% of Gazans suffered from food insecurity.
Access and trade into Gaza has been limited since the imposition of a blockade by Israel in 2007, following the rise to power of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. The blockade was increased in 2013 when the Egyptian government moved to cut off tunnels maintained by Hamas from Gaza into Sinai.