Amira Hass
December 12, 2008 - 1:00am

The first thing that captures your eyes, after two years away, is a visual quiet. Gone are the flags of every color (including green) that once flew everywhere; the billboards commemorating shaheeds with their weapons, new ones popping up nearly every day; the large banners emblazoned with slogans. Yes, here and there you still come across a tattered flag or faded sign, old graffiti on the walls, or a smiling Arafat beaming down from a giant poster that no one took the trouble to remove, the colors dulled by time. But the loud, aggressive, competitive profusion that was frequently replenished is all gone. Pictures of government officials in Gaza don't impose upon you, they don't hang on every corner. Instead, one notices bougainvillea, tree-lined avenues, wrought-iron gates, colorful head coverings. The Hamas government doesn't need external symbols to prove its strength and announce its presence. The conclusion is obvious as it is.

A somewhat hasty conclusion - or a partial one, to be more precise. When there is no political competition, someone said to me, there's no need for its outward expressions. Are there really no rivals (Fatah, in other words), or have they been silenced? Around November 11, the anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death, the Palestinian police in the Gaza Strip worked to conceal any symbols related to the date, the man and the movement - in addition to prohibiting the staging of any memorials.

It wasn't the Fatah movement that called for rallies, but a committee composed of PLO organizations. It didn't even attempt to hold rallies in an open area (such as a soccer field or city plaza) - as Hamas does every few days (with its green flags). When yellow Fatah flags were hung up, police were called to the location and removed them; high school students who went around wearing checkered kaffiyeh-like scarves - or any other symbol that alluded to Arafat and Fatah - were asked to remove them and also summoned for a brief police interrogation. Even candles that were set out in windows in Abu Amar's (Arafat's) memory were confiscated. So Fatah supporters reported, at least. The removal of these symbols wasn't only an expression of the government's self-confidence, but of intimidation and coercion as well.

"You mean to tell me that in the West Bank, too, Hamas people are afraid like this, of the PA?" a Fatah member from the southern Gaza Strip, who had reported to me about some of the oppressive measures taken against her movement in her area, asked me a bit incredulously. Another Fatah member told me that it was a conscious decision not to clash with the Hamas police: "We don't want to expose people to the kinds of things we went through - arrest and torture. We don't want people to get hurt. We want them to be politically active. Also, we hoped that the reconciliation talks would begin in Cairo, and if we hold rallies - there will be oppression, tears and death, and that will ruin the chance for reconciliation."

Weapons have also disappeared from city streets and from the refugee camps in Gaza. At least the showy kind, at least at first and second glance, and when you're not looking for that protrusion of a gun on a right hip, and if you don't take into account a short convoy of cars passing by every so often, one of them (with darkened windows) apparently transporting Interior Minister Sa'id al-Siam or Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. A broad jeep accompanying the convoy carries several stern-faced armed men. The weapons are nowhere to be seen, unless you count a gang of uniformed masked men that roamed one intersection at midnight and drew the attention of a sleepless resident. These are Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigade fighters, a Hamas member explained, and she also found it heartbreaking, for it showed how many young people, including her own children, are ready to sacrifice their lives in the struggle for independence.

One house in Gaza was adorned with a poster of a smiling teenager who was killed about six months ago, before the tahadiyeh [lull]. No one had any idea that he had decided to join a Qassam-launching cell. His father is very bitter. How could they have recruited such a young kid, who hadn't even finished his matriculation exams? But a Hamas official said that the organization does not recruit anyone under 18. If the number of young people enlisting in the organization's military ranks is indeed large, the disappearance of weapons from the main streets, during daylight hours, is even more impressive. It attests to self-control, to an organization that is able to distinguish between the military and the civilian, to a guiding hand from above, to governmental attention to details - like the public's longing for some sense of normalcy - insofar as one can speak about normalcy when 1.5 million people are not permitted to leave a tiny, 365-square-kilometer area, and many are out of work and getting by on donations. The disappearance of official and unofficial weapons is especially noticeable if you compare it to the situation in Al Bireh-Ramallah, where Palestinian security personnel are deployed almost permanently, with their long rifles slung over their shoulders for all to see.

And then there's the quiet that the ear notices almost immediately. The quiet of zero construction, of closed factories and half-finished buildings, of half-demolished streets awaiting repaving, of water drainage systems whose pipes are filling with sand, because Israel prohibits the entry of all raw materials and construction materials. Pipes that pour sewage into the sea because there are no replacement parts for the broken pumps in the treatment facilities, or no diesel fuel to operate them.

