|Palestinians: divided we fall|
Le Monde diplomatique
Two locations, two rival political powers. Solidarity against Israel is gradually disintegrating as both regimes, and many individuals living under them, begin to see the future only in terms of their personal survival.
At the beginning of July, people in the West Bank and Gaza were relieved to hear that high-school graduation results in both of the occupied territories were to be made public at the same time there had been a rumour that Gaza’s ministry of education would publish its own results a day early. That shows the anxiety that has existed since June 2007 when Palestinian self-rule became dual with one administration run by Fatah in Ramallah in the West Bank, and another by Hamas in Gaza. "But this doubling of authority hasn’t affected the ministries in charge of essential services [education, health and social security]," people say, seeking to reassure themselves. The madness of this dual regime does have its limits, then.
People tell you: "Everyone here knows the rift only serves the Israeli occupation, and it’s Israel, not the two ‘governments’, which holds the real power." At the end of August, however, this warning seemed to fall on deaf ears: just as a new round of Egyptian-sponsored talks aimed at reconciling Fatah and Hamas was due to begin, the Fatah-affiliated trade unions in Ramallah called on Gaza’s public sector workers to strike.
However, for just a few days in mid-July, Palestinian society had become one big village again. Everyone knew who had done well in their exams and who had failed. In the West Bank the results were celebrated in the usual fashion, with guns fired into the air. Despite public criticism, the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces have not managed to put a stop to this dangerous tradition. Whereas in Gaza, not a single gunshot was heard the Hamas police do enforce the ban on gunfire at social events.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gave a bursary to the best student and promised dozens more to students in both parts of the occupied territories. He was acting just as if he was still prime minister of the legal Hamas government elected in January 2006. But in June 2007, President Mahmoud Abbas had dismissed him and his newly formed national unity government, after Hamas had defeated the Fatah-dominated security forces and taken military control of Gaza.
The million-and-a-half inhabitants of the Gaza Strip suffer the consequences of the dual authority every day, and the animosity between Hamas and Fatah. They also pay the price of the crippling Israeli blockade, which is directly responsible for the number of Gazans living in poverty: 79.4% (based on income levels) or 51.8% (based on consumption levels), compared with 45.7% and 19.1% in the West Bank (1).
The international embargo and Israeli blockade imposed after the 2006 elections initially targeted both the West Bank and Gaza. When Haniyeh was dismissed and the two territories split politically, they were lifted in the West Bank, providing some relief for the two-and-a-half million Palestinians there, but widening the gulf with Gaza.
The real concerns
But others in the Ramallah arts scene have, to their cost, learned the name of the deputy minister for religious affairs, Youssef al-Raqab. In April he publicly denounced the organisers of a Ramallah dance festival, criticising them for dancing while Gazans were suffering the effects of the blockade and Israeli attacks.
In Ramallah, though, many suspect his real concern was gender mixing. Men and women rarely mixed at public events in Gaza even before the Hamas electoral victory nor, for that matter, did they in most parts of the West Bank. The apparent liveliness of cultural life in Ramallah is an exception: people from Jenin or Nablus, who are used to military incursions and an Israeli blockade, regard Ramallah as frivolous and escapist.
"It’s cynical, too," adds C, a secular, university-educated man from a well-known family of PLO militants in Gaza. Like many of his peers, he fears Hamas’ religious agenda and doesn’t want to raise his children in an authoritarian, religious regime. His profession would allow him to move to the West Bank, and Israel would probably give him a permit (2). But he’s disgusted by Ramallah because of what he sees as the PLO’s cynicism selling out the national liberation struggle for the sake of dubious international recognition and personal advantage. He is reluctantly thinking of emigrating, as many of his middle-class friends have done already.
