The Gaza Strip is a heavily urbanized sliver of land, some 30 miles long, that nestles against the southeast corner of the Mediterranean and that for many reasons– including the fact that more than 75% of its 1.6 million people are refugees from within what is now Israel– has always been a crucible for the Palestinian movement. In the 1950s, Yasser Arafat and his comrades founded the secular nationalist movement Fateh here. In the 1970s, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a local preacher, founded the network of Islamist organizations that later became Hamas, right here in Gaza. In 1987, Gaza was where the overwhelmingly nonviolent First Intifada was first ignited…
On a recent Wednesday morning, I sat in the neat, Gaza City office of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights with its deputy director, a grizzled veteran of the rights movement called Jaber Wishah. We were discussing the prospects for the reconciliation agreement that Fateh and Hamas concluded in Cairo on May 3. Wishah said he hoped that the agreement would result in the formation of a ‘national salvation government’ that could end and reverse the many kinds of assault that the Israeli government has sustained against the Palestinians of the occupied territories: primarily, the multi-year siege that suffocates the Gaza Strip’s 1.6 million residents and the continuing land expropriations and regime of deeply abusive control that Israel maintains over the 2.6 million Palestinians of the West Bank.
“We desperately need this salvation government, to halt the deterioration of our situation,” Wishah said.
Like all the politically connected Palestinians I talked with during my three-day visit to Gaza, Wishah stressed that the key factor that was now– however slowly– starting to ease the harsh, five-year rift between Hamas and Fateh was the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in neighboring Egypt.
Gaza’s longest land border is the one lined (by Israel) with high concrete walls, hi-tech sensors, and a series of watchtowers with machine-gun nests that can fire automatically if any Palestinian approaches any closer than 500 meters to the wall. Gaza’s shorter border is the one with Egypt that, since 2006, has been the only way that Gaza’s people– or rather, a carefully screened subset of them– can ever hope to travel outside the tiny Strip, whether for business, studies, or family reunions. So long as Mubarak and his widely loathed intel chief Omar Sulaiman were still in power in Cairo, they used their power over Egypt’s Rafah crossing point with Gaza to maintain tight control over the Strip and they worked with Israel, the United States, and their allies in Fateh to squeeze Gaza’s Hamas rulers as hard as they could. Many Arab governments have long expressed support for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. But they (and the western powers) were always content to let Egypt take the lead in brokering all reconciliation efforts. To no-one’s surprise, so long as Mubarak and Sulaiman were in charge in Cairo, those efforts went nowhere.
On February 11, Mubarak was toppled from power by Egypt’s amazing new popular movement. His last-minute attempt to assure a Sulaiman succession was also stymied by the protesters and their allies in the Egyptian military. Palestinians everywhere realized that the political environment for the reconciliation effort would now be very different.
And different it has been– though not yet as different as many Palestinians hoped.
Thus far, Fateh and Hamas have still been unable to agree on one of the first steps required for implementation of the May 3 agreement: the naming of the head of the new “reunified” Palestinian Administration (PA) government that will replace the two parallel governments that have been operating in Gaza and the West Bank since June 2007. Fateh head (and PA president) Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that this be Salam Fayyad, who has headed the PA government in Ramallah since the 2007 split. Hamas has thus far opposed that nomination.
The May 3 agreement stipulates that one of the main functions of the new PA administration will be to prepare conditions for the holding, within one year from May 3, of simultaneous elections for the PA legislature, its president– and also for the first-ever elected Palestine National Council (PNC), which is the “legislature” for the PA’s broader umbrella body, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
In our conversation, Wishah expressed great skepticism that free and fair elections could ever be held for these positions. It was hard enough, back in 2005 and 2006, to organize the holding of elections for the PA’s presidency and legislature. The electorate for those bodies is “just” the Palestinian residents of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. But Israel’s continuing control over those territories meant that even with strong U.S. support for holding those elections, there were many friction points with Israel.
Washington, as we know, may have supported the holding of the 2006 elections– but it was horrified by the outcome. Immediately after the extent of Hamas’s victory became known, the Bush administration said it would have no dealings with the elected leaders until they met a series of new, high-level political conditions coordinated with Israel; and soon thereafter Washington and Israel started their preparations with Dahlan for the coup.
