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Hamas in worst cash crisis since seizing Gaza

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In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Minatullah Zeitouniya, 29, hangs laundry to dry on the roof of the apartment building she and her family live in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Minatullah Zeitouniya, 29, hangs laundry to dry on the roof of the apartment building she and her family live in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, Palestinian Hamas employees wait in queue to pick up their salaries at the post office in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Ahmed Zeitouniya, 32, an employee of the Culture Ministry, helps his wife Minatullah, 29, prepare food in the kitchen of their house in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Their fridge has been rather empty since Ahmed has not received his salary for the month. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, a Palestinian Hamas employee picks up his salary as others wait in queue at the post office in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Ahmed Zeitouniya, 32, an employee of the Culture Ministry, holding his daughter Mariam, his wife Minatullah, 29, their other children Hani, 5, Mohammed, 4, are seen at their family house in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been hit by the worst economic crisis since seizing the territory seven years ago and face growing discontent, even among core supporters, because there’s no sign of relief from a blockade enforced not only by Israel but also by a suddenly hostile Egypt.

Hamas government employees have complained publicly about getting only partial salaries for the past four months. Bus drivers have staged a strike over soaring fuel prices. Laborers have lost jobs as construction has dried up. Hamas’ own surveys show its popularity plummeting.

“I never experienced a situation worse than this one,” said Ahmed Zeitouniya, 32, who has been walking to his job in the Culture Ministry because he can no longer afford $1 in bus fares and is in debt to the neighborhood grocery and his oldest son’s kindergarten.

Gaza’s isolation is unlikely to ease soon. Instead, Israel and Egypt have tightened their border closures.

Israel sealed its only cargo crossing with Gaza on Wednesday after the Islamic Jihad group fired dozens of rockets from the territory at Israel. Hamas seems to tolerate occasional Islamic Jihad attacks on Israel as a release valve for the public’s discontent. However, Hamas has largely observed a truce with Israel since heavy fighting 2012 and does not seem interested in further escalation.

The game changer for Hamas was the Egyptian military’s ouster last July of then-President Mohammed Morsi. The military-backed government in Cairo has since banned Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — the region-wide movement that also spawned Hamas — and has shut down most of the smuggling tunnels along the Gaza border, which were an economic lifeline for the strip.

The Hamas government lost nearly two-thirds of its revenue as a result, said Omar Shaban, a Gaza economist. With the tunnels, Hamas earned about $500 million a year — of an annual budget of just under $900 million — in taxes on the Egyptian imports, said Shaban.

Cheap fuel, cement and other supplies from Egypt also powered Gaza’s economy, particularly the local construction industry which employed several tens of thousands.

Now the government is no longer able to pay full wages to 51,000 civil servants and members of the security forces. In recent months, government employees have received only partial payments.

Some Hamas officials say new revenues can be found, including by heftier taxation of large companies. But the economy is boxed in: Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, controls Gaza’s airspace, blockades it by sea, and heavily restricts movement of people and goods by land.

For the first time in years, there is even a ripple of speculation that Hamas might be driven from power by the growing difficulties of running a government.

A semi-regular internal poll

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