Taghreed El-Khodary
Middle East Progress (Interview)
June 16, 2008 - 4:59pm

What is the situation in Gaza like a year after Hamas’ violent take over?

This is the worst time that Gaza has ever gone through. The situation is deteriorating on a daily basis because of the harsh effects of the closure. It touches every element of daily life in Gaza.

First, the fuel shortages. There are taxi drivers who are not getting the fuel they need. There are workers and students who never before had to question whether there would be gas at the station or if they might have to wait for hours to fill up only part of their tank. Now, if you go to any gas station, it is completely closed. So, you go to the black market and you pay a lot of money.

Since there is no fuel, people are using cooking oil instead. It’s a short-term solution, but it is completely unhealthy. It is causing pollution and I talked to a doctor this week who said that people, especially those with heart conditions, are coming in complaining about the impact.

The Mediterranean is a real gift for the people of Gaza. People are there at the beach all hours. Now that there is better internal security, they feel like they can stay as long as they want. It is their only escape from their daily frustrations. But when you talk to them you find out about fishermen who are using cooking oil, and about the sewage in the water. So you have people finding escape in highly polluted waters.

And next, you have the impact on students, and families, security and futures. There are hundreds of students with scholarships to study in different parts of the world. But because of the closure they cannot leave Gaza—they cannot leave through Israel, they cannot leave through Egypt. So they are stuck. The young people are so desperate. Last year they were desperate, this year they are more desperate. They have no goal in life. You have a generation that finished high school but they cannot go abroad if they wish to study, they cannot find a job if they want to work, they cannot go to university at home because their family cannot even afford to send them to local universities. So they are being asked to wait until the situation improves.

People are not starving in Gaza, thanks to UNWRA. The international community has insured basic supplies for every household. But people tell me that they are realizing that life is not all about food. Life is about other things, too. They tell me that they see Hamas has insured internal security and that’s maybe the only thing they have insured. There are no gangs in the street, no people with guns except for the Hamas guys; their leadership is making sure that if they have guns, they are working as policemen. There are no armed fighters in the streets.

But people are saying, internal security is not everything, you need the other elements in life—you need to have a job, you need to see a future for your children. Young people need to plan for their future. They should not feel suffocated.

And you have people wondering when and how the situation will improve. It’s very complicated and there is an absence of leadership. The leaders on the ground know what is happening, but they are not doing anything to ensure a better life. Hamas knows that people are angry; they know that people are feeling this frustration. But they have managed to divert that anger elsewhere. I don’t know what will happen now. I’ve been meeting with the senior leaders of Hamas the past week and they all are interested in reconciliation, period, there is a sense of desperation from Hamas for reconciliation. Because they know that the effect of the closure has been so harsh that people cannot take it any longer. Gaza is like a bomb ready to explode. It hasn’t yet, and nobody knows when it might finally explode and where that explosion will hit.

How do people in Gaza perceive the firing of Qassams into Israel? Whom do they hold responsible for the violence they cause, and the repercussions?

The Qassams have definitely been criticized by people in the community, as have all the fighters and the military factions. People cannot understand, for example, why they would be hitting Israeli crossings when these crossings allow for basic supplies and fuel to come into Gaza. It doesn’t make sense. You want fuel from Israel so why hit the checkpoints? It leads to a huge gap between the leadership and the people. One of the senior Hamas leaders came out with a statement for the first time criticizing any group that hits any crossing, because the leadership understands that people know it doesn’t make sense. So now they are claiming that Fatah is trying to embarrass Hamas and is really the force behind the attacks on the crossings. So, the anger is about more than the Qassams and the question is who will exploit the anger to their advantage?

What do you make of Abu Mazen’s shift on reconciliation?

Right now the people I see and speak with every day are not focused on the two-state solution, Jerusalem, the right of return. All they can think about are the difficulties of daily life.

In this context, I think the political leaders realize that reconciliation is their only option. They are completely stuck. They needed to show that they could succeed at governance and so far, they have not. As for Abu Mazen, I think there are different perceptions as to why he is now pro-reconciliation. The first is that Israel and the United States have not given him anything to work with. So he doesn’t want to come to the end of the year, when he is meant to leave office, and have nothing to show for the path of moderation that he has chosen. He doesn’t want to be accused of doing nothing to bring the Palestinian people back together. A second argument is that he realizes that if he wants to come to an agreement on a two-state solution with the Israelis, hold a referendum on it, and be able to implement it, he will not be able to do that while Hamas is in control of Gaza. So perhaps he thinks that reconciliation is necessary before there is a referendum. If the Israelis are really interested in an agreement, then it will require an address in Gaza as well as the West Bank to really be implemented. The third argument is that if the Israelis want to attack Iran, they will want quiet on their borders, so will want Hamas out of the grip of Iran. As an observer you just think about these arguments all of the time and realize that reconciliation is the key to many things.

