Israel eased a major restriction on the Gaza Strip last week. For the first time in six years, limited commercial shipments of cement and iron were allowed through Israel into Gaza.
The 70 trucks per weekday will barely put a dent in the need in Gaza, where demand for housing is high and construction work is a quick way to cut unemployment. But it is a significant decision for Israel, connected to larger strategic issues, including the upheaval in neighboring Egypt and the recently restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
For the past several years, much of the cement and rebar that came to Gaza arrived through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Israel allowed only materials for thoroughly documented humanitarian projects, fearing militants would use concrete and rebar to build bunkers.
But after the Egyptian military took control in Cairo three months ago, Egypt began systematically destroying the tunnels. Construction materials in Gaza became hard to get, making an already weak economy worse.
A Peaceful Gesture
Guy Inbar, the spokesman for the Israeli military unit that manages all goods going between Israel and Gaza, says the change in policy came due to a request by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.
"We hope the people in the Gaza Strip will understand that Abu Mazen and the situation in the West Bank is better than what is happening right now with Hamas," Inbar says.
Abbas leads the Palestinian political party Fatah and rules the West Bank. He is also negotiating with Israel for a peace deal. As part of these negotiations, and under international pressure, Israel has made several gestures to ease economic restrictions on Palestinians and to support Abbas.
The Palestinian faction Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is an enemy of Israel. It is also in bad economic shape. Hamas has so little money it paid only half salaries for August, and those came a month late, says Ghazi Hamad, Gaza's deputy foreign minister. He says Hamas is just trying to keep its head above water.
"The main two problems [are] the building materials and the fuel," Hamad says.
Cheap Egyptian gas used to flow through the smuggling tunnels, too. Now, Hamas is trying to negotiate a deal with the Palestinian Authority to pay part of the cost of fuel from Israel. Everything in Gaza is affected by the current fuel shortage — even sewage.
From a bluff above the Mediterranean, you can see brown wastewater from Gaza's homes and streets rush out of a wide concrete pipe, right next to fishermen casting nets into the surf. Get a little closer and you'll smell it.
For years, sporadic electricity and a lack of facilities meant plenty of untreated sewage went into the ocean. But the director of the local water utility, Monthar Shoblak, says up until this fuel crisis, things had measurably improved. Now he's back to Plan C, or perhaps more appropriately, Plan Sea.
"Plan A is to treat it," Shoblak says. "Plan B is to dump it partially treated."
Plan C means he'll be lucky just to get sewage diverted to the ocean before it backs up the pipes, or worse yet, overflows into streets and homes.
As already difficult life gets even a bit tougher in Gaza, a few signs of discontent with the current rule are showing. One is a group called Tamarod, or rebellion. That's the same name as an Egyptian group that helped bring down the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo.
Hamas itself is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Gazan novelist and political science professor Atef Abu Saif says Hamas, however, is not going away. "Their practice and behavior and political translations of their ideas are extremely bad," says Abu Saif, who is a Fatah supporter. "But they will always find supporters. You have to think how to include them and affect the way they behave."
Abu Saif says the Palestinian Authority hopes a weakened Hamas will eventually disappear, but he says Hamas won't vanish.
"You have to think how to include them and affect the way they behave. You have to offer them a hand," he says.
At this point, even Hamas admits it needs one.