A View from the Ground
Taghreed El-Khodary, New York Times correspondent in Gaza; International Crisis Group analyst. Interview with Middle East Bulletin.
July 28, 2009
"[T]he international community must realize that by leaving Gaza they are creating something that is unknown. They are creating a population that is completely isolated from the world—completely isolated from everything."
Tell us what the situation on the ground is like.
The siege is continuous and very depressing. You can feel it on a daily basis. It’s touching every element of society. It is interesting to observe the people on the ground and how they are coping. They keep asking me, as a journalist, ‘when is it going to be over?’ But, they understand that it could go on for a long time, especially with the continuous failure of the dialogue in Cairo and also with the absence of international intervention to do something regarding Palestinian unity, regarding Israel and the siege, but they are coping despite their painful experiences. Each has a story on how the siege has affected them.
The question is who benefits from the siege? The people are suffering, but you have those who are in control, Hamas, who are benefiting big time. For example, there are the tunnels. Hamas is not digging tunnels, but there are those in Rafah, including Fatah, who are digging. There are some businessmen in Gaza City and the rest of Gaza Strip who are investing in these tunnels and are making a lot of money. There is only a specific segment of society that benefits from the tunnels, aside from Hamas, of course, which gets money from outside and generates money inside. And a new uneducated class is emerging that benefits from the situation.
This new informal economy doesn’t benefit everyone. There is no construction, so you are talking about unemployment that keeps getting higher and higher. You have money laundering, which is also an issue. But, the private sector is dead. Many businessmen left Gaza for good or are planning to leave for good. So in the long term this will lead to the weakening of independent voices in society.
Those who are suffering are the sick, those who suffer from serious diseases who need treatment outside. Students who dream of studying abroad are also in pain because they cannot leave. But, also on a daily basis, there are things that are missing. Israel has eased up a little bit, there is more stuff coming in, but it’s not everything. There is an absence of a formal economy.
So, if nothing happens and the international community does not intervene, in the long term you will have an ignorant society that is not exposed to the world trying to cope with these needs. I don’t know what the long-term results will be; how their minds will be shaped by this reality. Right now you have critical voices here and there, but I don’t know, if the closure will continue, what will come out. Who will dare to speak out? People will become very passive.
What’s going on with the banks?
Take me, for example. I work for the New York Times and for a long time the Times office in Jerusalem could not transfer my salary. Why? Israel refuses to transfer any money to Gaza, even to someone like me, meaning also others like me. So we came to the conclusion that they should transfer my salary directly from New York to Gaza. But I go to the bank, and I cannot withdraw my money. Why? Because there is no liquidity in the bank. Israel is not letting the money in. So when I go to the bank, I beg the manager to withdraw part of my salary. He will tell me, for example, if I want to withdraw $1,000, ‘no, no, no, it’s too much, there are not enough dollars. I can only give you $200.’ And it takes so much time to convince him to give me the $1,000. But for other people, he won’t give them the $1,000. He will give them $200 or tell them, ‘okay, we can give you the $1,000, but in shekels.’ But you lose a lot of money changing dollars at the bank, due to the informal economy, due to the absence of liquidity. So that’s why people want to withdraw all their money in dollars and change them outside the bank. And then the banks complain because Israel isn’t letting more dollars through. For a while, there have been no dollars in the banks. Last time I was in Bank of Palestine I saw women who work for international NGOs, who are paid in dollars, begging to get their salaries. And the bank said, ‘no, we can give you part of your salary’—despite the fact that the employer has been transferring the whole amount of the salary. So, you experience the closure in your daily life.
But Hamas has set up its own bank, right?