I do worry, though, because there are so many people who are desperate for revenge. There are hundreds of people who were killed a year ago here. There were Fatah guys who had their guns taken away from them by Hamas and are waiting for revenge on whoever injured them, whoever killed their brother, and whoever killed their colleague. And it is the same with Hamas who are angry at Fatah. They killed each other. There were many casualties, there were many people who were injured or tortured. So the big question is how do you deal with this desire for revenge? I asked the leaders of Hamas, have you considered what will happen with this thirst for revenge? You seem very optimistic, but it’s not such an easy story. You are desperate for the reconciliation, but you are not doing anything on the ground.

Hamas is taking over institutions, changing the judiciary—they’re imposing a new reality on the ground. And I don’t know how Abu Mazen will deal with this new reality. Hamas thinks that it is stronger than Abu Mazan, which is true if Abu Mazen is pursuing reconciliation because he feels that the Israelis and Americans have given him nothing. In that case, Hamas will come to the table from a position of strength. And it is the first time that Abu Mazen has agreed to dialogue without any conditions.

At the end of the day, Hamas may think it is the stronger party, but it appears that the two are equally weak. Hamas is desperate for reconciliation, for the possibility of opening the border. They are desperate to succeed in government. And Abu Mazen is equally weak, he comes with the perception of having achieved nothing.

What about Ahmed Qureia and Salaam Fayyad?

They seem very distant to Gazans. The only thing Fayyad is doing for the people of Gaza is paying government employees. But he’s paying them not to work. So there are these young, ambitious people who have been sitting around for a year, wanting to work and being paid to do nothing. They are very frustrated.

The problem is that there is no address for them here. They feel isolated and there is no one who is thinking of them or helping them. And they are all waiting for something. Take the Fulbright students. Couldn’t he have gotten them out? Couldn’t he have convinced the American administration to get them out? If not through the Erez crossing, then through Egypt. They said, well the Israelis don’t want to. Instead, they should have done something. But they are just so far away from people’s daily suffering.

And this brings me back to reconciliation. We spoke about the aspect of revenge, but there is also the question of the security forces. Hamas has gotten rid of the preventive security services, Dahlan’s force, which was aimed at ending terrorism, meaning Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups. Hamas have left only three security forces: police, intelligence and national security. And that includes about 12,000-14,000 people, whereas before, under Fatah run PA, there were seventy or eighty thousand in the various security forces. So Hamas has shown that you only need many fewer forces to ensure security in Gaza.

If the two sides sit down to negotiate now, there are already facts on the ground. The main challenge is the military groups. Maybe they can add another 12,000 people, but they can’t reconstitute these security forces with seventy or eighty thousand again. And I don’t know what Abu Mazen can do about that or what it will lead to. What will he do about Qassams and the weapons?

Another problem is the judiciary system: civil, criminal courts are run now by Hamas. My fear is if the situation to continue, Hamas will be pushed by its extreme line, which is popular in the movement at this stage, to implement the Sharia law. They will push hard to make it the sole source of law. As a result, Abu Mazen must consider this element one of his main priorities. The judiciary system must maintain independence before it’s too late. Independent judges, or a healthy mix, must be appointed.

One thing Hamas has done is push PalTel [Palestinian Telecommunication company] to filter pornography sites to please its constituency. The fear is what might be next.

Another challenge is the human rights violations. There have been many cases under Hamas but also Fatah in the past. The scary part with Hamas is that it’s been a short time and concentrated. The Qassam members that have been turned into civil police have no experience in this field. They say they are learning. Human rights organizations must be pushed to work harder.

In addition, Hamas is calling for reform within the PLO. Surprisingly, they didn’t make it a condition for reconciliation. Perhaps because the purpose of reconciliation for them is to deal with people’s anger and to succeed in governance. This is the goal at this stage— it’s not the long term goal of course.

But a unity government would allow checks and balances on these issues and offer a better future.

Does that mean that they are no longer interested in a ceasefire with Israel?

Of course they are interested in a ceasefire, or tahdia (calm period) and they have been very flexible with the Egyptians in trying to reach one. At the same time, Olmert’s situation has deteriorated and the Egyptians have asked them to wait.

So, from your perspective on the ground, what should the United States be doing, or not doing?

I was so glad that the United States didn’t come out with a statement against the reconciliation. They should let Abu Mazen try it. I mean, I understand the American way of looking at things because reconciliation, means lifting the siege, which will help Hamas. But leave Hamas aside for a moment. The whole population of Gaza is suffering. When Hamas first took over, I told a senior official at the State Department that I was against this policy of siege because I knew it would back-fire. My argument was that for the first time, people would blame the United States. If you talk to the people in the street, they will say America is behind this, whereas in the past they only blamed Israel. People are not stupid here, they know the whole game. They know who is behind the closure.

And that is why I think education is key and why the case of the Fulbright students is so important. The United States needs to be thinking in the long term. People have tried Hamas and seen what it is capable of. But the most frustrating thing is that Israel and the United States are not helping to show them an alternative.

