Middle East Progress (Interview)
October 31, 2007 - 5:21pm

How will/will current path lead Gazans toward a two-state solution?
As a journalist in Gaza, from what I see, all that people care about are the burdens of daily life. No one is talking about Annapolis, about two states. The suffering is extreme. The closure is so severe that it has touched every sector of the Gaza Strip, from businessmen, to farmers, to students, to workers.

Can you give our readers specifics on consequences of the closure?
I am on a committee to select Fulbright scholars. The committee selected eight Fulbrights for next year. But this year’s Fulbrights are still in Gaza. They have missed the first semester of what was supposed to be their graduate course in the United States, because of the closure. The U.S. consulate is trying to get them permits just to get to Jerusalem to apply for their U.S. visas. Though even if they get the permits, they probably won’t be able to get out at Rafah – the only crossing to which the permits apply – because Rafah has been completely closed for some time.

When talking about Fulbrights – this is a very select group. These are the brightest students, with strong undergraduate records; they are generally among the most open-minded too. They want to pursue graduate studies in the United States to continue their education, and come back to work and change society here. They are the ones with the potential to make changes; and they want to better understand the U.S., and to have Americans better understand Palestinians. You know this is what Fulbrights are all about. And these people are missing this chance, entirely.

Perhaps more people would expect to hear about the farmers. They have had trouble exporting the vegetables and carnations they grow for a while, but now they cannot get anything out. Yet many are still growing. I interviewed one farmer in Khan Younis [in the south of Gaza] last week, and asked why he is still growing crops, knowing that the closure shows no signs of letting up. He said, "What is my life with no dream, no purpose, no goal? I have to keep planting." He and others essentially dump their goods in the local market when they cannot get them out.

The businesspeople who have now really been hurt – this has had significant repercussions throughout Gazan society. Traditionally they have been apart from politics –not Hamas, not Fatah. Through their factories, shops, industries, they give young people jobs and opportunity. With no ability to get goods in or out, they cannot employ people. Those young people who worked for them are out on the streets, frustrated, and depressed. And what was the middle class, made up of the business community, is disappearing.

Everybody has been hurt.

From what I observed, the closure policies are diverting attention from helping people to focus on a two-state solution, putting their eyes on a bigger horizon, as President Abbas has been trying to achieve. Due to the closure, Israel also is metering specific portions of vital supplies, so prices are increasing for powdered milk, flour, sugar, cigarettes. This in turn encourages those who smuggle through the tunnels – pushing people into those businesses; it’s very counterproductive.

Has Hamas addressed internal security, safety on the streets, law and order concerns for the average Gazan?
Many people feel secure now walking and driving. You can see it in the more expensive cars on the streets. Before, with the lawlessness, the wealthy businesspeople could not show their Mercedes, their BMWs. Now they are driving them.

Ironically, these businesspeople are also feeling more secure in that no one from Hamas comes to blackmail them the way that Fatah-tied militia used to do. Yet they are still suffering from the closure, losing money and having to lay off people. So it is very confusing.

What about Hamas’ ability to affect the groups firing Qassam rockets into southern Israel?
Ismael Haniyeh of Hamas, [the former PA prime minister] has been talking to groups like Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance committee to stop firing the rockets so that Israel will ease the closure imposed on Gaza. Such talks have failed. Both groups have continued firing the rockets. A senior Qassem brigades [Hamas military arm] member told me "we can only talk to them to stop but we can’t use the force since Hamas is a resistance movement. It’s a very sensitive element." Hamas is in a trap and their charter is playing a role in failing them in governing.

A group like al-Aqsa Brigade [Fatah] is also firing rockets. The intention here is to have Hamas fail by continuing the closure. Another question however is who is manufacturing the hand-made rockets and who is in control of the market … who is providing what to whom? Hamas and Jihad are the ones in control. And to play a role in stopping these rockets must mean doing something about the tunnels [used for smuggling]. Egypt and Israel also play a role here.

What is the typical reaction you are hearing to Israeli threats to cut off fuel and electricity as a result of the continued Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza?
I hear the Israeli threat to cut off fuel and electricity raising more despair among Palestinians. They feel neither Hamas nor any faction is paying the price; but the people are paying. They see such policy as a collective punishment.

As a moderate, independent, female journalist have you observed changes in life for women, or young people generally, in Gaza since the Hamas takeover?
Well, the veil is not compulsory but you can feel that Hamas has succeeded in the Islamization of Gazan society indirectly. Many young women are covering their heads with a hijab, at least, when they did not do so before. Many women at university are completely covered – wearing a burqa or niqab, only showing their eyes. This is new for Gaza, and it’s becoming extremely popular. I asked Hamas women members of the Palestinian Legislative Council about this phenomena. They told me it concerned them because they saw it as hindering ease of communication with people, and yet young women seemed to want to wear the burqa to prove their devotion to Hamas, to the cause.

Also, with Hamas in power, and with the closure further restricting any disposable income, the only place to go out is to the mosque. And who is in control of the mosque? Hamas. And all the speeches delivered in the mosque are political; so Hamas can control public opinion.

How are people in Gaza responding to the closure at a political level? Whom do they hold responsible? Whom do they blame? To whom do they look to lead them toward a better future?
I have been asking these questions to many people throughout Gaza for the last two weeks, and I get many different, often inconsistent, responses.

People in the street feel marginalized and alienated. The silent majority feels abandoned by Abu Mazen. They talk of Hamas providing for their own, Fatah providing for their own, and most regular people being left to fend for themselves.

When I ask people whom they see as responsible for their situation, for the closure and its results, I hear Israel, the United States, Hamas, and Fatah, the other Arab countries. Everyone. Israel, for imposing the closure, and for the ways it has been imposed. The other Arab countries, such as Egypt, for continuing to keep the border crossing it controls at Rafah closed even more tightly than the Israeli crossings such as Erez. The United States, for ignoring the needs and concerns of the people of Gaza. Hamas, for its inability to perform in government, which led to the current situation. People can see Hamas as a resistance movement, but not in a government role. And yet they feel they have no real alternative because they do not have the impression that Fatah has instituted reforms sufficient to show change, to show that it is now capable of governing.

Shockingly, a significant number of people have told me, ‘we want to go back to have Israel in direct control, like it was under occupation, before Oslo.’ They see Fatah and Hamas both as having failed. They remember life before Oslo as easier; it was easier to earn an income, they could work in Israel. They could drive with fewer checkpoints. They now see Oslo as having brought checkpoints, misery.

I’ve been talking to many people. They are really lost. There are no role models. There is no one to look to as a leader here. Really, people are just surrounded by painful stories.

Even if the people you interview are not focused on Annapolis, you have it on your horizon. How do you see it as important for the people of Gaza or what would make it important for them?
For the Annapolis meeting, the most important thing will be getting some concrete results, and figure out how to get them implemented with Hamas not part of the picture.

When I spoke with a leading figure in Hamas recently, Mahmoud al-Zahar [who had been Foreign Minister in the Hamas-led cabinet], he said about Annapolis that Hamas wins either way. In other words, in his view, if Annapolis achieves nothing, Hamas has won because Abu Mazen looks terrible and is done. And if Annapolis comes out with something, Hamas also wins because it will claim that whatever Israel gives this time, people will conclude that it cannot possibly be enough for the national cause; it can’t meet their dreams, their expectations.

Given these statements by such a leading Hamas figure, why push so hard for success at Annapolis?
From what I see, Palestinians clearly need to organize their own house; and in the long-term, to succeed in implementing any outcome there is a need for serious internal reform. Everyone is losing under the current structure.

And yet all parties must figure out how to keep moving forward with the reality. While Palestinians push toward that internal reorganization that is needed, they must also have practical results from Annapolis that can improve the daily life for average people. And if the leaders can achieve this, and be seen to be achieving this, then perhaps they can gain the space and energy to turn to the other very important work before them.


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