x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Isolation and division take their toll in Gaza Strip

Israeli blockade and fighting between the two main political factions kills hopes of economy and infrastructure being restored soon.

Souvenirs on sale in a shop in Gaza City owned by Tareq Abu Dayyeh reflect the mood of pessimism in the blockaded territory.
Souvenirs on sale in a shop in Gaza City owned by Tareq Abu Dayyeh reflect the mood of pessimism in the blockaded territory.

GAZA CITY // Just across the street from the rubble of the Palestinian parliament building, which was bombed on the first day of Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip in late Dec ember 2008, and a few houses down from the crater that marks the site where a Palestinian police station was destroyed on the same day, a cheery little shop nestles among the grey concrete. The bright red sign advertises "Souvenirs from Gaza", though the wares inside do not reflect Gaza's millennia of civilisation. Instead the merchandise consists of flags from around the world, posters of Palestinian leaders from all factions, some local woodwork and handicrafts depicting maps of historic Palestine and mugs bearing pictures and text, including one with the inscription "Welcome to the largest jail on earth".

The shop is empty - of course - as are the hopes for Gaza's future of Tareq Abu Dayyeh, the owner. "The horizon is black," said Abu Dayyeh. "But I say I'm satisfied because every time I pray for improvement the situation only gets worse." That tiny sliver of optimism sets Abu Dayyeh apart from others in Gaza, where hope, along with so many other things, is at an absolute premium. Six months after Israel's war on Gaza ended, civil society and business leaders appear more despondent then ever.

"There is nothing positive," said Mohsen Abu Ramadan, head of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development, an NGO that provides micro-financing to poor farmers. "There is siege and division and no sign of an end to either." The signs instead point in the opposite direction, he said. Egypt's failure to mediate unity between Fatah and Hamas, the two largest Palestinian factions, has caused them to move further apart, pushing national unity down their lists of priorities.

As if to bear out his words, Fatah yesterday threatened to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank if Hamas banned Gaza-based Fatah delegates from attending a congress in Bethlehem on August 4. Hamas has made the departure of some 400 Fatah members for the long-delayed Fatah meeting conditional on the release of hundreds of Hamas activists detained by security forces in the West Bank. "Without unity there will not be an end to the siege," said Mr Abu Ramadan. "And neither Hamas nor Fatah now prioritise unity. Where is the hope?"

International organisations continue to call for an end to Israel's blockade on anything but essential humanitarian goods entering Gaza. As late as Tuesday, the United Nations and 25 NGOs urged Israel to allow "full and unfettered access into and out of Gaza" so institutions can "restore the Gazan educational system" before the school year starts in September. Eighteen schools were completely destroyed and some 280 were damaged in Israel's bombardment of Gaza earlier this year, and in the absence of construction materials, no repairs have taken place. Indeed, whole neighbourhoods are in ruins and tens of thousands of Gazans remain homeless, sheltering in tents put up by international relief organisations or in the houses of relatives.

Calls for an end to Israel's blockade have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. Billions of dollars in donor money have been earmarked for the reconstruction of Gaza, but the international community is unwilling to begin any work without a unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah. The leading international players continue to refuse to deal with Hamas alone until the Islamist movement accepts international conditions that it recognise Israel, reject armed resistance and abide by agreements signed between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. Hamas refuses to do this, arguing that such conditions should also apply to Israel.

In addition, argued Jawdat Khodary, a local industrialist, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, has adopted a policy of leaving Gaza to one side. "The advisers around Abbas have persuaded him that he should focus on creating a state in the West Bank first," said Mr Khodary. "But it won't succeed. There is no Palestine without Gaza and ask anyone in Gaza who they blame for the siege and they will say Israel and Abbas. The siege is killing his presence and his chance of being president in Gaza."

For its part, Hamas may be counting on slowly breaking its international isolation. Hamas officials repeatedly cite the number of foreign delegations that have made their way to Gaza as evidence that cracks are appearing in the international embargo on contacts with the movement. Indeed, on Monday a British foreign affairs committee urged the British government to open contacts with Hamas. But, like calls to end the Israeli blockade, such recommendations have been heard before and with no result. Without a green light from Washington, Britain is not likely to open official contacts with Hamas, and the US will be extremely reluctant to undermine Mr Abbas by signalling any willingness to ease its stance on the Islamist group, even if it dared face down the inevitable Israeli opposition to such a move.

In the meantime, said Eyad Sarraj, a Gazan psychiatrist, Hamas is cementing its rule over Gaza and is now turning its attention to social issues, specifically the idea of a "virtuous life" as prescribed by Islam. "But what are they focusing on?" asked Mr Sarraj, referring to a recent ruling that female lawyers should observe Islamic dress code in court. "They are focusing on women's dress, on the segregation of the sexes, especially in public or in schools. They are not focusing on honesty or financial probity. They are obsessed with sex, because these things are visible and people are easily intimidated because such issues address their traditional anxieties."

Between Fatah's strategy of only negotiations and Hamas's strategy of only resistance, both "futile", according to Mr Sarraj, there is no room for compromise as the two factions become tribal and exclusive rather than political and inclusive. Nor is the vacuum between them being filled, with other political factions either too small or too close to the main ones to make a difference. There is "no national movement" any more, said Mr Abu Ramadan, "no common goal".

And the future? With smuggling through the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border at full tilt, the status quo can continue indefinitely, said Mr Khodary. Gaza can survive, Gaza is surviving. But the continued isolation of Gaza will lead to a situation "worse than Afghanistan". "How can we produce normal people here under such isolation? How will the next generation develop?" okarmi@thenational.ae