A sprawling amusement park on the outskirts of Gaza City exemplifies the businesses Hamas has created in the territory that it has controlled for six years. Hugh Naylor reports from Beit Lahia
Hamas denies ownership of Gaza City amusement park
Built two years ago on a reclaimed rubbish dump in northern Gaza, the 24-hectare Besan City for Entertainment also includes a farm where fruit and vegetables are grown and sold.
But exactly who runs and profits from the complex remains a mystery beyond Hamas's secretive inner circle.
To critics, the murky array of businesses linked to Hamas, such as Besan City, smack of profiteering while most of Gaza's population of 1.7 million people struggle under an Israeli blockade, war and electricity and water shortages.
"No one has any idea where the money comes from for these kinds of projects, or where the profits go," said Akram Atallah, a Gaza-based columnist for the Palestinian Al Ayyam newspaper.
"So of course, what comes to mind is corruption. Where is the oversight? What are the rules, the regulations for these businesses?"
Besan City strikes at the heart of a debate over Hamas's role. It runs Gaza's government yet remains an armed movement that fights Israel, portraying itself as an incorruptible and pious alternative to the rival secular Fatah faction.
After capturing Gaza in 2007, Hamas established businesses and opened up revenue streams by imposing taxes and fines on the territory. But citing security concerns, it refuses to disclose details of its finances.
"There's simply no transparency with its activities," said Mr Atallah.
What is clear is that Besan City's activities revolve around one of Gaza's most powerful figures: Fathi Hamad, Hamas's interior minister and former director of Al Aqsa TV, the Islamist group's official television station.
A plaque at Besan City, which opened in June 2011, says Mr Hamad and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, sponsor the park.
Besan City's manager, Shadi Hamad, who is not related to the interior minister, said "Fathi Hamad makes all the decisions here".
He described Besan City and its 60 employees as both a "government-owned operation" and a "personal initiative" of the interior minister. He declined to discuss details on finances but said profits from the US$2.8 (Dh10.30) entry fee for families and produce grown on its farm, which is sold locally, were invested back into the facility.
He added that the interior minister secured $1.5 million in donations from "Arab and Muslim donors" to build Besan City, which is located on public land.
"Fathi Hamad's dream was to build here a place of entertainment for the public and, despite being told it was too difficult, he succeeded," Shadi Hamad said.
But Hamas spokesperson, Salama Maroof, denied that Besan City was a government project. He also said the interior minister neither profited from nor exerted management control over the facility. "Of course it's not Fathi Hamad's project," he said. "These kinds of entertainment parks are private-sector projects with their own management".
Mr Hamad also was director of a company that, shortly after Hamas's 2007 takeover of Gaza, founded another theme park, Asda City. It was built on a former Israeli settlement in southern Gaza after Israel unilaterally withdrew its settlers from the territory in 2005.
Mr Maroof said Mr Hamad resigned from his positions at Asdaa and Al Aqsa TV when he became interior minister in 2009.
Mr Hamad could not be reached for comment.
Political observers say Hamas directly manages or has allies running a vast network of businesses that ranges from beachside restaurants to real estate companies and industrial-scale farming operations. The group also licences and taxes Gaza's smuggling tunnels, the lifeblood for the territory's economy.
"In general, Hamas has come to dominate most of the economic activity in Gaza," said Talal Okal, an independent political analyst from Gaza City.
He and others said this had also earned Hamas a reputation for corruption that caused public resentment, especially given Gaza's electricity blackouts and water problems. The United Nations estimates that Gaza's potable water could run out by 2016, primarily due to population growth and misuse of the territory's aquifer.
Mr Atallah, the newspaper columnist, said Hamas's secretive business ventures also endangered civilians when the group fights Israel. He cited Israeli attacks during its 2008-2009 war on Gaza that targeted a number of civilian buses owned by a company linked to Hamas.
"That secrecy puts people at even greater risk here," he said.
But back at Besan City, manager Shadi Hamad called the complex an act of "resistance" to Israel's blockade of Gaza because it provides residents "a sense of normalcy and entertainment".
At times, that has required expensive outlays. He said Besan City's management paid close to $4,000 for at least one of the lion cubs it brought via the tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt. He added that they also contacted Egyptian smugglers about bringing in a baby elephant, but ultimately refrained because of the $80,000 cost of doing so.
Besan City's revenues also appear sizeable.
Mr Hamad said that as many as 7,000 people have visited in a single night, with attendance regularly over a thousand on Thursdays.
But the zoo section appears short on amenities for its display of animals, which also includes eagles, ostriches and porcupines. A crocodile and five pelicans are bunched together into one small cage with sand floors and a miniature pond. Another holds three baboons, one of which, a zookeeper remarked during a tour this month of the facility, had "bitten 100 kids" who stuck their hands through the cage's chain-link barrier.
On top of agricultural sales and the thousands of paying customers who come each week, its management also generates rent from tenants who operate restaurants and rides. Sari Naem's family owns the Ferris wheel and other rides at Besan City, paying $22,000 a year in rent.
"It's not cheap, but business is good for us," he said.
For Nahed Abdul Nadir, 47, a father of three from the Jabalia refugee camp, Besan City offers inexpensive outings for his family. "I'm unemployed and this place allows me to take my family out and enjoy themselves," he said.
Diaa Abu Jebain, 19, also from Jabalia and an employee at refrigerator-repair shop, also enjoys the attractions.
"I like playing football there," he said. "But of course we'd rather Hamas solve the electricity problems."