It’s hard to think in the long term when you are stuck. With administrations changing and many distractions, it’s hard. But there is no alternative to investing in the long term. Punishing everyone is crazy. Look who gets punished in Gaza. Hamas members? No. Hamas members are happy. They have jobs they have never dreamed of—key positions here and there, in the security forces. So they are really happy, this is their definition of happiness. And the Fatah guys are happy waiting for Fatah to come back. But what about the young people? If they are trapped in Gaza, what are they going to do? You’ll end up with many angry people. And I don’t know toward where or whom this anger will be directed. Many of the moderate people in Gaza, those who have nothing to do with politics, are planning to leave as soon as the borders are opened. Many young people will leave for good to work anywhere else in the world.

It’s really important to invest in these people, which means giving them opportunities and hopes for the future.

So why kill the private sector in Gaza? Why? There are no raw materials, nothing. Why are only basic supplies are allowed in, as if all you need is flour and sugar and rice. There’s no cement. The private sector is not working. Everything is dead. You go to any store in Gaza, nobody is buying anything. Why punish the private sector? These are the people you want to invest in – businessmen, educated people. They are the future. If you don’t invest in them, what kind of a future can we expect? What kind of future are we generating?

You know what is working now? Tunnels. Without the tunnels there would be no economy. Since raw materials stopped coming through the crossings, there was no alternative but to smuggle things through tunnels. You get everything from tunnels, but the prices are much more expensive than the stuff coming from Israel.

The whole economy of Gaza is too dependent on the tunnels. It is just very frustrating. Many businessmen are closing their factories and their offices. Why keep paying the rent on their offices and salaries for their employees when they have no revenues? I have a friend who used to import cigarettes from Israel and he’s closed his business completely and told his employees to go home because he doesn’t want to buy cigarettes smuggled through the tunnels, it is against his principles and he wants to maintain his relationship with the Israeli company.

When you go to the shopping centers in Gaza, no one is buying anything. The clothing coming from Egypt is very expensive – about seventy dollars for a cotton t-shirt that would cost fifty shekels [approximately fifteen dollars] from Israel.

The only business that’s thriving is the wedding business. Everybody is getting married. There is nothing else to do, so people are getting married.

But earlier your statements suggested that the closure policy actually seemed to be influencing people against Hamas. If the brakes had not been applied economically to fuel and non-essentials, then Hamas might not be feeling this pressure, no?

People blame Hamas openly. It’s not a secret anymore. People say, if you cannot govern, leave us alone. But people are not demonstrating because they are afraid and because they don’t see an alternative.

Would they have been blaming Hamas as much if there had not been a closure?

If Abu Mazen and Fayyad had succeeded in selling the idea that they were behind an opening, an improvement in daily life, then that could work equally well in pressuring Hamas. They would need to sell the fact that they were the ones who could perform in terms of governance. I think if Abu Mazen came now, he would be welcomed. If he was responsible for the opening of the crossings, he would be given the credit and everyone would know that it was Abu Mazen who was able to do it. It would show that the world talks to Abu Mazen, not Hamas. It has been a very harsh tough lesson, but I think people have gotten it. How much longer can the pressure continue? There need to be new elections, but there cannot be elections until the situation is resolved.

So there needs to be some kind of pivot, where the leadership in Ramallah is actually offering things that the people need?

Presidential elections are coming up. According to the Basic Law of the Legislative Council, a presidential election must be accompanied by a legislative election. But how can you implement this in the current situation? Do you think Hamas will allow it? They won’t allow it. I think it’s smart you know to come to the table again and put pressure on the two parties. Let Egypt be the mediator. Hamas listens to Egypt. You know what a Hamas guy told me? “We are ready to become Hezbollah to Egypt.” Meaning that we will do whatever Egypt asks of us. When I heard that sentence I was really shocked. It shows that they are frustrated. It is the only way out for them.

But Egypt is very fragile. Anything can happen in Egypt at anytime. And that is something that the United States must consider as well. The situation in Gaza is having tremendous impact on Egypt. If the situation stays as it is in Gaza, it can strengthen Islamists in Gaza and in Egypt.

What would be an optimistic scenario for a year from now? There will be a new U.S. administration in place; there may well be new Israeli and Palestinian leaders…

I’ll tell you something, I’m not optimistic when it comes to leaders. Anyone interested in a better situation in a year from now or in the long-term needs to work with the people. Work from the ground up and win people over. And in terms of improving day-to-day life—education, health—make sure that you get credit for the positive changes. Getting the credit and selling your role to the people is very important.

Otherwise, I am not optimistic because it is so divided here. You have two parties that are very divided, with different ideologies. I don’t see a way out. But the thing is that everyone is stuck. Everyone is working so hard to stay stuck – the U.S., Israel, Fatah, Hamas. Everybody.

This is the first time that I have not been optimistic. But I think that the real work must happen on the ground.

And everybody is frustrated. People ask me every day, wherever I go, they stop me to ask what I think will happen and whether they should emigrate. A woman just stopped me in the street and asked me this question she said, “Should I emigrate with my family or should I wait because of this reconciliation in a few months? What do you think? Are you optimistic?” People are desperate for a way out. I think whoever will bring a way out will get so much credit. But who will it be? People are so happy that Abu Mazen is talking about reconciliation again, because if things continue as they are, nothing productive can happen.


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