Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The New York Times on Gaza

Today's Times has a front page story purporting to tell us what life is really like for residents of the Gaza strip.

Some of the important points made:

:: Hunger isn't the most serious problem. Though some Gazans are desperately poor, overall the situation is worse in places like Lebanon. In Gaza, the most serious problem is "idleness, uncertainty and despair." People can't work, and can't leave. This despair is what seems to be at the root of the population's hatred for Israel.

:: And not just hatred for Israel:  "Dozens of interviews with all sorts of people found few willing to praise their government [i.e. Hamas] or that of its competitor. [i.e. Fatah]" “They’re both liars,” Waleed Hassouna, a baker in Gaza City, said in a very common comment.

:: Disagreements between Hamas and Fata contribute to the crises in Gaza. It is their rivalry, for example, that has caused this summer's electricity shortage.

Read it all after the jump

Trapped by Gaza Blockade, Locked in Despair

GAZA CITY — The women were bleary-eyed, their voices weak, their hands red and calloused. How could they be expected to cook and clean without water or electricity? What could they do in homes that were dark and hot all day? How could they cope with husbands who had not worked for years and children who were angry and aimless?

Sitting with eight other women at a stress clinic, Jamalat Wadi, 28, tried to listen to the mental health worker. But she could not contain herself. She has eight children, and her unemployed husband spends his days on sedatives.

“Our husbands don’t work, my kids are not in school, I get nervous, I yell at them, I cry, I fight with my husband,” she blurted. “My husband starts fighting with us and then he cries: ‘What am I going to do? What can I do?’ ”

The others knew exactly what she meant.

The Palestinians of Gaza, most of them descended from refugees of the 1948 war that created Israel, have lived through decades of conflict and confrontation. Their scars have accumulated like layers of sedimentary rock, each marking a different crisis — homelessness, occupation, war, dependency.

Today, however, two developments have conspired to turn a difficult life into a new torment: a three-year blockade by Israel and Egypt that has locked them in the small enclave and crushed what there was of a formal local economy; and the bitter rivalry between Palestinian factions, which has undermined identity and purpose, divided families and caused a severe shortage of electricity in the middle of summer.

There are plenty of things to buy in Gaza; goods are brought over the border or smuggled through the tunnels with Egypt. That is not the problem.

In fact, talk about food and people here get angry because it implies that their struggle is over subsistence rather than quality of life. The issue is not hunger. It is idleness, uncertainty and despair.

Any discussion of Gaza’s travails is part of a charged political debate. No humanitarian crisis? That is an Israeli talking point, people here will say, aimed at making the world forget Israel’s misdeeds. Palestinians trapped with no future? They are worse off in Lebanon, others respond, where their “Arab brothers” bar them from buying property and working in most professions.

But the situation is certainly dire. Scores of interviews and hours spent in people’s homes over a dozen consecutive days here produced a portrait of a fractured and despondent society unable to imagine a decent future for itself as it plunges into listless desperation and radicalization.

It seems most unlikely that either a Palestinian state or any kind of Middle East peace can emerge without substantial change here. Gaza, on almost every level, is stuck.


A main road was blocked off and a stage set up for a rally protesting the electricity shortage. Speakers shook nearby windows with the anthems of Hamas, the Islamist party that has held power here for the past three years. Boys in military camouflage goose-stepped. Young men carried posters of a man with vampire teeth biting into a bloodied baby.

The vampire was not Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. It was Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“We stand today in this furious night to express our intense anger toward this damned policy by the illegitimate so-called Fayyad government,” Ismail Radwan, a Hamas official, shouted.

As if the Palestinian people did not have enough trouble, they have not one government but two, the Fatah-dominated one in the West Bank city of Ramallah and the Hamas one here. The antagonism between them offers a depth of rivalry and rage that shows no sign of abating.

Its latest victim is electricity for Gaza, part of which is supplied by Israel and paid for by the West Bank government, which is partly reimbursed by Hamas. But the West Bank says that Hamas is not paying enough so it has held off paying Israel, which has halted delivery.

“They are lining their pockets and they are part of the siege,” asserted Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader and a surgeon, speaking of the West Bank government. “There will be no reconciliation.”

John Ging, who heads the Gaza office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, known as U.N.R.W.A., says the latest electricity problem “is a sad reflection of the divide on the Palestinian side.”

