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A True Story About a Package…and the Middle East

August 5, 2013

 By Avi Melamed

On the occasion of the month of Ramadan, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine (IJP) and the Palestinian organization the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) announced the distribution of 40,000 food packages to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In a Public Relations campaign, both organizations expressed gratitude to the Islamic Republic of Iran – known as a major sponsor of both – for funding the food packages.

As part of the campaign, trucks loaded with the thousands of food packages and decorated with Iranian flags were displayed in the Gaza Strip. The packages carried the logo of the Imam Khomeini Welfare Institution also known by the name Al-Amdad.

Al-Amdad is a charitable foundation under the authority of the office of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Through financing civilian, economic and cultural projects worldwide, the foundation plays a significant role in exporting the Islamic Revolution outside Iran. The foundation also serves as a channel through which funds are transferred to Iran’s proxies worldwide.

The food package distribution campaign has a number of interesting aspects:

One aspect relates to the role of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. To a certain extent, the campaign and its timing are bad for Hamas.  Hamas is currently struggling with growing challenges inside the Gaza Strip stemming from a massive Egyptian operation over the past few weeks that targets the smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. Reportedly, the Egyptian army destroyed about 80% of the smuggling tunnels.

The systematic destruction of the tunnels severely damages Hamas:

–        First, the Hamas government charges fees from the tunnel operators in addition to commissions for commodities smuggled through the tunnels. According to some estimations, about 1 billion USD of goods pass through the tunnels annually.  Hamas is currently losing a great deal of money as the traffic of commodities, products and narcotics through the tunnels has come to virtual halt.

–        Second, the Egyptian actions occur at the worst possible time – in the midst of the Muslim month of Ramadan, the busiest month in terms of commercial activity, shopping and consumption. Cutting the flow of commodities smuggled through the tunnels has resulted in a shortage of commodities and products in the Gaza markets, thereby creating an immediate rise in prices. As an outcome, all factors involved in the commercial circle – the tunnel operators, tunnel workers, merchants, distributors, shopkeepers and of course the consumers – are all badly impacted. The result is growing public discontent and anger, which is inevitably translated into criticism of the Hamas government.

Another aspect is the relationship between Hamas and the Iranian regime. Over the last two years, following the war in Syria and the developments in Egypt, Hamas distanced itself from the Iranian embrace. As a result the close relationship between Hamas and the Iranian regime has substantially cooled (for more on that issue you can read for my article “Emerging Axis Signaling a More Pragmatic Hamas? October 2012). In response to Hamas’ policy change, the Iranian regime has decreased its support for Hamas and increased its support for its other major proxies in the Gaza Strip – the Islamic Jihad in Palestine (IJP) and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC). Both IJP and PRC present growing challenge to Hamas in the Gaza Strip; they criticize Hamas for adopting a “defeated policy” illustrated by the fact that Hamas prevents them from shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel. Similarly, Hamas also restrains and limits other forms of attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets. Though IJP and PRC do not yet openly defy Hamas’ rule, they compete with Hamas over popularity, and they have clearly scored points in this round, thanks to the food distribution campaign.

Why then does Hamas allow the food distribution campaign and particularly why does Hamas facilitate media coverage of the food program which clearly strengthens Hamas’ rivals in The Gaza Strip?  The answer is simple; though they have distanced themselves from Iran, Hamas is extremely cautious not to burn all their bridges to Iran.

Hamas is facing very difficult time:

–        In Egypt, the new government is leading a tough line against Hamas. The Egyptian army is destroying the tunnels to Gaza and the Egyptian media is spearheading a tough anti-Hamas campaign, accusing Hamas of being an agent provocateur who stimulates violence and instability in Egypt.

–        In Lebanon, Hamas is petrified by the prospect of an open confrontation with Hezbollah as an outcome of the fact that the war in Syria is percolating more and more into Lebanon. To avoid that scenario, both Hamas and Hezbollah keep their communication channels open. That policy damages Hamas’ image in the eyes of the Arab Sunni world that loathes Iran and its proxy Hezbollah (for more on that issue see my article The Alliance of Fear in Lebanon” June 2013).

–        Jordan is also giving Hamas the cold shoulder; Jordan refused the entry of potatoes sent from Gaza through Israel and the potatoes were sent back to Gaza. Israel agreed to support the frustrated Gaza farmers and to market some of the crops within its borders, thereby minimizing the damage.

–        The Palestinian Authority (PA) – Hamas’ major rival in the Palestinian arena – has recorded a number of achievements:

  • In the international arena, the PA is scoring points as an outcome of the resumption of the peace talks with Israel
  • In the Palestinian arena, the PA has achieved a major victory with Israel’s decision to respond to the PA’s demand and agreed to release 104 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.
  • In the Arab arena, the Palestinian president, who is aware of Hamas’ difficulties, rushed to launch an initiative aimed to allegedly end the suffering of Palestinians in the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. He deliberately left Hamas out of the initiative; by doing that, the Palestinian president demonstrated that he – and not Hamas – is the real representative of all Palestinians. That action is not likely to result in anything, but it definitely allows the PA and the Palestinian president to score points at the expense of Hamas who claims to be the only legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

Because of these developments, it is little wonder than Hamas is looking to maintain its bridges with Iran. Therefore, preventing the Iranian funded food distribution campaign in the Gaza Strip does not serve Hamas’ needs.

Another interesting aspect of the story is the food package itself. A short inquiry reveals that some of the products included in the food package are distributed by Far East trade companies. It is very likely they made their way through the smuggling tunnels to storage warehouses in the Gaza Strip. However, other products included in the package are distributed by a Palestinian trade company called “Pioneer.” The company’s center is located in the city of Ramallah, the center of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.  Given the fact that the PA is a bitter rival of Hamas and is also a tough critic of the Iranian regime, one must wonder how did products distributed by a Palestinian trading company located in the center of the PA’s rule in the West Bank make their way into food packages funded by the Iranian regime and distributed in Gaza, an entity controlled by Hamas?

Though you might not expect it – the explanation is probably…Israel. Every week thousands of tons of commodities, gasoline, medicines and other products are shipped from Israel to the Gaza Strip through a designated land terminal located along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. It is likely that the Palestinian trade company sends its supplies and products to the Gaza Strip through the Israeli platform.

It is indeed a strange “package” – Iranian money funding a campaign aimed to strengthen its proxies in the Gaza Strip who – if they had their way – would like to continue shooting rockets (also supplied by the Iranian regime) on Israel – the same Israel that enables the shipment of some of the ingredients included in the food packages to the Gaza Strip…

The Middle East indeed presents some very strange packages…

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