The Gaza Strip is not going to float away to sea and the two million people living there are not going to move to Sinai or anywhere else. They are here to stay.
Not everyone in Gaza is Hamas, but everyone in Gaza supports the end of the siege on Gaza and everyone in Gaza supports their right to oppose Israel. Hamas is a part of the Palestinian people and Hamas is not likely to disappear at any time in the foreseeable future.
It is important to realize though that Hamas has been undergoing change. It is also important to differentiate between moderation and pragmatism. Hamas is not moderate, but it has often proven to be pragmatic.
Surprisingly, the leader of the pragmatic trend in Hamas is Yahya Sinwar, the leader of its armed wing.
Under Egyptian pressure, because of the clear understanding that the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is Gaza’s lifeline, Hamas did modify its charter, removing the antisemitism. Hamas completely dissociated itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas turned over to the Egyptian security fugitives and subversives who had previously escaped to Gaza. Hamas promised the Egyptians to prevent the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Sinai from Gaza. It also declared that it would accept a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders without recognizing Israel – which is a step forward. Hamas also promised the Egyptians to prevent the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel and not to initiate another war with Israel.
Don’t make the mistake that I in any way support Hamas. I wish that the Palestinian people in Gaza had a completely different leadership, and one day they will.
But to the matter at hand, some two million people live in Gaza – a tiny strip of land about 60-km. long and about 15-km. to 25-km. wide.
On one side is Israel, which is closed off, on the other side is Egypt, which is closed off. Some 80-plus percent of the people of Gaza are refugees from cities, towns and villages that were located in what is today the State of Israel.
All of those communities have either been wiped of the map of replaced by communities for Israeli Jews.
From 1967 until 2005 Israel built 21 settlements in Gaza that occupied 30% of the land and which were closed off to the Palestinians. These included the best fresh water reserves and the best beaches. Some 8,000 Jews lived on 30% of the land while some 1.5 million lived on the other 70%. Israel unilaterally left Gaza in 2005, with prime minister Ariel Sharon refusing to negotiate or even coordinate the withdrawal from Gaza and the orderly transference of governance to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel demolished all of the settlements rather than leaving homes, schools, synagogue and community and commercial centers that could have been used to ease the lives of many Gazans. When Israel left, there were great hopes that positive change would take place and that Gaza would experience economic growth and a chance of freedom. But Israel left and locked the gates – even before Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council election of 2006.
Tzipi Livni as foreign minister wanted to declare that the Israeli occupation over Gaza ended with the Israeli disengagement, but the legal adviser of the Foreign Ministry told her that as long as Israel controlled the airspace, including the electro-magnetic sphere controlling communications, radio and television waves, the coastal waters and the external borders, Israel could not declare that the occupation was over.
The Sharon government not only locked in Gaza, it stopped transferring tax monies collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians as agreed to in the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations of 1994. This was not the first time that Israel did this, in contravention to the signed agreement and even against the opinion of the attorney- general. The main victims of the ceasing of the transfer of revenues were the Palestinian Authority officials, including the security services, which had a direct negative impact on several hundred thousand people in Gaza.
IN 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian election. It should have come as no surprise, as it was seen as being responsible for getting rid of Israel. Most Palestinians thought that negotiations didn’t get rid of Israel’s occupation but that it was armed resistance that succeeded. That is how the Palestinian public saw it. Hamas was seen as clean, not corrupt like the Arafat regime.
Hamas didn’t campaign for the election under the Hamas label but under the name “Change and Reform.”
Its platform talked about change and reform and not about throwing the Jews into the sea or destroying Israel.
It won. In a bloody coup in June 2007, Hamas threw out all remnants of Palestinian Authority control of Gaza, and the struggle for internal reconciliation and power sharing continues until today.
This has continued since Gaza has been under siege by Israel and – since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in Egypt – by Egypt as well. Three wars have taken place since then, killing thousands and wounding tens of thousands. More than half a million Gazans were displaced from their homes two or three times. The economy is destroyed, with more than 45% unemployment.
More than 68% of youth are unemployed and Gaza has one of the youngest populations in the world.
Gazans have about three hours a day of electricity, which means they often do not have water. There is a very high rate of illness, including kidney disease and other ailments because of the poor quality of water.
People are trapped, they have nowhere to go. Now even the sea, which was the only place to go to have a little freedom, is off limits because of all of the sewage that flows into it.
But in Gaza there is a great deal of social solidarity. Just last month, hundreds of shopkeepers erased millions of shekels in debts of their neighbors. Kids go to schools that are working. Mosques are open with social services being provided, such as free clinics, nursery schools, social clubs, and extra curricular activities for youth. There is a full range Internet service available all over Gaza.
Two cellphone companies are working and everyone is online and connected. There is a system of law and order with civilian and even traffic police and courts that are working as well. Six universities are working in Gaza with thousands of students, both men and women.
The current “March for Return” plans for six weeks of massive protests and actions against what Gazans call Israeli occupation came to life from civil society. Hamas has taken control, but the energy is from the streets.
On the streets of Gaza people have a sense of security, except when Israel attacks.
Hamas is not just the fighters of the Kassam Brigades, which Israel calls a terrorist organization. Hamas does not run a democratic regime and it crushes opposition and there are hundreds of political prisoners in Hamas prisons. Hamas has also been holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for four years, along with keeping two Israeli civilians in captivity who are both mentally ill. But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization and Palestinians in Gaza are not terrorists because the Hamas regime governs them.
I am in awe of the ability of the Gazans to survive the reality that they live. I would not be able to do it. They do need new leaders. There is corruption there and their situation is far more hopeless than ours. Now they are being told that even nonviolent protest is not acceptable.
What does anyone expect them to do, simply surrender their dreams of freedom and independence and lie down before their masters? The IDF needs to plan for the worst and that includes an attempt by masses to breach the border fence. Officials and non-officials have to do everything to prevent a bloodbath. Escalation is written on the wall. The people of Gaza certainly don’t want escalation and another war, and neither does the Israeli people, especially those living around the Gaza Strip. But that is where we are heading and each Palestinian killed by Israel makes the chances of escalation much more likely.
The writer is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, www.ipcri.org. His new book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, has been published by Vanderbilt University Press.