Poor Gaza, rich Hamas

photos: AP, Martin Meissner, Adel Hana, reuters, Mahmoud Hefnawy, wikipedia
photos: AP, Martin Meissner, Adel Hana, reuters, Mahmoud Hefnawy, wikipedia

The Gaza Strip is one of the poorest places on earth, but its leaders bask in huge wealth.

Much like its underground tunnel network, it can't be seen from the surface but the underside of Gaza City is lined with cash. While Gaza is considered one of the poorest regions in the world, its leaders enjoy lives of luxury, many with fortunes of millions or billions of dollars.

Gaza suffers from an unemployment rate of over 60%. In a 2022 World Bank report, GDP per capita in Gaza was estimated at $1,257, approximately one-fourth the estimated $4,458 GDP per capita in the West Bank. These figures make it one of the world's most impoverished places. Many attribute its limited economic growth to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade that, since 2007, has imposed restrictions on goods entering or exiting the Gaza Strip. This argument, however, ignores a fundamental issue in Gaza, which is the wealth of the Palestinian leadership.

The Hamas leadership built its wealth mainly through the booming tunnel industry, with Hamas officials imposing taxes, generally 20%, on all goods smuggled through the tunnels. Unlike the secrecy surrounding the tunnels themselves, their role in enriching Hamas and its supporters has long been out in the open.

Today, more than half of the residents of Gaza live in severe poverty, but already in 2012, there were reports of some 600 millionaires living in Gaza, who made their fortunes thanks to the hundreds of underground tunnels along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. At that time, newspaper Al Monitor, as cited by The Tower, described the trade through the tunnels as the factor that "gave birth to a new class of rich people who managed to accumulate a huge fortune in a short period of time".

Many of the senior members of the terrorist organization that controls Gaza keep a low public profile, and some have spent a considerable proportion of their lives evading assassination attempts by Israel. For years, their wealth was also considered a mystery. Today, much is already known about the way in which these individuals, born and raised in refugee camps, were transformed into reclusive tycoons. But since the day Hamas shocked Israel with the deadliest attack ever launched from Gaza, questions have surfaced anew.

Privileges and perks for Haniyeh's offspring

A few hours after the outbreak of the Hamas attack on Israel, according to The Times of Israel, Hamas leader and puppet-master Ismail Haniyeh (61) was seen on video celebrating the invasion from his luxurious office in Doha, the capital of Qatar, while he and other senior Hamas officials cheered happily before prostrating themselves on the floor, in praise of Allah.

During his long years as a senior Hamas official, Haniyeh, who was elected head of the organization's political bureau in 2017, has accumulated an impressive fortune. He has lived in Qatar since 2019. His exact net worth is unknown, but today is estimated to be at least $5 million.

Haniyeh, who in 2018 was designated as a terrorist by the US State Department, has acquired impressive assets over the years. In 2010, Haniyeh paid $4 million for a 2,500 square meter plot of land in Rimal, Gaza's posh beachfront neighborhood, near the Shati refugee camp where he grew up. He registered the land in his son-in-law's name, according to Egyptian weekly Rose al-Y?suf.

Since then, Haniyeh has reportedly purchased additional houses and registered them too in the names of some of his 13 children. One of his sons is even known in Gaza as Abu al-Akerat, or "father of real estate". Haniyeh's children exploit their privileged status both inside and outside Gaza. Having obtained a Turkish passport, according to reports, Haniyeh's son travels to and from Gaza, investing in properties in Turkey, joining the family's international enterprises. Meanwhile, according to reports, Haniyeh's children own generators, and sell electricity inside Gaza, a rare commodity that they themselves get for free.

Already in 2021, The Jerusalem Post reported on intelligence information indicating that, from the early 2000s and up until 2018, Hamas controlled some 40 commercial companies in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria and Sudan. Citing business intelligence website Double Cheque, it was reported that most of the companies were in the real estate and infrastructure sectors. "Hamas has chosen to manage its secret investment portfolio in Turkey because of the weak financial system in Turkey, which enables Hamas to hide its money-laundering activity and tax violations from the regulatory bodies". According to Double Cheque, these were assets worth about $500 million.

