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Gaza suffers drop in foreign aid over Syrian war

Thursday - 6/13/2013, 8:20pm  ET

In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013 photo, an employee works at "Damashki" or "The Guy From Damascus" bakery co-owned by Bassel Shunar, a Palestinian by origin who was born in Syria but who fled the country and arrived in the Gaza Strip two months ago. The civil war in Syria is increasingly hurting Hamas-ruled Gaza financially, according to several officials in the Islamic militant group and in Islamic charities. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- A refugee from Syria recently opened a bakery here, drawing long lines of customers eager to taste meat and cheese pastries with the special flavors of Damascus -- a rare bright spot in the long shadow that the Syrian civil war is casting over the Gaza Strip.

The conflict in Syria, some 300 kilometers (190 miles) away, is increasingly hurting Hamas-ruled Gaza financially, according to several officials in the Islamic militant group and in Islamic charities.

They say Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a former major financial backer of Hamas, has reduced monthly cash transfers because Hamas refuses to side with the Syrian regime.

Islamic charities abroad that used to donate heavily to Gaza have been redirecting some of their aid to Syria, forcing local charities to scale back programs, aid officials said.

"All of Gaza is suffering from this," said Noha Zaki of Gaza City's Amal orphanage, home to 100 children. Zaki said donations to her charity are down by 50 percent.

In a further costly twist, more than 1,500 people fleeing the fighting in Syria, most with family ties to Gaza, have arrived in the coastal territory since last year, with hundreds more en route.

Bassel Shunar, co-owner of the new bakery -- "Damashki" or "The Guy From Damascus" -- had a soft landing. But aid officials say they have trouble finding jobs and homes for other newcomers in crowded, impoverished Gaza.

The Hamas finance minister, Ziad Zaza, acknowledged government money problems but blamed long-running Israeli restrictions at Gaza's borders. He denied his government receives money from Iran and claimed donations from abroad are still in the normal range of $5 million to $12 million a month.

Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has operated an aboveground political wing and a secret military wing. The Sunni Muslim movement, viewed as a terrorist group by the West, is secretive about its finances. It has released only partial information about the spending of the Gaza government it formed after overrunning the territory in 2007.

After the popular uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, Hamas quickly felt the reverberations.

Hamas leaders in exile, including chief Khaled Mashaal, were based in Damascus then, but became increasingly uncomfortable with Assad's crackdown on Syria's majority Sunnis. Assad and key members of his regime are Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Assad, a longtime Hamas patron, demanded that the group show support for his regime. Instead, Mashaal and others left Damascus in early 2012. Mashaal moved to Qatar, part of the Saudi-led Gulf Arab bloc that opposes efforts by Shiite Iran to expand its influence.

Iran wasn't happy. But it didn't cut ties with Hamas, which is a key to Iran's regional ambitions, including setting up armed bridgeheads on Israel's borders.

As recently as November, after a bout of Israel-Gaza fighting, Mashaal thanked Iran for its support. Hamas hard-liner Mahmoud Zahar at that time challenged Gulf states to "compete with Iran in giving us weapons and money."

Iran has reduced Gaza funding in recent months, according to an Arab diplomat and three senior Hamas figures, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the issue.

Their estimates of Iranian cash transfers before the cutbacks ranged from $120 million to $370 million a year.

A Hamas member who provided the lower estimate said Iran has scaled back payments by 60 percent. The Arab diplomat said Iran still finances the Hamas military wing, but also increased funding for Islamic Jihad, a smaller group that occasionally fires rockets from Gaza, challenging Hamas' informal truce with Israel.

Zaza, the Gaza finance minister, blamed current money woes on Israel's border restrictions, which were at their tightest after the 2007 Hamas takeover of the territory, but have eased in recent years.

Zaza said spending cuts began two years ago, affecting every ministry, but did not explain why it became necessary at that time since the Israeli border blockade was in place well before then.

As part of the belt-tightening, ministries were ordered to slash operating costs by 50 percent, including cutting back on stationery, travel and gas allowances.

Hamas is still able to cover the government payroll -- 41,000 civil servants and members of the security forces and 10,800 participants in a job-creation program.

The wage bill alone is $37 million a month, in addition to $4 million in other operating costs, post-cutbacks, compared with local monthly revenues of $18 million, according to Zaza. He did not say how the deficit is being covered.

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