Nothing to Give a Whoop About

The two major news developments of the past few weeks have not stirred much emotion at the Jenin refugee camp;a local Hamas activist explains why the Palestinians are so disillusioned.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

It was hard to believe this was a "historic" day: Osama bin Laden's killing was sparking no particular excitement in the streets out here. Nor did anyone seem overwhelmed with joy by another development deemed "historic" - the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Nothing, it seems, can bring people to the streets in this beaten and battered refugee camp; nothing can thrill those who have lost faith in everything and see no hope in anything. There are no jubilant demonstrations here over the reconciliation, no demonstrations of protest (or joy ) over the assassination. Nothing.

A spring sun shone from the skies above the camp, and the day proceeded in its drowsy, impoverished routine. The dilapidated television sets were turned on, tuned, as always, to Al Jazeera, which broadcast time and again, in an hours-long loop, the images of the world terror icon descending the slope of the mountain holding a shepherd's staff, or training with a weapon at a makeshift target range. But nobody seemed to be paying particular attention to the screens shimmering in the corners of the shabby rooms, usually with the volume off. America's great victory over terrorism was welcomed with blatant indifference in the camp where Israel defeated terrorism and also, perhaps, the spirit of the struggle.

The exhibit at the Mediterranian Museum - Jenin. Scenes that call to mind Shin Bet interrogations.Credit: Miki Kratsman

The Jenin municipal building was empty. Before arriving at the refugee camp, we stopped there to visit the Mediterranean Museum - Jenin, which opened a few weeks ago in a municipality warehouse converted into an exhibition space with the aid of donations from Italy. There were no visitors in the two small show spaces other than the puppet artist Sultan Saadi and a woman selling soap and souvenirs who stood idle. Both of them hope that hoards of schoolchildren will soon be coming here.

The second floor features an exhibition of mannequins of Palestinian prisoners and detainees - one of them in an Israeli Prisons Service shirt - strewn on the floor, bound, in postures of torture associated with the Shin Bet security service. Saadi says that he will soon add another exhibition to the museum, which will focus on the Palestinian experience at the checkpoints. The naive, almost childlike exhibition, calls to mind, ironically, the ludicrous mannequins of soldiers that populate the IDF Museum in Jaffa.

From Fatah to Hamas

F. is a Hamas activist at the refugee camp. He, too, did not look overly excited about the bin Laden assassination. He stands behind Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister in the Gaza Strip, who condemned the assassination. F. says that he never identified with everything bin Laden did but that there was no need to execute him. We had come to hear his views on the Palestinian reconciliation; he preferred to speak anonymously fearing retribution by the Palestinian Authority or by Israel.

He is in his early fifties and has a small business in the refugee camp. His hands are spotted with motor oil, but for the interview, he wore a corduroy jacket and matching trousers, the finest he has. He wore a cheap Casio watch, the type that has come to serve as a terrorist marker for the Americans. He is a veteran Hamas man in the camp, a longtime grassroots activist, the son of a refugee family from a village near Haifa. Until the Oslo accords, he was a member of Fatah, but after the great crisis, as he terms it, he switched to Hamas and also became religiously observant. The rest of his family is still in Fatah, including his brother, a senior figure in the PA security services.

F. served three years in an Israeli prison for his activities in Fatah and three years for his activities in Hamas. The PA also incarcerated him for six months. He has never worked in Israel; the only Israelis he has ever spoken to are prison guards. Now he is concerned that my photographer, Miki Kratsman, is a Shin Bet agent. Anyone interested in gaining a sense of the mood among Hamas grassroots activists in the West Bank should hear what he has to say.

Negotiating from strength

"Fatah has failed," he asserts. "It has not achieved even one of its goals, has not brought the Palestinian people any achievements and has abandoned its principles. To negotiate with the enemy, you have to come from a position of strength, but Fatah came weak. I am not against negotiations with Israel - Hamas, too, must conduct negotiations with Israel - but from a position of strength. I am convinced that ultimately, Hamas, too, will talk to Israel.