He added, “They have no credibility in demanding anything from anybody if they show such disregard for the plight of their own people.”

Today Hamas has no rival here. It runs the schools, hospitals, courts, security services and — through smuggler tunnels from Egypt — the economy.

“We solved a lot of problems with the tunnels,” Dr. Zahar said with a satisfied smile.

Along with the leaders has come a new generation that has taken the reins of power. Momen al-Ghemri, 25, a nurse, and his wife, Iman, 24, an Arabic teacher, are members of it.

University educated, the grandchildren of refugees, still living in refugee camps, both of the Ghemris got their jobs when Hamas took over full control by force three years ago, a year after it won an election. Neither has ever left Gaza.

Mr. Ghemri works as a nurse for the security services, earning $500 a month, but is spending six months at the intensive care unit of Shifa Hospital.

Spare parts for equipment remain a problem because of the blockade. But on a recent shift, the I.C.U. was well staffed. In the office next door, there was a map on the wall of Palestine before Israel’s creation.

Mr. Ghemri’s grandparents’ village, Aqer, is up there, along with 400 other villages that no longer exist. A wall in another office offered instructions on the Muslim way to help a bedridden patient pray.

Mr. Ghemri’s wife greets visitors at home wearing the niqab, or face veil, only her eyes visible. She believes in Hamas and makes that clear to her pupils. But her husband sees the party more as a means toward an end.

“You can’t go on your own to apply for a job,” he said. “For me, Hamas is about employment.”

He does like the fact that, as he put it, Hamas “refuses to kneel down to the Jews,” but like most Gazans, he is worried about Palestinian disunity and blames both factions.

In fact, there is a paradox at work in Gaza: while Hamas has no competition for power, it also has a surprisingly small following.

Dozens of interviews with all sorts of people found few willing to praise their government or that of its competitor.

“They’re both liars,” Waleed Hassouna, a baker in Gaza City, said in a very common comment.

People here seem increasingly unable to imagine a political solution to their ills. Ask Gazans how to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — two states? One state? — and the answer is mostly a reflexive call to drive Israel out.

“Hamas and Fatah are two sides of the same coin,” Ramzi, a public school teacher from the city of Rafah, said in a widely expressed sentiment. “All the land is ours. We should turn the Jews into refugees and then let the international community take care of them.”

Dried-Up Fortunes

Hamza and Muhammad Ju’bas are brothers, ages 13 and 11. They sell chocolates and gum on the streets after school to add to their family income. Once they have pulled in 20 shekels, about $5, they go home and play.

On one steamy afternoon they were taking refuge in a cellphone service center. The center — where customers watch for their number on digital displays and smiling representatives wear ties, and the air-conditioning never quits — seems almost glamorous.

The boys were asked about their hopes.

“My dream is to be like these guys and work in a place that’s cool,” Muhammad said.

“My dream is to be a worker,” Hamza said. He hears stories about the “good times” in the 1990s, when his father worked in Israel, as a house painter, making $85 a day. Later, their father, Emad Ju’bas, 45, said, “My children don’t have much ambition.”

The family is typical. They live in Shujaiya, a packed eastern neighborhood of 70,000, a warren of narrow, winding alleys and main roads lined with small shops.

The air is heavy with dust and fumes from cars, scooters and horse-drawn carts. Every shop has a small generator chained down outside. Roaring generators and wailing children are the sounds of Shujaiya.

Families are big. From 1997 through 2007, the population increased almost 40 percent, to 1.5 million. Palestinians say that large families will help them cope as they age, and more children mean more fighters for their cause.

Mr. Ju’bas and his wife, Hiyam, have seven boys and three girls. Two of their children have cognitive disabilities. Since Israel’s three-week war 18 months ago here aimed at stopping Hamas rockets, their children frequently wet the bed. Their youngest, Taj, 4, is aggressive, randomly punching anyone around him.

For six years Mr. Ju’bas worked in Israel, and with the money he bought a house with six rooms and two bathrooms. In 2000, when the uprising called the second intifada broke out, Israel closed the gates.

After that, Mr. Ju’bas found small jobs around Gaza, but with the blockade that dried up. His only source of work is at the United Nations relief agency, where two months a year he is a security guard.