Nothing to do

A group of businessmen in Gaza got fed up with sitting at home and living with this quiet and with the frustration. They consulted and decided to study - Hebrew. Three times a week, at the offices of the Businessmen's Association. The association pays for a teacher and for the noisy generator that provides light - since the rest of the neighborhood is in the dark because Israel is not allowing the transfer of industrial fuel to the Gaza power plant. The students pay for the coffee and tea. With the teacher's consent, one lesson was given over to a conversation with me. Many of the students already speak Hebrew well - they just want to learn to read and write it. Others are just beginning to learn the language. Why? "Because this madness of the closure and blockade of Gaza can't last forever, because the two peoples' futures are tied together," they say with certainty, as they learn a new Hebrew word from me - ashlayot (illusions).

"I'd like you to come with me to the store and speak with all of our employees. We're still paying their wages, even though there's no work, the store is empty," says Tareq Saqa, owner of an electronics importing company. Other Hebrew students painted a similar picture: an importer of medications (who now imports via the tunnels, for lack of an alternative), importers of lighting fixtures, of fire extinguishers, of chocolate and other sweets. Some speaking in Arabic, others in Hebrew. Some of them have trucks that are stuck in Israel without work. Others have shipping containers they cannot bring in from the West Bank. All have workers sitting at home with nothing to do.

Abdel Hakim Ismail is a contractor. "The guys who spoke before are traders, and they still have a little work. Maybe 20 percent of what they had before. But we contractors - No one's been working for four years or more. Half of us closed down completely. There's no material for asphalt for roads, for buildings. If there's gravel for concrete, then the cement is missing. If there's cement and gravel, there's no iron. It's been like this for five or six years now. Iron one day, cement one day, gravel another day. I've lost over a million dollars in five years, and there are jobs that I wasn't able to complete. I was working on a new school in Gaza, I'd dug for the foundations already, and now for two years I've been waiting for cement in order to pour concrete. I also have a United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] school in the Nuseirat refugee camp that's waiting - instead, pupils there study in steel shipping containers that are broiling hot in summer and freezing in winter. Some friends of mine won a tender to build a whole neighborhood, with Saudi financing, in Khan Yunis [the neighborhood where the Neve Dekalim settlement once stood, and which was designated to house refugees whose homes were destroyed by the IDF]. The total budget is $8 million. They managed to build just $2 million worth. They can't finish the buildings, and they're not receiving their money."

Fadel al-Jaru has a factory that makes curbstones and flagstones. And not long after the disengagement, he and a partner opened an asphalt business. Out of 40 workers in the first factory, "I've kept only three. I have a lot of orders [for flagstones]. Over 300,000 meters' worth. Some for UNRWA projects, some for the UN Development Program and some for the government. I work with contractors and everything's been stuck for the last two years. There are no materials. In the past, I used to go through an entire silo, 30-40 tons of cement, in one day. Every year, I'd buy 1,000 tons of cement. Recently, for the first time in a year and a half, I received 120 tons. The asphalt factory cost $1.4 million. It was able to operate for just one month."

"We don't live like human beings." This is Salim, the teacher, summing up and inserting a little grammar lesson: "ben adam in the singular, bnei adam in the plural." So what do we live like, asks one late-arriving student, who doesn't get an answer. Someone else goes back to the word ashlayot that they learned from me and asks if I think "we ought to go learn French." And the guy sitting next to him answers instead: "Not French, it's Egyptian we ought to learn."

On the second day of my return to Gaza, on November 9, I discovered another oppressive sight that has practically disappeared from the neighborhoods bordering the former sites of the settlements: Gone are the buildings pockmarked with bullet holes that were a constant testament to the abundance of arms and varieties of bullets used by the IDF. The remnants of houses that were wrecked by Israeli mortar shells or bulldozer teeth, reminders of the years of fear, have been cleared away. This is evidence of the work of the municipalities and of UNRWA, I thought. Of their understanding that these sights of war need to be removed, of the conscious and organized effort to restore a feeling of normalcy. But several mounds of debris to the east of the Jabaliya refugee camp and several bullet-ridden houses that are still occupied by their tenants and overlook the "tunnel city" in Rafah - reminded me that I shouldn't jump to conclusions. I noted that this is also something to pay attention to in the coming weeks - the work of the municipalities in general, the clearing of rubble in particular (some of the debris, I learned, was crushed and recycled in several basic infrastructure projects). But then I discovered that unfettered, independent tours of the area, with a taxi driver I know or with friends - were out of the question.

'A gift from the CIA'

Because, starting November 11, four days after I arrived in Gaza via the sea, on the Karameh, a ship belonging to the Free Gaza movement, with a delegation of European parliamentarians, I was treated to a 24-hour-a-day escort: two or three Palestinian security personnel (in three shifts), traveled behind me in a very large jeep ("a gift from the CIA to Abu Mazen," a friend joked).

At night they slept in it, below the apartment of friends where I was staying. I called the jeep dababeh - tank - because it stood out so. I was told that the escort was necessary for my safety. That if anything were to happen to me, God forbid, the whole world would be talking about nothing else and would blame the government in Gaza. "But I plan on staying for three months," I told A. - who is in charge of a unit called Security and Protection of Foreigners. "Inshallah, you'll stay a year," he said. "So why follow me around with a tank?" I asked. "If someone wants to hurt me, he'll know just where I am." Because we don't have any small civilian vehicles, he explained, and again promised that it was all for the sake of my safety and well-being. I told him that when I remarked to people that it was a shame for all that money to be spent like this, they answered: "Don't worry, it's the Iranians' money [a variation on the common phrase, "the Jews' money" - meaning something that can be wasted indiscriminately]. He didn't laugh.

A., like other Hamas officials and security personnel whom my friends tried in vain to convince of the irrationality of this permanent escort - promised that I was free to speak with whomever I wanted, and to see whomever I wished to see. Just how inaccurate this was I discovered on the second day of the escort: I wanted to visit a family in the Al-Shati refugee camp, whose son has been living in Ramallah for the past 20 years and who hasn't been able to visit them for the past 13 years because of the Israeli closure policy. His wife had sent gifts to them through me, including sage and hyssop ("you can't find the same quality in Gaza"). A fairly mundane visit, with an ordinary family that doesn't include even a single Hamas supporter. But I was asked not to come if I was going to be accompanied by that obtrusive jeep, even if the men inside it weren't from the unit that carries out raids and arrests. "What will the neighbors say? They might be frightened. What will they think of us?"

It's no wonder that this was also the response of the Fatah activists I planned to visit at one of the refugee camps with whom I'd hoped to spend time, looking for an opportunity to speak with some particularly impoverished families, in their homes.

In one neighborhood where I spent a lot of time, Fatah activists vanished from the streets at first. Then they learned the reason for the jeep's presence, calmed down and were out on the streets again. In another neighborhood, people said - some in fright and others in disgust - that my escorts always tried to find out the name of the owners of the building in which I stayed, and to find out the identities of the shop owners in the area. To find out information about my hosts. "Are they afraid for you, or of you?" someone teased. And a 12-year-old girl asked warily whether "the 24-hour escort wasn't an excuse to throw you out of here soon."

Neighbors asked in a mixture of concern and jest, "So who are the ikhwan [the Muslim brotherhood] in the jeep?" or "What are the Iz al-Din al-Qassams doing down there?" But not all the young escorts are Hamas or Iz al-Din al-Qassam activists, it turns out. A. himself held an important position in Arafat's presidential guard. One of his subordinates, who was one of my escorts, is really "with [Ramallah PM Salam] Fayyad," as a colleague of his described him with a smile, adding "And I'm with [Ismail] Haniyeh, but we're good friends."

A spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza told me that about 2,000 of the previous regime's security personnel defied Ramallah's order and now serve in the five security apparatuses that are under the Interior Ministry. There are still some who want to go back to work. They've realized, apparently, that Hamas rule is not as temporary as they thought in the beginning, and they're tired of sitting at home. The police force in Gaza is comprised of about 13,000 people, and only they - he assured me - are permitted to carry out arrests. The days when Iz al-Din al-Qassam members carried out arrests and interrogations (and torture) are over. Seven hundred more people serve in the "civil defense" (firefighters and the various rescue services), 1,000 in national security (the border guard), 1,000 in "security and protection" and 300-400 in internal intelligence. He claims that in the previous period, there were 60,000 security personnel "and no security. Today there are much fewer and there is security."

Coercive measures

What's right is right, and parents who are no longer afraid to send their children outside the house alone will attest to this. Things are so different now from the time when security anarchy reigned, when the PA security apparatuses were in charge - and, according to many, actually encouraged the anarchy and the spread of gang activity, in the hope that this would help bring about the fall of the Hamas government. A man who is far from being a Hamas supporter entered the police station (to collect recovered property that had been stolen from him). He was impressed by the new spirit of equality and efficiency there. So different from how it was under the PA.

The suspicion that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is doing and will do everything in its power to disrupt order in Gaza is the main justification offered for the coercive measures taken against Fatah activists. The trade union leadership in Ramallah, which is identified with the PLO, has enforced a general strike on health and education ministry workers in Gaza since August of this year (employees in other government ministries, including the security apparatuses and the legal system have been required, since Hamas took over security in June 2007, to boycott their workplace if they wish to continue receiving a salary from Ramallah).

The Hamas government quickly filled the void with workers and security people from the ranks of its supporters and established its own legal system. About 80 percent of government health care employees have since returned to work. Whether because of pangs of conscience, or because the health ministry in Gaza forbids them to work privately, or because they were summoned for questioning at Al Mashtal - the interrogation center in northern Gaza.

"Many doctors asked to be summoned to Al Mashtal, or to be transported to work in a police jeep, so they could tell Ramallah that they were under threat," said someone who is close to the health minister in Gaza. A clerk in another ministry, who is not a member of Hamas, told me the same thing.

Hamas easily found replacements for many of the teachers, though even a Hamas-supporting teacher admits that their level is still rather low and that they are inexperienced. The ones hurt the most are the high school students who have to take their matriculation exams this year. Now, any teacher who wishes to return to work is not guaranteed a place automatically. He or she must register along with the rest of the job candidates. Also striking, under orders from Ramallah, are some members of Islamic Jihad, a Hamas man noted resentfully. The strike was recently extended to December 31, despite opposition from PLO organizations in Gaza, including Fatah.

A key Fatah activist (whom I met with after practicing an evasive maneuver from my "escorts" and whose identity I cannot reveal, of course), told me bitterly: "The PA fell [in Gaza] when it had 70,000 soldiers. Is the Hamas government going to fall because of the doctors' strike? There are some in Fatah in Ramallah who likened the strike to the revolution of 1936 [the Arab Revolt]. We asked the leadership: 'Why did you agree to this strike? Why didn't you consult with us, the Fatah members in Gaza?' I personally encouraged teachers and doctors to go back to work. Anyone who is stuck sitting at home after he's been working for 30 years becomes mentally ill. When we hold our sixth convention, the people who listen to us will be elected."

And another Fatah man, a former prisoner who is out of work (and whom I also met while hiding from the jeep), says: "The worst thing for me is that I'm sitting at home. That I'm not working. A lot of people like me are in a state of depression. I feel unneeded. I gave my whole life for Palestine, for the people, and now my life is worthless. Without work, life has no value. It's a punishment, to just sit at home. My whole life has stopped."

The Hamas government figures that if there are such open attempts at disruption that they affect the entire public, then of course there are also covert attempts at disruption. One claim that has reached leftist activists is that Fatah people have been instructed to cooperate with the IDF, if and when it invades Gaza. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza says that someone who receives a salary from Ramallah was arrested and admitted that he was asked to prepare bombs in return for his wages. There's no telling whether or not this is true.

Another claim: Some of those being paid by the PA are asked to spy and relay information to Ramallah. Tales about informants in the service of Ramallah are also told by people who do not belong to Hamas. In Rafah I was advised not to let myself be seen in a certain area where there are tunnels: One of the owners of the land that's rented to the owner of the tunnel receives a salary from the rival government. If I am seen with him, I was told, one of the many informants around will tell Ramallah and his salary will be halted. This is not a baseless worry: The wages of some who "were suspected" of going to work have been halted (regardless of whether the "suspicion" was justified or not). And for their part, Hamas opponents are convinced that the government has informants everywhere - to sniff out and report on whatever needs reporting. For example, that there's a group of friends that drinks alcohol together. The police burst into one such home one day, stood the men against the wall and beat them in front of their wives. Afterwards, they claimed to have been searching for drugs. But the message got through loud and clear.

The informants keep track of who meets with whom, goes the claim. In one school, a boy was asked to write down the name of the mosque his father prays in. That's what a family friend said. When he refused to answer, the teacher said that it didn't matter, that they had other ways of finding out. I checked with other parents as to whether their children were ever asked this question. They said no.

Officials deny that there are orders aimed at "Islamization" or the imposition of stricter Muslim practices (than those that already exist in the society). But "we hear the messages from low-level activists," says a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp. "For example: In the summer, UNRWA set up summer camps throughout the Gaza Strip. The mosques emptied out, the kids ran to the summer camps. Because what else do young people have to do besides going to the mosque, or the muqawama [the resistance, the military organizations]? Or Internet? And when there's no electricity most of the time, there's no Internet either. And then we started hearing from the lower levels, not from the main officials, that the summer camps are heresy, that it's not okay." There is also a great fear of telephone wiretapping. "I'll pay a price for what I said to you," someone told me on the phone.

No knowing

Are these fears based on solid knowledge or on inflated rumors, on hatred or on an accurate assessment of Hamas' intentions? It's hard to tell. Somehow, everyone "knows" that one form of torture often used at Al Mashtal is to draw a ladder or bicycle on the wall. Then the interrogator asks the subject to climb on the ladder or the bike. And when the subject of course doesn't comply, he is beaten. The sister of a Fatah activist who "went underground" said to the Hamas police who came looking for him: You tell them to mount a bicycle drawn on the wall. And they answered her, she says: "No, we've stopped doing that, because the gas ran out." I tried to find out how many people had met and talked with someone who had experienced this form of torture. It appears that there is only one such complaint - which is still being looked into.

People also "know" that Hamas only distributes food packages to its supporters. Or that it only distributes canisters of cooking gas to people who belong to the movement - and this at a time when there is a shortage of cooking gas throughout the Gaza Strip. A common occurrence or isolated cases that, for all the repetition, become bloated in the general consciousness? To judge from the words of one fisherman from the Al-Shati refugee camp, who is not a Hamas man - there's no comparing the PA government "which was corrupt and worried only about its people" and today's government. Is this because he's a childhood friend of Haniyeh, is it because Haniyeh "was a fisherman, and his father was a fisherman and we're neighbors and he still lives in the camp, in the same refugee house" - or does the fisherman really reflect the popular attitude of people who are not exposed to arrests and other oppressive measures by Hamas?

Sometimes, there is talk about groups of salafiyin (purists who seek to base their practice on the early generations of Islam) that are the ones who impose - by violent means - stricter religious practices. But, M. told me in protest, the real salafiyin (and he considers himself one of them) are opposed to all violence. Suspicious observers say that there are elements in the government that make use of the violent salafiyin.

It was the salafiyin who were cited in the effort to get me to leave Gaza, against my will, just three weeks after my arrival, when I still had dozens of topics written in my notebook that I planned to examine and write about. On the morning of November 30, A.'s aide or deputy requested that I meet with them "immediately." I managed to do so two hours later, at noon, and then I was informed that "because of the security situation and information that has been received about a threat to your life, we can no longer protect you and you are requested to leave the Gaza Strip immediately. The order is from Sa'id al-Siam."

In April 1995, I had heard a similar line that seemed to have been taken from the same instruction manual that A. had memorized. Only then, it came from a representative of the PA mukhabarat (intelligence), and the order came from Arafat. Then I was told that the danger was from the Islamic Jihad and Hamas, while this time the salafiyin were mentioned. A. was deeply offended by the comparison and by the implication that they were lying, just as Arafat's security people had lied, just as the Israel Shin Bet lies when it prevents Israeli journalists from entering Gaza "for security reasons." In 1995, the "immediately" was replaced by three days. Then, friends and acquaintances in Fatah intervened, and during those three days were able to get the order changed.

This time I sought the help of Hamas people. That Sunday I was supposed to stay with N. - an old friend, a member of Hamas and a university lecturer. I told him right away on the phone about the order, and I heard the shock and sorrow in his voice. Within an hour, he had come to pick me up together with his friend, a member of the legislative council. They both tried to call whomever they could think of, to try to get the decree changed. From minute to minute, phone call to phone call, the dejected looks on their faces told me there was no chance. The decision was final.

At three in the afternoon, we sat down to eat, in his home, with his wife and two sons. At four, my escorts rang the doorbell and informed me that my time was up. That I had to leave immediately. An order is an order. We went downstairs together and sitting in the dababeh, instead of the usual two or three, were six or seven of my escorts, wearing clearly unfriendly expressions. They couldn't care less that I still had to pack, to say goodbye to friends, that the Erez checkpoint was closed. It was my fault for taking so long. N. tried to explain: "We've been fasting [the last 10 days before the Feast of the Sacrifice are voluntary fast days]. We'd planned to break the fast with a meal with Amira [at five]. When I found out she had to leave, I called my wife and we decided to end the fast earlier, in honor of our guest." I was surprised and moved, because I had been unaware of this gesture. The phone calls finally produced one bit of leniency: I was permitted to leave the next day, December 1.


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