Yes, to pay their employees. Because, as you know, the Palestinian Authority [PA], in what I think was not a wise decision, asked teachers to stay at home, asked civil servants to stay at home—in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. So, what did Hamas do? They filled the gaps with people who support Hamas or people who were simply unemployed and seeking a job. Hamas then had to pay all these employees, those also who are working as police, and established a bank. They would say it’s not Hamas, but it is, of course. You cannot just move around with money. Now they have a bank and employees are paid by the bank. They are even opening accounts for guys who cannot open accounts with other banks because they belong to a military wing, for example and that category of young people within the society is excited to open an account for the first time in their life. So, in a way, they are finding ways to cope with the reality..
What is very sad, as I mentioned, is that when the PA offered the teachers to stay at home, older, sometimes secular, teachers with lots of experience were replaced by Hamas with younger, inexperienced teachers who are only confident with religion. And that, I think, is scary. When it comes to creating a new, educated generation exposed to the different elements of life and how things work, it’s very important to have a teacher who has been exposed to the world and received training, not a teacher without life experience who has never been out of Gaza and is only competent with one subject, religion.
So, it sounds as if Hamas has created its own infrastructure that is completely parallel to what was there before, not just in education.
Yes, it’s a new structure they are creating, and it makes a segment of society happy. Who is happy? Hamas supporters. Who else? Poor people, because they benefit from the international aid organizations and at the same time from Hamas, which has supported the poor all along, but now the international community is focusing on humanitarian aid to them also. So, it’s the best arrangement for them because never before have they gotten so much assistance. So, there is a segment of society that is happy, the ones who are praising the new awareness campaign that Hamas is using instead of imposing the veil and Sharia, by force. Before they used to be in the mosques, but now they are ministers, they’re in the schools—they have so much access to society.
There was a tendency within an element of Hamas to impose Sharia law, but the stronger tendency was against it. That was smart on the part of the current senior political leaders, because if they do so, it will undo their progress among the international community and so far Hamas are not keen to undermine themselves with the international community because they seek contact with it. From my observations, I would say that they would be interested in getting direct contact with the American administration. So, indirectly, they are working on it. They are not imposing anything. So you have a segment of society that is happy, about Gaza being a conservative place. In Palestinian society, if you go to the West Bank—the West Bank is not only Ramallah—if you go to Nablus, if you go to Hebron, if you go to different villages in the West Bank, they are very conservative. So, that speaks to the public.
There are a lot of reports about economic progress in the West Bank, and things like this, does that filter into Gaza? How is it perceived?
There is indirect contact between Gaza and the West Bank, by phone. People really communicate—they have relatives, they have friends, they have families over there. So, if you ask many people what they think, so far the people in the West Bank—and I talk to many West Bankers—would say they can feel that internal security has improved a little bit. When it comes to economy, it’s becoming a little bit better, but so far, there is no freedom of movement. The main checkpoints are still there. Israel said they did dismantle a few, but they didn’t dismantle the main ones that obstruct movement. I think it’s going to take time. So far, the West Bank is not paradise. The international community has an option to create a paradise in the West Bank, for the Gazans to learn a lesson when it comes to the upcoming elections. But the international community must realize that by leaving Gaza they are creating something that is unknown. They are creating a population that is completely isolated from the world—completely isolated from everything. People view it as collective punishment. Think about those seeking medical treatment; there are many women and children and that breaks people’s hearts. They can’t understand how the world can justify punishing such a segment of society. And Gaza has become only a humanitarian case. Which is, for many people, very depressing—for educated people, mainly, it’s very depressing, very insulting and very humiliating. From my observations I would say it’s a very risky policy. Because, after all, if you talk to many people on the ground, if you ask them are you interested in the peace process, in the two-state solution, the answer would be, ‘no, first national unity, then talk to us about two-state solution.’ It doesn’t make sense for many people to talk about the option of two-state solution when the Palestinians are divided.
Is that the way the Obama Administration’s efforts at creating a two-state solution are being understood there?