Persian Gulf real estate and financial conglomerates

Haniyeh isn't the only one. Towards the end of last year, according to The Times of Israel, more and more high-profile Hamas officials moved from Gaza to luxury hotels in Beirut, Doha, and Istanbul, where they maintain a life of opulence and extravagance that the residents of Gaza - whom they claim to represent - would not dare dream of in their wildest imagination.

The person leading Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar (60), has also amassed a considerable fortune, estimated at $1-3 million, according to the BBC. Sinwar, who was born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp during Egypt's rule of the Gaza Strip, is the founder of the Hamas security service. Although he was sentenced to four life sentences in Israel in 1988, he was released in deal to bring back captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and was reinstated as a senior Hamas leader. In 2017, he was appointed chief of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In addition, there is the person known to the Palestinians as "The Brain", to the Israelis as "The Cat with Nine Lives", and now also as the planner (together with Haniyeh), of the most recent terrorist attack. For years, Israel has considered Mohammed Deif among the most wanted Hamas leaders, as well as among the most elusive. To date, a total of three photos of Deif have been issued: one of Deif in his twenties, another in which he wears a mask, and a the third where only his shadow is visible.

Deif (58, born Mohammed Masri), who leads the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas movement, was nicknamed thanks to having evaded seven Israeli assassination attempts, the last one in 2021. According to media sources, at June 1, 2023, Deif's estimated net worth was approximately $5 million.

Khaled Mashal (67), who was born in Silwad in the West Bank, then under Jordanian control, was also central to the terrorist organization. In 1992, Mashal played a key role in establishing the core Hamas leadership, and eventually rose to the top. Like Haniyeh and others, he also lives in Qatar today, and is known for having invested in Egyptian banks, and real estate projects in the Persian Gulf countries, amassing considerable wealth. He is considered one of the leadership's richest people. His personal wealth was estimated to be in the billions of dollars a decade ago by publications in the Arab world. It is currently estimated at about $5 billion.

Mashal's deputy, Dr. Musa Abu Marzouk, previously considered number two in the Hamas hierarchy, has also long since established his position on the Hamas list of tycoons. According to Dr. Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, lecturer in Political Sciences and History of the Middle East at the Western Galilee College, back in the early 1990s, Marzouk launched a fundraising campaign in the US among wealthy Muslims, and at the same time founded several banking operations. Elad told Globes that Marzouk had turned himself into a conglomerate of 10 financial enterprises, giving loans and making investments.

Crypto - the international sanctions workaround

In addition to the tunnels tax industry, global financing networks, and international businesses, Reuters recently reported that senior Hamas officials had found a way to circumvent international sanctions: cryptocurrency.

American counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt told Reuters that the bulk of Hamas's budget, more than $300 million, came from taxes on businesses, as well as from countries such as Iran and Qatar, or charities. Hamas, which has been sanctioned as a terrorist organization by the US and Britain, for example, has increasingly used cryptocurrencies to avoid international restrictions, Levitt said.

Tom Robinson, co-founder of blockchain research firm Elliptic, told Reuters that "Hamas has been one of the more successful users of crypto for the financing of terrorism". After the outbreak of violence of May 2021, Hamas-controlled crypto addresses received more than $400,000, according to blockchain researchers TRM Labs.

However, reports Reuters, after large losses this year, and because of the ability to track transactions in the cryptocurrency accounting system, senior Hamas officials said they would stay away from these currencies. It is likely that these crypto losses will be easily recouped, thanks to support from Iran, which last year significantly increased annual funding for Hamas's military wing from $100 million to about $350 million.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 29, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

photos: AP, Martin Meissner, Adel Hana, reuters, Mahmoud Hefnawy, wikipedia
photos: AP, Martin Meissner, Adel Hana, reuters, Mahmoud Hefnawy, wikipedia
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