Wishah commented that, “If the international community had recognized the results of the ’06 election here, the changes of the Arab Spring would have come a lot earlier and been more peaceful and better for everyone! That was the original sin.”
As it is now, the Arab Spring (Egyptian branch) has started to make a little difference for the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. But the harms they have suffered since January 2006 have been huge. Among the harshest legacies of the U.S.-fomented split between Hamas and Fateh is the deep distrust and fear that now exists between the two organizations: distrust that, Wishah noted, reaches deep into Palestinian society, including into the heart of many Palestinian families. At this point, he said, Palestinians see no alternative to overcoming that division if their national cause is to be saved, but doing that will not be easy.
* * *
One first fruit of the May 3 agreement: As you drive along the Strip, within or through the sprawling cities, towns, and heavily built-up refugee camps that cover most of its surface, you often see Fateh’s distinctive, bright yellow pennants raised high over residential blocks. Yes, Hamas’s green flags still strongly out-number them. But the green flags have been flying longer and many now have a slightly grungy look to them.
The choice of flags has been a key decision made within all the popular uprisings that have made up the Arab Spring. In both Tunisia and Egypt, participants in the mass demonstrations made a point of carrying only their respective national flags on the demonstrations, leaving their party affiliations at home. Back in late February, after Mubarak’s toppling, young social activists in Palestine decided that they wanted to organize a mass popular action. Their main slogan was “The people want an end to the division.” Not surprisingly, as they organized for what they designated their #mar15 action in both the West Bank and Gaza, they argued strongly that participants should carry only the Palestinian flag.
In both Gaza and the West Bank, the status quo powers viewed the young people’s activism as posing a worrying challenge to their own control, and the ruling powers in both territories moved swiftly to co-opt and dominate the movement. Brilliant young Palestinian blogger Sameeha Elwan, a recent graduate of the Islamic University of Gaza’s English-language program, blogged movingly about the dismay she felt when she saw many participants in the Gaza City march carrying Hamas flags as well as Palestine’s four-color emblem.
- I could see nothing but the Palestinian flag, hear nothing but Palestine’s name, I could not but be totally involved as everyone else who like me were chanting, walking proud, holding up their Palestinian flag, their voice at its highest, their hearts hopeful for a unity that this demonstration proved every Palestinian, regardless of his favourite colour, is eager to have back…
Amidst the beauty of the scene rose that unusual green flag tied to the Palestinian… [H]onestly, I think of it as an absurd attempt to prove the Hamas presence while none has denied them the right to. The demonstration was aimed at calling to end division. It aimed not at ending the presence of any party.
In Gaza, Hamas’s well coordinated mass organizations easily outnumbered the intentionally non-partisan demonstrators on March 15. Prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas luminaries came to the city center’s Square of the Unknown Soldier to address them. The independents moved elsewhere to continue holding their notably smaller demonstration.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, the pro-Fateh security forces succeeded in limiting access to Ramallah’s Manara Square to only a small proportion of the would-be demonstrators. A low-level Fateh official addressed the crowd, coming hand-in-hand with a Hamas official. But soon after the speeches the Palestinian gendarmerie cleared the square, fearing that if the protesters stayed too long their movement might, as in Tahrir Square, gain momentum.
Since March 15, there have been few signs of the Palestinian “youth” movement undertaking any further similar demonstrations. But the leaders of Hamas and Fateh had both gotten some important messages: from the March 15 action; from the pro-reconciliation diplomatic activism of Egypt’s new government; and also– in the case of Fateh, whose leaders have long pinned all their hopes on getting some real help from Washington in pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands– from the evident failure of that strategy, including the derailing of that previously long-running (but never arriving) roadshow, the “peace process.”
* * *
My first evening in Gaza, I had a short but informative meeting with Dr. Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas strategist who runs a think-tank called the House of Wisdom. He gave me a list of ten factors that, in his view, had helped push the two Palestinian movements into the reconciliation. The March 15 movement was #6 on the list. Numbers 1 and 2 were respectively, “The Arab Spring Revolution, especially the ousting of Mubarak” and “The Failure of the Palestinian Israeli negotiations.”
I asked Yousef whether Hamas’s approval for the reconciliation document meant that the movement had at last agreed to the three political “pre-conditions” that the United States, Israel, and the Quartet had defined as necessary before Hamas could be included in the negotiations.
“The reconciliation agreement has nothing to do with the three conditions,” he said. “The unity government that we will form– which will be made up of politically non-aligned technocrats– will simply be an administration that works for Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. The government will have no dealings with the big political issues. We agreed that Abu Mazen will handle all those– but we have an agreement with him that he will consult with us before he takes any significant political steps such as the initiative discussed for the United Nations this September.”
While I was in Gaza, Gaza PM Ismail Haniyeh was in Cairo where many people expected him and Fateh’s senior negotiator, Ahmed al-Azzam, to announce their agreement on the name of the new PA prime minister. That did not happen during their June 14 meeting there; and a follow-up meeting scheduled for June 21 between the overall heads of the two movements, Abbas and Hamas’s Damascus-based secretary-general Khaled Meshaal, also got postponed. Reconciling the two movements would evidently not be easy.
* * *
I had two inspiring meetings in Gaza with researchers and board members from the non-partisan Center for Political and Development Studies (CPDS.) At one of those meetings, I got to present a writing award to Sameeha Elwan and two other young Gaza bloggers, Muhammad Rabah Suliman and Rawan Yaghi. I also listened hard as participants in that seminar, both young and old, discussed their hopes for the reconciliation agreement.
Dr. Hani Basous, the vice-chair of the CPDS board, said that the high hopes that greeted the agreement’s original announcement on May 3 had become tempered since then by a realization that the matters on the reconciliation agenda would be hard to resolve. Another participant, Dr. Esam Adwan, noted that one of the issues that some people consider challenging– the threat Washington has made to cut off funding to the Ramallah PA if Fateh goes ahead and implements the reconciliation agreement with Hamas– could have a solution at hand, namely a promise from the Arab League that it will make up any shortfall if Washington stops sending the funds.
* * *
The physical landscape in the parts of Gaza I visited had improved a lot since my last visit, in November 2009. Back then, just ten months after the (un-negotiated, but reciprocal) ceasefires that brought Israel’s big “Cast Lead” assault to an end, whole areas of the Strip still looked like 1945 footage from Dresden. Homes, factories, and more than a few schools had been bombed to smithereens by the IDF and huge, angular shards of concrete rubble– a staircase… a long lintel… an apartment wall standing at a crazy angle– watched uneasily over a broad, bleak landscape of destruction. Families cowered from the whipping winter wind in tent camps that had been their only home for nearly a year by then.
This time, I saw much less rubble still lying around. But Israel, which continues to try to control all passage of goods into and out of the Strip, stalwartly refuses to allow the importation of the vast bulk of the construction materials that Gazans have needed, in order to rebuild efficiently from the fighting. In the absence of the orderly importation of building materials through the Israel-controlled crossings, Gazan families, businesses, and community organizations desperate to rebuild have had two options. One has been to pay high prices for building materials brought in illegally through the large number of tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt. The other has been to painstakingly grind up the rubble from January 2009 and refashion it to into new breeze-blocks. Now, everywhere throughout the Strip, you see donkeys hauling flatbed carts carrying high heaps of rubble. It is delivered to the building sites, where workers with dusty rags tied around their faces throw it into huge grinders for re-use. Twisted pieces of metal from the destroyed structures– and from the former settlements that Israel destroyed completely before it pulled out the settlers in 2005– has been compacted into large cubes like Hesco barriers.
Between the large-scale signs of post-war cleanup, the newly re-habbed cultivation now underway in any space at all amenable to agriculture, and the fact that in June the orange of flame trees and the splash of bougainvillea’s purples decorate many of the Strip’s streets, Gaza was looking pretty good. There were good crowds in Gaza City’s downtown produce market and the tiny shops in the gold souk were open for business. Every afternoon crowds of people flocked to the long beaches, their safety overseen by lifeguards sitting on well constructed platforms. At night, the bright lights of fishermen bobbed around on the water. The presence of security people in the streets and other public areas seemed light, and all the Gazans we encountered were friendly and eager to express warm greetings to their American visitors.
