Of all my acquaintances from the Gaza Strip, Sameh is the last one I would have expected to understand Islamic Jihad. He’s one of the very few lucky ones that Israel lets leave the small coastal enclave; he travels between it and the West Bank, basically living in two places.
He was born in a refugee camp to a family that supports Fatah, has advanced degrees, and has reached a level of economic security that allows him to help his brothers. I wouldn’t have expected him to be the one to explain to me that despite the fears about a new war, Islamic Jihad’s rockets express the enormous fury of every Palestinian in Gaza. Including his.
When the subject is so explosive like another military operation, and Israeli journalists are banned from entering Gaza, it’s hard to know if the people on the other side of the phone will feel safe to say everything they think. So I took advantage of the opportunity when Sameh (a pseudonym) was in Ramallah and asked him to explain to me the logic behind Islamic Jihad’s policy.
“I don’t believe the talk that Islamic Jihad is just carrying out orders from Iran,” Sameh said. “It’s an organization that says in the name of everyone: Look what you’ve done to the Palestinians. You haven’t allowed a compromise on two states. You’ve fragmented the West Bank. You cut off the Strip back at the beginning of the ‘90s and now with the blockade you’ve made it deteriorate to the bottom, a deterioration that’s hard to describe in words. A decline that pains us all. You’ve turned the Palestinian Authority into a subcontractor for the occupation.
“Now you demand that Hamas achieve calm in return for a few donations, a few crumbs of aid from Qatar and a few more hours of electricity. Every day Hamas checks: ‘Has [Qatari envoy Mohammed] al-Emadi arrived or not? With suitcases filled with money or without?’ Is this the essence of the Palestinian experience?
“Hamas and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, have a joint objective: For Hamas to control the Strip. Hamas can’t rule the West Bank and can’t change its principles and officially recognize Israel. But it wants to continue to rule in Gaza, and Israel lets it. In return: a cutting off of the Strip from the West Bank.”
I interrupted Sameh and told him that Giora Eiland, the head of the National Security Council at the time of the 2005 Gaza pullout, told Kan public radio Wednesday that Gaza has become a state in every way under Hamas.
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Sameh said: “Of course, that’s what Israel wanted from the beginning and did everything it could so that this would happen, long before the disengagement and Hamas’ victory in the 2006 election: to separate Gaza from the West Bank. But what nonsense: Gaza isn’t a state and can’t be a state.
“We in Gaza, it’s not just that we’re a part of the entire Palestinian people. In our makeup – 70 to 80 percent refugees – we’re the core of the Palestinian national cause. We represent the entire people. A people whose homeland has been stolen.
“At the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, when we believed that there were Israelis who wanted peace, who recognized us as a people with a history and that this is their homeland, when we believed that there was a chance for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with freedom to develop our lives, we were ready to compromise. We didn’t give up on our link and attachment to the villages and cities in Palestine, but we agreed to live in a country alongside Israel.
Compromises not kept
“I’m one of those people, the generation of the first intifada, the generation that had Yasser Arafat. And what happened? Everything is upside down. So now if Israel calls the West Bank Judea and Samaria, we’ll return and talk about Haifa and Yaffa [Jaffa]. My children and their friends do not believe in two states. They talk about equality and civil rights in the entire land. Not to be prisoners in their own home.
“Islamic Jihad, in its refusal and rockets, reminds us that for every compromise we agreed to, the Israelis responded with another demand for another compromise, and they took over more land, another humiliation, the fragmenting of the West Bank, more restrictions on movement and more economic, health, environmental and social deterioration. ‘How do all these compromises help us?’ Islamic Jihad says. And we have to agree with it.
“Islamic Jihad reached the conclusion that all the efforts for calm that Israel makes with Hamas are to remove the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian whole. And we see that even with the calm, the situation doesn’t improve, we see that all the understandings are a lie and they even ask us to stay silent. What do they expect from us as Palestinians? That we agree that Hamas will become a docile authority like Fatah in the West Bank?
“Islamic Jihad’s message is that they won’t let it happen. So even people like me, who don’t believe in arms, who understand that the rockets are aimed at civilians and this is against international law, can understand Islamic Jihad’s logic.
