Sunday, March 10, 2013

Notes from Gaza

The following notes are from Samuel Morris, who has been in Gaza on behalf of the NCF. Sam has been travelling in Israel and Palestine for much of the past month and these are his observations. As with all such comments from NCF sources, they and should be treated as a personal view, rather than an NCF perspective:

The last few weeks have seen protests spark across the West Bank and Gaza. The death of Arafat Jaradat while in Israeli custody, was the catalyst for this outpouring of anger. The treatment of prisoners has long been an issue, especially with the ongoing hunger strikes by a number of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons without charge, most notably Samer Issawi whose hungerstrike has been running for well over 200 days. These protests united the Palestinian populous. In Gaza, marches and protests were held, factions united. For a few days the flags of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the DFLP flew over the broken tomb of the unknown solider, destroyed by Hamas in 2006, in the Rimal district of Gaza city. In the West Bank the protests turned more violent. Unlike in Gaza, in the West Bank there are IDF soldiers at whom protesters can focus their anger, resulting in clashes over a number of days in towns throughout the West Bank. Retaliation from Gaza was limited to a rocket, fired from southern gaza hitting a road in Ashkelon. Responsibility for the rocket was claimed by Fatah's armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Many news publications reported this as the first breach of the November ceasefire, however, Israeli forces have shot and killed three people and injured at least 50 for straying to close to the perimeter fence since the beginning of the ceasefire.

In Gaza, there is little will for the escalation of this so called "Prisoners Intifada" in the Gaza Strip. Recent memories of the short but brutal war in November are still fresh in the mind. Hamas are more concerned with internal security issues than a third intifada. Security measures have tightened since "Operation Pillar of Defence" and the fear of losing secrets to the Israelis through "collaborators" is rife. Gaza courts have handed out 30 death sentences since 2007, many of them to people convicted of helping Israeli security forces. Hamas are stepping up their attempts to catch such collaborators. Their main concern, like Israel, is security, which has lead to a number of new security measures. International visitors must now apply for entry permission to be able to visit Gaza. These are usually limited to 33 days, but can be extended. More recently, Hamas has made it mandatory for any Palestinian leaving Gaza via Erez, into Israel, to have exit permission. Making the all but impossible task to gaining entry to Israel, even harder.

The eight day war, was seen as a victory by Hamas. Their perspective is that it showed that Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip is still strong. The conflict, brief but brutal, was seen as a success due to the strong response by Hamas. Even with their support waning in the Gaza strip, the perspective of many on the ground in Gaza is that Hamas showed strength during the operation. The brevity of the conflict, and the decision by Israel not to send in land forces, meant that it was far less damaging than Operation Cast Lead in 2007, but once again the response by Israel was seen as disproportionate.

On the surface Gaza has been becoming more prosperous. Hundreds of new buildings are being built throughout the Gaza Strip. However this is just a facade. Gaza is still oppressed, the problems are still there. Poverty and unemployment are rife. Shops may be better stocked with Israeli goods but life is still hugely difficult for the majority of those living in the Gaza strip. UNRWA recently published a report entitled "Gaza 2020". The report states that the population of Gaza will increase from its current 1.6 million to 2.1 million people in 2020. They estimate that this will result in a population density of more than 5,800 people per square kilometre. The report expresses concern that Gazan infrastructure, especially electricity, water and sanitation, are not keeping pace with the needs of this growing population. I can vouch for the fact that the water quality has decreased over the past few years and power cuts are constant; these issues are only set to get worse and the life for the average Gazan is set to get more difficult if Gaza's issues are not resolved. More food stuff and a greater number of cars being shipped in through the Kerem Shalom border crossing from Israel does not help resolve the key issues that that continue to affect Gaza. Without a drastic change to the blockade these key problems will remain and will only get worse as the population grows.

The tunnel trade has been the driving force behind all of the building. Construction materials are all but impossible to get from Israel and are hugely expensive when compared to the price of resourses coming from Egypt via the tunnels. The Gazan economy is still dependant on Israel. Imports have increased in volume from Israel recently, including the number of automobiles, however, the majority of all building materials still come through the tunnels. Prices can fluctuate, doubling overnight because of crackdowns on the Egyptian side of the border. It has been estimated that up to 60 percent of the estimated 1,000 smuggling routes under the border have been closed. Egypt has stated that it was cutting arms smuggling that was destabilizing the Sinai peninsula. However, Egyptian forces recently seized 20,000 liters of fuel ready to be smuggled into Gaza. Hamas is working with Egypt to improve the situation but things remain difficult. Hamas are optimistic in the long run; however, they understand that Egypt has its own problems and it will take time for any real improvements to be made. Morsi is struggling to keep control and Gaza is low on the list of their priorities.

Politically, Hamas are focused on the now stalled unity talks. There is a belief that uniting the Palestinian factions will put them in a stronger position politically. The Arab spring sent a signal, and after participating in a democratic process in January 2006 Hamas want to keep some form of legitimacy. This is why they want the coalition talks to succeed. A unity government ensures Hamas still has the legitimacy to rule that it feels it gained through the 2006 elections. However, legitimate or illegitimate, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to snatch the Gaza Strip from their control. The Hamas enclave, even though filled with dissenting voices, has given the organisation a taste of power and they are unlikely to relinquish their control. Their popularity in the West Bank is of more importance. If presidential election were held now, Hamas would most likely win.

The reconciliation process is difficult, no date for the resumption of talks has been set and the talks that were held were only cosmetic. However, there is optimism that there will be a way forward in the Hamas ranks. This optimism is not translated to the general populous, many of whom believe the bad blood created in 2007 will be too great to overcome. Hamas has blamed the breakdown of the Cairo talks on two problems. The first, confidence. There is still understandable distrust between Fatah and Hamas. Brutal actions in the past are hard to forget. The second is there is a disagreement over the process. Hamas think that Abu Mazen is not fully concentrating on the reconciliation process, that he has one eye on the peace process, America and Israel. However, to Hamas, the peace process is dead, pointless. They expect a right wing government in Israel and for things to remain the same. To them it doesn't matter what happens with the elections in Israel, they have seen many faces come and go and do not expect for there to be any movement politically. They view a unity government as far more important.

Support for Hamas is thin in Gaza. If elections were held it would be likely that Hamas would lose out to Fatah in the Gaza strip but win in the West Bank. There is a lack of hope in the younger sections of society. An apathy towards politics. Many young Palestinians have resigned themselves to a life of repression, conflict and pain. They see no solution to the situation and certainly no solution that would be fair. Without any process leading to the almost dead concept of a two-state solution, all that can be seen is the continuation of the status quo. For Palestine this means continuation of the resistance movement and not a political solution. With continuation of settlement expansion in the West Bank and the establishment of the E-1 plan, the concept of a two-state solution is even more difficult to conceive.

No comments: