Donald Macintyre: Who gets hurt most in this dispute? The ordinary people of Gaza

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The Independent Online

Clearly shocked by conditions in Gaza, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, said yesterday: "I cannot believe that Israeli ordinary people understand what is being done in their name; they couldn't possibly support it if they did."

Mrs Robinson's stark warning that "the whole civilisation" of Gaza "is being destroyed" correctly identified the siege which Israel imposed after Hamas's military takeover as the all-pervasive factor in the increasingly impoverished lives of 1.5 million people in Gaza.

The once productive and labour-intensive private sector has been at a standstill for 17 months thanks to the closures. Now these dire conditions have been further exacerbated by continuing disputes between elements in Fatah – mainly outside Gaza – and the Hamas de facto administration which took over by force in June last year. The Fatah-led strikes in health and education have not closed schools or hospitals but they have disrupted services to patients and pupils in a territory where health needs are acute and in which the Palestinians' obsession with a good education for their children has stubbornly survived the last turbulent seven years.

It may not be too fanciful to see the disputes as a paradigm for the wider international strategy towards Hamas in Gaza. For whoever is to blame for their genesis, the effect of actions directed from Ramallah at the Hamas-controlled authority – even if they are not sanctioned by Salam Fayyad or the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas – seem, like the siege itself, to be hurting the Gaza public a great deal more than they are hurting Hamas. Hamas is now paying several thousand freshly graduated teachers recruited to replace those being paid – from Ramallah – while they strike. Indeed the Hamas payroll is the only one – military or civilian – which is growing in Gaza.

That the UK government is trying to be more careful about where its money goes is certainly not yet evidence of a wider rethink of policy towards Gaza.

Indeed the EU as a whole has not even yet decided whether it would recognise any government jointly agreed by Hamas and Fatah if one were to emerge from current talks in Cairo. But as Mrs Robinson pointed out in her BBC interview yesterday, Gazans have seen no dividend from four months of truce. If there was ever a time for such a rethink – with a new US president preparing to take office – that time is surely now.