“We are all living the humiliation of the economic decline. And the health implications of it. UNRWA provides a few basic food essentials. More than a million people receive aid from UNWRA. But most of the children suffer from anemia and problems with sight. Everything is because of the inadequate nutrition. Every day we hear about someone who has become sick with cancer, about a new disease that we have never heard about. We hear about people who’ve become mentally ill, a big rise in divorce rates, 30 percent of young couples getting divorced.
“People went back to cooking and baking on a fire because they couldn’t pay for gas. They wait a full year to eat meat, on Eid al-Adha. Never in the past did I see people picking through garbage to find food as I see today.”
Here, Sameh’s voice cracked in fury. “Even when 3 kilograms [6.6 pounds] of sardines cost 10 shekels ($2.90) and a crate of tomatoes 15 kilograms, something like that. You know what chicken legs are? Now it’s the hottest thing. You put them in water and make soup from it. It’s what people can let themselves buy.
“I have friends who are businessmen, respectable, who are sitting in prison. They weren’t able to pay off checks and owe a million shekels, 2 million. Because it’s impossible to do business without freedom of movement. All the money donated to Gaza won’t help if the gates don’t open for people, raw materials and goods. There won’t be more jobs without a connection between the Strip and the West Bank, and freedom of movement between them and abroad.
Like other Gazans, Sameh is proud of the people’s creativity and the high quality of local products such as clothes and furniture, “higher than in the West Bank.” But as he put it, “the little that Israel allows out of Gaza, its price in the West Bank doubles or profits disappear because of transportation issues: moving from truck to truck and long waiting times at checkpoints. Products such as strawberries are damaged, too. I have acquaintances who haven’t closed their businesses only so they can pay their workers. And how much do the workers get? Six-hundred shekels a month, and that’s good.
“Hamas takes care of Hamas. Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] doesn’t even take care of his people, cutting more and more out of the salaries of PA employees like my brothers. UNWRA helps the needy and no one thinks about the private sector.
Most worrying is the situation of the young people, says the father of four. “Sixty percent of the residents of the Strip are younger than 30. Unemployment among them is 70 percent. What’s their future? The number applying to universities is falling. Young people who did well in their matriculation exams don’t apply because they can’t pay tuition and the cost of transportation, and in any case they have no chance of finding work. Most of the applicants are close to Hamas and know they can find work.
“The strategic diplomatic channel has failed. The unarmed demonstrations along the fence have become routine. It hasn’t moved anything. On every street you’ll only find young men limping on crutches, missing limbs after the soldiers shot them. They develop infections and can’t find the medication they need inside the Strip, and don’t receive a permit to leave for treatment outside. So if in Gaza – where Hamas has stopped talking the way it once talked – this is the situation, what more do you expect from us, the Palestinians?
“People in Gaza have lost faith in everything. They feel abandoned. Because of the Israeli blockade, some people are making a business out of travel. They collect enormous sums at the Rafah crossing, collect enormous amounts from those going to Turkey. And those who reach there earn 20 shekels a day. It would have been better to stay here. But we traded the right to return for the right to emigrate. Or the right to die at sea.
“People are afraid of war. Obviously. But they think – if so, then die at once, not slowly, gradually, not die every day when we’re still alive. Islamic Jihad’s weapons sustain the fact that we’re under occupation. Islamic Jihad expresses what people think: Hamas is a great disappointment, too.
“But the problem is in the thinking of the Israelis. They don’t recognize us as a people. They aren’t willing for us to be free. They only want us to sit quietly, docile. The explosion in the West Bank is near. How much time can people here suffer the attacks by the settlers and the army that no one protects them from, and at the same time see the Palestinian Authority’s security forces maintaining the security coordination with the army and the Shin Bet [security service]?
“People still believe that the world will intervene and prevent Israel from destroying everything. Once they wake up and realize that this too is an illusion, everything will blow up. As Palestinians, we aren’t willing to reach a situation in which one side is the winner and the other the loser. Either both sides will win or both of us will lose.”