Who killed our homeland?
"Who killed Watan?" cried the dozens of youngsters on the stage of the Shawah, the largest theater in Gaza, as they pointed accusing fingers at a group of older actors waving the flags of the Palestinian resistance movements: Fatah, Hamas, Iz a-Din al-Qassam, the Al-Quds Brigade and Islamic Jihad. Their flags symbolize many long years of struggles, hopes, distress and blood. But this time there was nothing formal or festive about them; there were no calls against "the Zionist enemy," none of the usual anti-Israel slogans.
The play, "Watan," was written to grasp the bull by the horns and send a new, revolutionary message. "Enough of always blaming the Israelis for our problems. The time has come for a reckoning, and to condemn those among us who are bringing catastrophe down upon our people," says poet-director Saed Swerky, 37, the author of the play that has set shock waves rippling among Gaza's 1.5 million-plus inhabitants.
Watan, which means "homeland" in Arabic, was a 12-year-old boy who was killed during the Fatah-Hamas clashes that engulfed the Gaza Strip during the second week of June. The play premiered on August 13. Thousands of people sat mesmerized for more than two hours, interrupting the play with their applause during the most dramatic scenes from the civil war: prisoners thrown from the roofs of 15-story buildings; people shot in the knees; militants who used to be on the same side exchanging insults. The show ends in uncertainty. The evidence against the armed men is conclusive, but the curtain comes down before the jury has its say.
"I wanted to make the spectators into judges. At the end of the play, the audience members are given envelopes in which to place their verdicts. Some want to grant clemency based on the usual arguments about the Israeli occupation, but the vast majority cast most of the blame on the Hamas and Fatah members, and says they are criminals and murderers who lack a collective vision. They are the real culprits in Watan's death. Because of them, our homeland has been lost. Someone even proposed executing them in front of the Kaaba in Mecca," Islam's holiest site, says Swerky.
These reactions are a good reflection of the mood in the Gaza Strip, three months after Hamas staged its coup. Since then, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been separate worlds. This is especially evident right now, as Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and the veteran Fatah leaders in Ramallah are competing with the Hamas leaders in Gaza to organize the Palestinian pilgrimage to Mecca for the month of Ramadan, and in the growing struggle for control of the electronic media.
The despair prevailing in Gaza can be easily seen in a week's visit. Even people who voted for Hamas in January 2006 evince gloom, and a loss of hope and direction. However, this does not necessarily mean Fatah gaining popularity. "People are simply fed up with politics. Some are even hoping for a return to Israeli occupation, in order to extricate Hamas from the difficulties of running of a government and to bring back an enemy to blame," say sources at Al Ramattan, a Gaza news agency.
The heart of the problem is the economic crisis. As compared to the West Bank, which continues to receive international aid, conducts trades with Israel and Jordan, and whose 2 million inhabitants' standard of living has not really changed in recent years, Gaza has become a 48- by 8-kilometer prison.
No one in Gaza is starving. No one has died of malnutrition, and food can be bought at the local market, albeit at ridiculous prices. The hospitals and the pharmacies are open, and all essentials are available. However, the international embargo imposed after the establishment of the Hamas government in March 2006, and the military lockdown Israel imposed after Hamas' coup, are turning the economic stagnation into a huge, disturbing problem. Unemployment stands at a 70-percent record high, and the poverty is worsening the hygiene problems.
The strike by approximately 1,000 municipal employees, who have not been paid in months, means no garbage is being collected, and urban centers are filled with clouds of pollution. Citizens occaisionally set the piles of garbage alight, sending up billows of smoke that damage the eyes and the respiratory system.
The problems are evident in a visit to the fields of the Beit Lahia farmers, among the wealthiest in the area. "Up until spring 2006 we grew strawberries, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers and more, which we exported via the Israeli Agrexco company to Jordan and to all of Europe. Our monthly profit was more than $500. Now we are happy to get $100. We can sell only locally, and this is a disaster. We are forced to grow less, and the profits are far smaller. We used to earn $15 on a kilogram of strawberries, and now we make only $5," say twins Riad and Mohammad Abu Halima, 26. They have spent hours repairing plastic irrigation pipes damaged during the latest incursion by Israeli tanks. "In the past, we would replace the pipes. Now that is impossible. The border is closed, we can't import them from Israel, and the price is sky high here. We're better off not even cultivating those fields."