"Israel is a fact of life. We need to talk to Israel, but the question is about what. Hamas will talk to Israel about a hudna [cease-fire] lasting 20-30 years, but we will not recognize that Israel has a right to this land. I'm not against Jews living in this land, but only in a Palestinian state. Before 1948, we were the majority here, until the Israeli occupation, so therefore Israel has no right to this land."

F. believes that if an election is held in the territories, the outcome will be similar to the last election. In the West Bank, there will be a virtual tie between Fatah and Hamas, but Hamas will not win in the Jenin camp. He doesn't want to predict the outcome in Gaza.

What is your opinion of Mahmoud Abbas?

"Abu Mazen is honest and fair. He says what he thinks and thinks what he says. The problem is that we do not know what the Israelis want. The other side is not honest and is leading us astray. Abu Mazen is serious. He wants peace, but not the peace that we in Hamas want. I respect Abu Mazen as a person, but I do not believe in his path. Abu Mazen is talking about a peace agreement with Israel; we are talking about a hudna."

Why did Hamas agree to the reconciliation?

"Because of what is happening in the Arab world. Hamas lost its strength in Syria - Syria has gone through a change. There is also a new situation in Egypt, and Hamas also wants to propose something new. It wants to strike roots in the new Egypt. It's similar to what happened to Yasser Arafat. After what happened to him in Jordan and then in Lebanon, he was asked where he would go. To Al-Quds [Jerusalem], he replied. Something similar is now happening to Hamas in Syria. Hamas is now looking for a new foothold. Hamas is now more open and understands that the rift with Fatah is very serious for the Palestinian people.

"The nation wants reconciliation, and we have to listen very closely now to what the nation wants. But Fatah will have to compromise. Hamas is stronger and better organized internally. It's true that Fatah is more open to the outside world and has more financial resources, but there is far more corruption in Fatah than in Hamas. In terms of corruption, there is no comparison between Hamas and Fatah. If there is goodwill between the two parties, then it will be possible to forget the past, and I think that this time there is goodwill."

Why don't you fly the Hamas flag over your home?

"It's prohibited. The PA forbids it. I'm also too old for things like flying flags."

Do you see a third intifada looming?

"No. The people are disappointed, despairing. They're fed up with all the organizations, with Fatah and with Hamas. They will vote for Fatah or for Hamas because there is no other choice - that is what there is - but they will not launch another intifada unless they see that Israel is really not ready for nothing. In the meantime, the reconciliation has not brought people out to the streets. That's because they don't believe in it. There were reconciliations in the past and they came to nothing. The hope now comes from the Arab world. What is happening out there can heighten the commitment of the Arab states to the Palestinians. Egypt will possibly help more now, and Israel will be obliged to give something to the Palestinian people. Based on my experience, I do not believe in an armed struggle now."

What did you think of the Freedom Theater in Jenin which was run by Juliano Mer, the Israeli actor who was murdered recently in the city?

"I am not with the theater or against it - it doesn't really interest me that much. But I would not let my children go there. That's because of my Islamic culture. That theater is not appropriate for me and for how I raise my children. But even though I don't believe in America either, I wouldn't go to America to kill. You can disagree but still shake hands in the end. Everyone can live with his faith, without violence. To tell you that I was pleased that Jul was murdered? No. Jul came to the camp to lend a hand to the Palestinian people, in a way he believed in. But I am not a Communist like him."

Zakariya Zbeidi said that a large organization was behind the murder and hinted that it might be Hamas.

"Zakariya was overwrought. Hamas did not do it. It may have been done by someone who is religious, maybe not, but he acted independently, on his own. Maybe you, the Israelis, see Hamas as a terrorist organization. That's a mistake. We are part of the Palestinian society and live like all the rest. Everything depends on Israel. If Israel decides to give the Palestinian people something, I will look at Israel differently. It depends on you; everything depends on Israel's attitude toward us."

No illusions

The muezzin sounds the call to afternoon prayers and F. leaves for the mosque. But he does not worship five times a day, as Muslims are required. The alley leading to his house is about the width of a human body. A paralyzed old woman sits on the floor as we leave the house, staring mutely and uncomprehendingly around her. Our friend G., a former member of the Popular Front, also tells us that he does not believe in the Palestinian reconciliation, that nothing will come of it.



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