Gaza is still, however, a big prison. Israel’s tight and long-sustained siege has made impossible the maintenance of any normal commercial relationships with the outside world– exports, as well as imports– of the type that is vital to sustain the livelihoods of people in any community as small as this one. Gaza’s people are very well educated. Three-fourths of them have had the benefit of the well-run, free education that the U.N. has offered to Palestinian refugees for 61 years now. The Islamic University and the Strip’s other institutions of higher education produce 20,000 graduates every year. (Scroll down to the lower video here to see IUG student Jeehan AlFarra speak thoughtfully in English about her hopes for Gaza’s future.)
Israel has sought to justify the tough sanctions it maintains against Gaza by referring to the young IDF corporal, Gilad Shalit, captured while he was on active duty near Gaza in 2006, and to the intermittent firing by Hamas and other Gaza-based groups of small rockets across the border into Israel. Israeli spokespeople refuse to link Shalit’s situation to that of the hundreds of Gaza Palestinians still held in Israeli prisons even though it is six years since Israel pulled its settlers and troops out of the Gazan interior. Various attempts to negotiate a prisoner exchange have failed. And the Palestinian rocket-fire from Gaza into Israel, never heavy at the worst of times, declined to almost nothing after the January 2009 ceasefire.
* * *
Among the structures destroyed by Israeli missiles during Cast Lead was the domed, city-center hall of the Gaza branch of the PA legislature. That has now been rebuilt; and I sat down one morning in a meeting room there with Huda Naim, one of the four Hamas women elected to the parliament in 2006. Since the Hamas-Fateh split of 2007 Naim, a former social worker, has acted as the de-facto head of the parliament’s human rights committee. (Another Hamas woman I talked with in Gaza, Ibtisam al-Saema, roared with laughter when I told her that some people in the west think that Hamas treats women in the same way that the Taliban does.)
In the semi-public space in which I met Naim, she was wearing a floor-length black coat and a large white head-covering. The staff at the parliament building treated her with great respect; and it was a young man who brought in our tea. Naim told me, “Here, we have more women than men in our universities and nearly every time in recent years, women have been graduating at the top of their classes.” She denied reports that the Hamas government had a policy of imposing Islamic dress on women. “Hamas doesn’t determine people’s form of life,” she said. “People are free to choose. When you hear about problems with women being pressured to wear head coverings, this is not coming from the government but from the people… We are opposed to anyone trying to impose their views on other people.”
Naim is in her early forties and has five children. She lives in Al-Bureij refugee camp. In addition to her responsibilities in the parliament, she is head of the Thuraya Foundation for Women’s Media and a leader in the Hamas women’s movement. “Women are in Hamas’s majlis al-shura,” she told me, referring to the movement’s leading decisionmaking body.
- At the level of implementing policies, however, we have an entirely separate body parallel to the men’s organizations. It works on separate projects and is responsible for its own budget. Organizing our work in this way gives real authority to women, and it makes the women of Hamas much stronger than the women in any other Islamist movement…
Hamas women have a role not just at home, but a big public-support and social role as well, in preserving the broader culture of resistance against all the attempts to undermine it… The important thing is that the Hamas women not only play this role, but they fully understand what they’re doing and why it is important. We are full participants.
She said that Hamas women had at some points played some role in the armed part of the resistance; but she indicated that was not happening very much nowadays.
I asked her whether Hamas now supports the idea of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Back in May, there were reports of internal debates inside the Hamas leadership on this point, with senior, Gaza-based strategist Mahmoud Zahhar expressing open criticisms of Khaled Meshaal for statements Meshaal made expressing support for the two-state outcome. (I have found on previous visits to Gaza that the Hamas people there often express harder-line views than those expressed by the movement’s leaders on the outside. However, six movement leaders from Gaza, and six from the West Bank sit on Hamas’s overall 18-person majlis al-shura, and usually these differences get resolved in an orderly way.)
Naim gave a nuanced answer to my question. “The two-state solution does not look possible any more,” she said. “But who made it impossible? Israel, with its policy of putting settlements all throughout Jerusalem and the West Bank. But if Hamas does succeed in winning a Palestinian state in all the Palestinian land that was occupied by Israel in 1967 without any limiting conditions, then I would accept that. Our question, though, is what does Israel want?”
Naim, like all the Palestinians I talked with in Gaza, stressed that the most important aspect of the reconciliation agreement was the part of it governing Hamas’s inclusion for the first time ever in the workings of the PLO. It is, after all, the PLO that will be negotiating the big final-status issues on behalf of all Palestinians, both those who are currently allowed by Israel to live inside the occupied territories and those who are not. (A large majority of them are not). The PA, meanwhile, was only ever envisioned to be an interim body that would administer some of the Palestinians’ civil affairs pending conclusion of a final-status agreement.
Huda Naim also shared with many of the others whom I spoke with in Gaza a view of the future that seemed more self-confident and more quietly optimistic than the views I’ve heard expressed on previous visits to the long-stressed territory. “Now the trend is going in our direction,” she said. “The Israelis should have taken what they could for a final settlement when they still had all the Arab regimes basically supporting their position!”
* * *
One of the big hopes that Gaza’s Palestinians have long had regarding the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation is that this can swiftly lead to the lifting of the siege of Gaza and the restoration of regular transport links between Gaza and the West Bank– such as were promised in the ‘Agreement on Movement and Access’ that Condoleezza Rice brokered between Israel and the PA back in 2005. For now, though, such an easing of their situation still seems a distant dream.
Back when the May 3 agreement was announced in Cairo, the Egyptian government promised it would speedily open up the Rafah Crossing to all passengers except men of military age. But that has not happened yet. When my husband and I tried to cross from Egypt to Gaza, and again when we tried to leave, even with our American passports, the phone-calls of support we had from extremely high-level government people on both sides, and assurances that our names had been “pre-cleared” for passage on that given day– even with all that, it still took us three hours to get through the crossing going into Gaza, and two hours (and a bunch of money in visas and “entry fees”, payable to Egypt), to get out a few days later.
On the day we left, just 140 Gazans made it through the Rafah Crossing. As was noted in this article in the Financial Times (which was reporting on Rafah on the same day we crossed out through it), that was “far fewer than in the months before the reconciliation pact was signed.” The FT reporter also noted that, “At least 12,000 Gazans have registered to use the crossing so far, and seats on the shuttle bus between the terminals on either side of the border are fully booked until August.”
When we talked with high-level Egyptian officials after our return to Cairo, first of all they expressed surprise that there was still any problem at all at the Rafah Crossing. Then they admitted that, yes, their government had decided to impose a limit on the number of Palestinians who could cross– which was, they said, 400 per day. When we said that on the day we crossed, far fewer than that had crossed, they murmured that maybe there were still some operational glitches that needed to be ironed out.
In truth, a number of things seemed to stand between the good intentions of people in Egypt’s post-Tahrir government and the reality of the situation at Rafah. First, it is not, in fact, the Egyptian government, as such, that determines what happens on the ground in Rafah, but rather Egypt’s still-powerful military and intel services. Second, the new government in Cairo and the dynamic and still-fluid political elite that brought it to power have numerous other large challenges they need to address, in domestic governance and economic affairs, as well as foreign policy. And third, Gaza and Rafah are simply very distant from Cairo. It takes well over four hours to drive from Cairo to Rafah, with much of that driving done through barren deserts. The relationship between Cairo politics and the situation in Gaza is very different indeed from the multiple close ties between the West Bank and Jordan’s very nearby capital, Amman.
But still, Gazans do have many close ties of empathy with their fellow-Arabs in Cairo and the rest of the Arab world. The day I was meeting with Jaber al-Wisheh at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, his boss Raji Sourani was in Cairo, leading a multi-day training workshop for human rights activists from Syria, Libya, and Yemen. For all of them, the campaign to build a political system of freedom and dignity is a long one, that still continues.