He admits that at times he lashes out at his family. Domestic violence is on the rise. The strain is acute for women. Men can go out and sit in parks, in chairs right on the sidewalk or visit friends. Women are expected to stay off the streets.

The women at the stress clinic gathered about 10 a.m. They entered silently, wearing the ubiquitous hijab head scarf and ankle-length button-down overcoat known as the jilbab. Two wore the niqab over their faces.

They spoke of sending their children to work just to get them out of the house and of husbands who grew morose and violent.

They blamed Hamas for their misery, for seizing the Israeli soldier, Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit, which led to the blockade. But they also blamed Fatah for failing them.

“My own children tell me it is better to die,” Jamalat Wadi said to the group.

Ms. Wadi’s home was next door and she ran over to check on the family. She found her eight children wandering aimlessly in an open paved area, a courtyard filled with piles of clothes and plastic containers. The house had one unfurnished room and her husband, Bahjat, 28, was on the floor, unconscious, his arm over his head, his mouth open.

“He sleeps all the time,” Ms. Wadi said, motioning as though throwing a pill in her mouth.

The Wadis are refugees, so they receive flour, rice, oil and sugar from U.N.R.W.A. Tens of thousands of others here receive salaries from the Ramallah government to stay away from their jobs in protest over Hamas rule. They wait, part of a literate society with nothing to do.

Ms. Wadi said that when she visited her mother, her two brothers fought bitterly because one backs Hamas and the other backs Fatah. Recently they threw bottles at each other. Her mother kicked them out.

In another meeting, Mr. Ju’bas was unshaven and unwashed. The previous night he had hit his wife, one of his children said. The washing machine had broken and he had no money to fix it.

He told his wife to use the neighbors’. But she was embarrassed. She stayed up all night cleaning clothes and crying.

“My only dream,” Mr. Ju’bas said, “is to have patience.”

Inside Looking Out

The waves were lapping the beach. It was night. Mahmoud Mesalem, 20, and a few of his friends were sitting at a restaurant.

University students or recent graduates, they were raised in a world circumscribed by narrow boundaries drawn hard by politics and geography. They all despaired from the lack of a horizon.

“We’re here, we’re going to die here, we’re going to be buried here,” lamented Waleed Matar, 22.

Mr. Mesalem pointed at an Israeli ship on the horizon, then made his hand into a gun, pointed it at his head. “If we try to leave, they will shoot us,” he said.

There are posters around town with a drawing of a boot on an Israeli soldier, who is facedown, and the silhouette of a man hanging by his neck. The goal is to get alleged collaborators to turn themselves in. The campaign has put fear in the air.

Israel is never far from people’s minds here. Its ships control the waters, its planes control the skies. Its whims, Gazans feel, control their fate.

And while most here view Israel as the enemy, they want trade ties and to work there. In their lives the main source of income has been from and through Israel.

Economists here say what is most needed now is not more goods coming in, as the easing of the blockade has permitted, but people and exports getting out.

That is not going to happen soon.

“Our position against the movement of people is unchanged,” said Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the Israeli in charge of policy to Gaza’s civilians. “As to exports, not now. Security is paramount, so that will have to wait.”

Direct contact between the peoples, common in the 1980s and ’90s when Palestinians worked daily in Israel, is nonexistent.

Jamil Mahsan, 62, is a member of a dying breed. He worked for 35 years in Israel and believes in two states.

“There are two peoples in Palestine, not just one, and each deserves its rights,” he said, sitting in his son’s house. He used to attend the weddings of his Israeli co-workers. He had friendships in Israel. Today nobody here does.

The young men sitting by the beach contemplating their lives were representative of the new Gaza. They have started a company to design advertisements, and they write and produce small plays.

Their first performance in front of several hundred people involved a recounting of the horrors of the last war with Israel, with children speaking about their own fears as video of the war played.

Their second play, which they are rehearsing, is a black comedy about the Palestinian plight. It assails the factions for fighting and the Arabs for selling out the Palestinians.

“Our play does not mean we hate Israel,” said Abdel Qader Ismail, 24, a former employee of the military intelligence service, with no trace of irony. “We believe in Israel’s right to exist, but not on the land of Palestine. In France or in Russia, but not in Palestine. This is our home.”

Mona El-Naggar and Fares Akram contributed reporting.

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