The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip is warning local politicians, government officials and faction leaders against buying cars imported from Israel for fear they may contain eavesdropping equipment or even remote-activated bombs planted by Israeli security agencies.
Ihab Ghossein, a spokesman for Hamas' Ministry of Interior, called in a statement for caution when dealing with the cars. But his warnings have fallen on deaf ears, where a four-year-old blockade has deprived Gazans of many consumer goods or put their prices out of range. "People in Gaza haven't really responded to this warning," 'Ali Abu-Shahla, secretary-general of the Palestinian Businessmen Association in Gaza, told The Media Line. "I fear, though, that if people continue ignoring it, Hamas will resort to banning cars coming in from Israel altogether."
Israel has been under international pressure to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip, especially after an attack by its commandos on an aid convoy to Gaza last May that left nine dead. Yet, even as Israel has begun to let cars and other once-prohibited goods into the Mediterranean enclave, Hamas itself hasn’t always welcomed the increased flow of goods. Private vehicles joined the list of permitted goods last month. Since then, nine shipments have passed through the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, containing 180 new or slightly used cars.
The problem for Hamas is that it doesn’t profit from the official car imports because the taxes on the vehicles are paid to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Hamas’ rival for control of the Palestinian territories, said Abu-Shahla. The only reason Hamas allows cars in at all, he said, was to ease pent up demand on the street and mounting criticism of the government, he said Where it can and does collect taxes is on the vehicles and other goods smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, but the price to the consumer for these vehicles is much higher and the supply is limited.
During the years that Israel banned car imports, a new, smuggled automobile -- brought in disassembled through the narrow tunnels -- could cost up to $40,000. The same car brought through Kerem Shalom now costs about $25,000. "I sold my car when cars were expensive here, and got along with my son's car," Abu-Shahla said. "Now I'm planning to buy a new car." Sa'id Abu-Khosa, a Gaza car salesman, estimated the sticker price on a new car in Gaza have fallen by 20% since Israel lifted the ban while used car prices have plunged as much as 50%.
The pent-up demand for new cars is huge, he told the Palestinian daily Filastin, since their import was banned in Gaza for the past four years. But Samir Zaqout, a field-work coordinator for Al-Mezan Center for human rights in Gaza, said the falling price of cars had less to do with taxes and costs than with supply and demand. "Before Israel allowed cars into the Gaza Strip, prices here were exorbitant," he told The Media Line. "There was so much demand and no supply, which made cars much more expensive than their real price." Indeed, Gaza’s economy is rebounding after years of declining output under the pressure of the blockade.
While the Gaza economy is smaller than it was a decade ago and unemployment is more than 35%, the International Monetary Fund forecasts Gaza’s gross domestic product will jump this year 16%. While a car is beyond most Gazans’ means, for those who can afford one they have become a more affordable means of recreation.
Hassan Asfour, a former Palestinian minister and aligned with the PA, said the Hamas warning was a cynical business move rather than a genuine security concern. "What is happening in the Gaza Strip," he wrote in the Firas Press news site, "has nothing to do with security, but is merely a ploy to control the commercial market and monopolize the buying and selling; which is an obsession for big Hamas merchants, whose influence has become much stronger than that of their political leaders."
Car salesmen have testified that Hamas' security apparatus carefully examine all cars entering the Gaza Strip at the border crossing, Asfour wrote, adding that hundreds of cars are sold to security officials and members of the "resistance" in Gaza. Restricted items include "dual use" materials which could be used for both civilian and military ends.
Most of these are building materials such as cement, concrete, steel and gravel. Four-wheel drive vehicles are also still banned from the Gaza Strip, since they are "liable to be used in terror activities," according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.