x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hopes lost and dreams shattered

Moderate Palestinians in Gaza look to an end to bloodletting as they call for unity between Hamas and Fatah to realise their objectives.

NEW YORK // When Israel dismantled its settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005, I took advantage of the late summer to spend some time on its newly liberated Mediterranean shore and share with Palestinians the prospect of a better future.

The Israelis had withdrawn and international attention had moved on to the next story. I had an apartment in Gaza City available for another month, so I stayed on. While dining out at fresh fish restaurants or getting the latest beauty treatments at newly opened salons, Gazans would talk about their hopes to expand their lives. That was then, and this is now. The dreams of a free Gaza swiftly dissolved and were this month crushed in an Israeli operation that has claimed at least 700 lives.

Back in the autumn of 2005, there were plenty of sceptics who were not Hamas supporters. Dr Maged Abu-Ramadan, the mayor of Gaza City, told me: "We need to see if Gaza will just change from being a cage-based zoo to a safari-based zoo." Palestinians say they were released from their cages and given more room to roam following the departure of the Israeli settlers, who had been protected by a military that confined Gazans into discrete pockets of territory. But the shutters surrounding the whole of Gaza were pulled down tighter than ever after the withdrawal as the Israeli military maintained its iron grip over land, sea and air access.

Since those heady days of the summer of 2005, the blockaded and trapped Gazans have watched their situation plummet. Anger with Israel was mixed with shame after June 2007, when supporters of Hamas and Fatah turned on each other in vicious, factional fighting. Even then, many Palestinians hoped that by 2009 life would somehow be better. Fayez, who was my Gaza fixer and translator when I covered the Palestinian territories and Israel until 2007, sent an e-mail two days before Christmas to wish me health and prosperity for the year ahead.

On Dec 27, the Israelis unleashed their biggest military assault on the Palestinians since Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002. Reporter colleagues still in the region try to call Fayez every day. He and his family, who live in the Jabalya refugee camp near Gaza City, have survived so far. Five sisters from the Balousha family were among those killed on Dec 29 when an Israeli air strike destroyed their home in Jabalya. Their mother is still in shock and barely reacts to the bombardment raging around her, says Abed Alsalaam Abu Askar, her cousin, who now lives in Ramallah.

"Sometimes she calls out to one of her daughters, saying 'Imam, bring me a coffee.' Then she remembers they're dead and starts crying," Abu Askar told me on the telephone. "It was her husband who found the patience to call people and tell them what happened. "The Israelis think their operation will destroy Hamas but the opposite will happen. It will make Hamas stronger. Even in the West Bank, there are demonstrations every day against the Israelis by both Hamas and Fatah together."

Abu Askar, who grew up in Gaza and has his own television facilities company, has no love for Hamas, the Islamic militant group. After having helped to negotiate the release of some western hostages held by Hamas in 2006, he was himself kidnapped for a few hours and beaten by low-level Hamas gunmen in May 2007. He fled Gaza after the Hamas takeover the following month because his ties to senior leaders of Fatah, the secular movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat, made him a wanted man again.

Israel allowed about 200 families to flee Hamas and seek sanctuary in Ramallah. But Abu Askar's family remained in Gaza for another year because Israel would not give a travel permit to his youngest daughter for "security" reasons. Eventually the authorities relented after claiming there had been a mix-up over her identity number. Meanwhile, attempts by Hamas leaders to persuade Palestinians such as Abu Askar to return to Gaza failed because they could not guarantee their safety.

Since the latest bombardment started, Abu Askar said it sometimes took 15 tries to get a telephone connection to Gaza and feared losing even this tentative contact with family and friends as electricity supplies dwindled. "I panic every time I get a call from Gaza thinking there's more bad news." He said Palestinians had rediscovered their solidarity. "Nobody will blame the victim," he said. In the propaganda war, the US and some moderate Arab regimes have supported Israel's argument that Hamas rockets launched against Israel sparked the latest conflict. While many Palestinians believed the rocket attacks were self-defeating, they also consider Israeli violations of a six-month truce with Hamas along with a continued blockade of Gaza as evidence of Israel's long-standing desire to control land rather than seek peace.

"We lost 300 people who died because they weren't allowed by Israel to reach a hospital in the last few years, half of them after the truce with Hamas," said Abu Askar. "I can't imagine what I would do if my kids died because they couldn't get to a hospital." Later, rather than sooner, the Israeli guns will fall silent. Barack Obama may or may not use his US presidency to push for a comprehensive peace deal. Aid donors will rebuild Gaza. Others will try to remind the world that under international law, Israel should bear its responsibilities as an occupying power to protect civilians. The Palestinians may quickly lose their solidarity and turn against Hamas or the militant group might emerge reinvigorated, ready to win again in fresh elections.

For now, Abu Askar and other moderate Palestinians simply hope for an end to the bloodletting, whether by outside forces or internal divisions. "After this operation, both Hamas and Fatah should understand they will both lose, there are no winners in this war," he said. "Without unity, we will not reach our goals." sdevi@thenational.ae