Looked down upon
Dozens of prominent Fatah activists who fled Gaza in June 2007 now live in Ramallah. Their hatred of Hamas has not diminished, and they tell horrific tales of what is going on over there. Hamas activists say these accounts are exaggerated, as do human rights workers in Gaza, former activists of the Palestinian left (5). These "Gaza refugees" feel isolated in Ramallah, even though they share its political discourse. They feel they’re looked down on both for defecting and for being Gazans.
If there’s one thing that should unite people, it’s concern for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Everyone joins in calling loudly for them to be freed. Even so, very few responded to an invitation by Hamas in the West Bank to welcome home those of its prisoners whose sentences had just ended. The welcome ceremony took place in the town hall in Hamas-run El Bireh, next door to Ramallah. Men and women sat at different ends of the hall; there were no Palestinian journalists, no Fatah members, and no one from the Palestinian ministry of prisoner affairs.
It’s easy to explain why there were few people there from Hamas: many of its leaders are in Israeli prisons and supporters are fearful of being seen at a Hamas-linked public event. Um Muhammad, a teacher and Hamas sympathiser, put her finger to her lips to show she preferred to remain silent. She does not express her views in public, especially not with her colleagues at the village school. "People are afraid," she says. Of being denounced, harassed, sacked, arrested, tortured.
The PA has done all it can to weaken the influence of Hamas in the West Bank: it has replaced imams, closed down charitable organisations and NGOs or replaced their directors, arrested political leaders, used force to break up demonstrations, banned Hamas newspapers. And what the PA misses, the Israeli army and secret service finish off.
Mirror methods of control
This is how absurd the system of dual authority is: public sector employees in Gaza who obey orders from Ramallah not to go to work receive salaries and accrue long-service pay (with the exception of people like M); then they go mad at home with nothing to do. Those who do go to work have their official salary suspended but receive a salary from the Hamas government instead. The Hamas government pays the salaries of thousands of people recruited to fill the void left by those obeying the order to boycott their workplace. It has also dissolved Fatah-dominated local councils and replaced them with Hamas ones.
In a West Bank village, Kh, another policeman was sacked because someone accused him of being a member of the armed wing of Hamas. There was a wave of such sackings within the public sector in the West Bank in the second half of 2007: some of those fired had been taken on under the Hamas government which, like Fatah before it, favours its own supporters and family members. Others had been on temporary contracts which were not renewed when Salam Fayyad’s emergency government (later the provisional government) was appointed.
The intimidation and repression of Hamas in the West Bank is mirrored in Gaza, where Hamas persecutes Fatah members and their families: institutions are closed down; there are illegal arrests, torture in detention and press restrictions; the PA’s television station has been closed down; demonstrations are repressed by force.Chatting on the phone to an old friend in Gaza, a devout Muslim, I mentioned a discussion we had had about suicide bombers some years back, when I’d been staying with him in a refugee camp.
"Don’t say ‘when I stayed with you’," he said. "Say ‘when I stayed with you and your family’. Otherwise", he added with a laugh, "anyone listening in might think we were alone!" The security services of the "respectable" PA were kitted out from the start with sophisticated surveillance equipment (it’s not for nothing that they get their training in the United Kingdom and United States). And now Hamas is following suit.
The movement’s opponents say that the way interrogations are carried out in Gaza shows Hamas has received training in Syria and Iran. I’m told Gaza is full of petty informants who spy on people’s homes and note who is, and who is not, attending the mosque although this information is apparently not being used "for the time being". At the beginning of August, Hamas police burst into a party attended by married couples. They shoved the men up against a wall, insulted and even hit some of them, and confiscated the alcohol. They said they had been looking for drugs. The warning was understood.
"Having a drink and chatting with friends at home is our only entertainment," says C. "Now we’re even afraid to do that." Rumour has it that Hamas police stop couples in cars and check they are married. However, that has never happened to S and his wife (she does not wear a headscarf). Many say that "normal" people are not afraid to talk freely and express critical opinions in public in a taxi, at the hairdresser’s or the market, on the phone, or in discussions with Hamas supporters (6).
‘We had hoped for calm’
In Gaza, a young man was arrested after he received a text message which appeared to express joy at the killing of five members of Hamas’ military wing in an attack on the beach in July. Of course, Hamas could have claimed that Israel was behind the attack, and investigated who its collaborators might have been. But either deliberately or through misjudgment it chose to escalate matters, and immediately pointed the finger at Fatah. Hamas launched a new wave of arrests, carried out raids on social centres and well-known personalities, and closed Fatah institutions. It also engaged in deadly military confrontations with a Fatah-linked clan, which was supposedly protecting the killers.
"We had hoped the ceasefire with Israel would bring some calm," says Y, who studied psychology at Bir Zeit university in the West Bank in the 1990s. It is 10 years since he was last out of the tiny Gaza Strip. "There was that killing on the beach this summer, and the Hamas reprisals. There were two or three weeks of calm but then came the order to strike from the PA." Ramallah has also chosen escalation.
F, a schoolgirl, got bored in the long summer holidays. She has nowhere to go the only escape still available to Gazans is the beach, but her parents won’t let her go there. The blockade, and the tiny amounts of oil that Israel allows in, mean the sanitation services don’t work properly, if at all, and sewage is pumped untreated into the sea.
So F was waiting impatiently to go back to school on 24 August until she learned that the date had been put back. The teachers’ union, with its headquarters in Ramallah, had instructed teachers in Gaza to go on strike in protest at the transfer to other schools of teachers and headmasters who are Fatah supporters. (According to information collected by human rights groups, some of these people were transferred to other schools for professional reasons.) The government in Ramallah ironically, the employer supported the strike and warned anyone who broke it that their salaries would be suspended, and they might even get sacked. It later withdrew its threat.
A void quickly filled
Meanwhile, Hamas arrested several strikers linked to Fatah and threatened others. Unsurprisingly, Hamas quickly employed its supporters to replace the strikers and often these were inexperienced young teachers, or even students, whose main skill was religious instruction. It’s the same pattern: either deliberately or through misjudgment, the PA is creating a void within the government, judicial system and public services which Hamas is quick to fill.
L went back to work after two days of hesitation. It was not long before she found her name on a Fatah-linked internet site which published the names of "defectors", so that Ramallah would know whose salaries to freeze. At the same time, the health ministry in Gaza made it known that its employees would not be allowed to work in private clinics or NGOs if they followed the strike. Many ignored the call to strike, partly because of this threat no doubt, but also from the deep conviction that patients in Gaza are already suffering enough because of Israel’s draconian restrictions (8).
Hamas promised to pay the salaries of those who did not go on strike. The Gaza government manages to get hold of money, despite the Israeli blockade via donations from abroad (the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran) and through internal taxation, mostly of goods that (as is well known) are smuggled from Egypt to Rafah through tunnels, under the border. The money isn’t enough for development, but there are no raw materials for building anyway. Observers say a sizeable proportion of this revenue goes to Hamas and its security forces, but it is reasonable to suppose that the organisation can and does pay salaries.
Most public sector workers in Gaza are having a bad time with this strike (for which they were not given statutory notice). But they comply with it so as not to lose their salaries, long-service pay and pensions.
What is most surprising is that Gazans are complying because they believe this dual rule will soon come to an end. In the West Bank, people take the opposite view, according to Ghassan al-Khatib, professor of communication at Bir Zeit university and head of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre. He holds videoconferences with colleagues in Gaza, and says they refuse to see that this political division will last for years.
In Gaza, C says he could put up with the current situation for another two or three years if he thought there was the prospect of a solution. B, in his 40s, agrees. Born in a refugee camp, he has four children and works as a researcher in social sciences at an independent institute. He does not want to pretend everything is going to be alright but he cannot afford to leave: "This year I couldn’t even send my nine-year-old daughter to my brother’s in France for a holiday. We’re busy just trying to survive, and worrying about electricity and sanitation. We can’t help wondering why we ever brought children into this world."