The economic collapse is especially evident in the industrial zone. Everything is still, the workshops are shuttered, and there are no signs of life. Trucks and trailers are parked along the road. A few stray dogs lazily cross the empty streets, which were jammed around the clock up until two years ago.
"The paralysis here is total. It is impossible to obtain raw materials, it is impossible to export, and we are strangled," says Tayseer Yousef Abu Ayda, the proprietor of the Ayda Company, a cement plant that used to employ 70 full-time workers and a similar number of temporary workers. In 2000 it produced 500 cubic meters of cement blocks a day; in the second half of 2006, production declined to 160 cubic meters. Now it produces nothing.
"I had to dismiss all of my employees. Occasionally, when there is work, I recruit some 20 people for about $13 a day. The closure imposed by [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert deprives me of any chance of working. There is no chance of trade with Egypt. For 40 years we have been shackled to the Israeli market," he says.
For merchants, the situation is even worse. Abdel Rachman Jassin, 65, has been the proprietor of Gaza's largest generator shop for nearly 25 years. In the middle of August he was inundated with orders, precisely when the electricity supply cut out for a week. "All I could do was apologize. My Robin and Perkins generators, which were imported from Japan and Britain, are stuck at the Ashdod port. I don't even have spare parts, especially air and fuel filters," he says in frustration. Jassin had to fire his 10 employees right when demand peaked.
The wealthy are not exempt from the distress. Seven years ago Omar Saqqa opened a prestigious electrical appliance chain, as hopes for the establishment of a Palestinian state aroused hopes for economic prosperity.
"If only I hadn't done that. In 2006 my income was 40 percent of what it had been in 2000. And during the past three months, I haven't sold a thing. I don't even have money to buy fuel for the generator. People aren't buying at all, and in any case I don't have anything to sell them. In 2006 I was still getting two truckloads a week from the Ashdod port. The last one arrived on June 6, but since then there has been nothing," he says.
No financial control
The increasing distress of the private-sector workers is well-documented at the Bank of Palestine, the central financial institution in Gaza and the West Bank. It has 14 branches in the Gaza Strip and 15 in the West Bank. "Their troubles derive from the competition between Hamas and Fatah over paying salaries for loyalists in the public sector. But no one is seeing to the private-sector workers.
"There are about 165,000 public servants, 85,000 of whom are in Gaza. We receive the salaries of 75,000 of these workers from Ramallah; the other 10,000 receive their pay directly from Hamas, not through us. We have explicitly told the Hamas leadership: If Europe and the United States accuse us of relations with you, they are liable to boycott us under the anti-terror laws, and within a short time we would have to declare bankruptcy," says bank director Mamon Abushahla.
His remarks illustrate how little financial control Hamas has in Gaza. It has beaten Fatah politically and militarily, but if it tries to get its hands on the salaries of the Fatah loyalists, its support is liable to plummet even further.
All this is causing many resources to go to waste, and a culture of suspicion is developing in Gaza. Abdel Rachman Bseiso was PA foreign ministry director general until he was fired in June by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh because of his loyalty to Abbas. "I regularly receive my monthly $2,000 from Ramallah, as do about 190 other salaried employees who worked with me at the ministry. Only about 20 have stayed with Haniyeh. We are getting money for not doing anything," he says.
The lack of trust and the suspicion are also evident in discussions with Hamas supporters. They are pleased with the implementation of Islamic law at the central prison, which now is taking a year off the sentences of prisoners who learn five suras of the Quran by heart. But the problems are evident in the Fatah supporters' criticism of the "creeping Islamization." At the entrance to Al-Omari, the central mosque in Gaza, built on the remains of an old Byzantine church, Hamas issues diatribes that include a long list of accusations against the "treasonous Fatah heretics." As the poet-director Saed Sweky says, neither faction has learned its lesson: "Our Watan is continuing to die every day," he says.
Lorenzo Cremonesi is a senior writer for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. This article first appeared in the Corriere della Sera weekly magazine.