For example, when I’ve spoken to Hamas recently about the idea of the West Bank turning into paradise, they said that they don’t care about that. They believe that the Israelis will ultimately give Abu Mazen nothing. And even the people cannot see a two-state solution if Gaza and the West Bank remain as they are. How can you endorse a peace process given that division? It’s so hard to foresee. After all, some people will benefit by the improvement in the West Bank but others will not. The economy is not everything. It’s a political issue, not an economic issue. And if you diagnose it as a political issue, you have to resolve it and then you move ahead. The focus is very limited now and I think the international community is avoiding the real work. Many people would say the international community must impose unity between the Palestinians. They see the international community, mainly the American administration, as contributing to this division, which is very negative, I would say.
So far, everybody is optimistic about Obama, but nothing on the ground is tangible when it comes to Gaza. Israel is letting a little bit more stuff cross , but none of it can lead to the revival of the the private sector. So far the current situation is as it was under President Bush; there is no difference whatsoever. There is not tangible change. The speech in Cairo was marvelous. The people were so happy when they heard Obama’s speech in Cairo. But so far, they are waiting for the change on the ground. The issue of the Jewish settlements is crucial, but people are stuck dealing with survival in their daily lives.
But you seem to be tying progress to national unity, and it doesn’t seem like either the PA or Hamas want national unity.
I don’t think either party is interested. Hamas’ focus is on governance, ending the siege, direct talks with the international community—mainly the U.S. administration. Hamas would say no to elections unless they have a chance to govern. Their supporters argue that they haven’t been given a chance to govern. ‘End the siege, let us govern, let us perform and then we would be willing to go for another election.’ That’s Hamas position now.
When it comes to Fatah priorities, they are not interested either—just like Hamas—in national reconciliation. Fatah’s priority is the conference they are going to hold in Bethlehem. That is the main priority. They want to be stronger when they go to talks with Hamas, and they think that after that conference they will be stronger. Another priority for Fatah is the creation of a model in the West Bank so that Gazans revolt against Hamas. I think that is wishful thinking. Hamas is in complete control of the Gaza Strip. As time passes, they are increasingly in control. There are those who are angry at them, but so far no revolt. Many people in Gaza are married and have kids. Who is going to risk their life? There is an absence of an alternative, too. Will they give their life for Fatah? That’s the question, and you cannot feel that on the ground.
The Palestinians in Gaza are divided. There is this voice that says ‘OK, Fatah used to be thieves, corrupt, but we had a life.’ Then there is another voice that says ‘Hamas hasn’t been given a chance, but if they cannot govern, if the world doesn’t want them to govern, let them step aside. Let whatever happen, we need to live.’ They believe that Hamas is a victim here for not being given a chance. But at the same time, they are asking them to remain just as a resistance movement and to step aside from government. Then you have another voice that is in complete support of Hamas because they are not corrupt, for achieving internal security on the ground, for helping the poor. You have all of that.
You’ve spoken a lot in the past about working from the ground up, and thinking about the people separately from Hamas. Do you think that that is still possible, and what can be done?
Yes, I think one option is to strengthen the private sector. You have Hamas, and it’s a fact on the ground. The international community says that if we end the siege, Hamas will benefit. But with the siege they also benefit, because they are in complete control of all aspects of society, and the more time, the more support they will attract—especially from among the poor. So why not strengthen the private sector? End the siege, focus on strengthening the private sector, focus on education, because that’s where you create the alternative. That way, you are strengthening an independent voice. In the current situation, I don’t think the international community is contributing to the strengthening of that voice, or the creation of more voices, or of an independent party that is not Fatah nor Hamas. So I think it is very healthy to think of options that would lead to such a thing. It’s healthy.
Military groups also benefit from the situation. The world has isolated them so they are focusing on different things, like how to develop long-range rockets. That’s the focus of the military people. For the political people, they are focusing on how to reach the public, and of course it is hard but so far they are coping and coming up with creative ideas.
I was in one of the settlements that Israel evacuated where Hamas built a park, planted apple trees and filled a pool with fish for the kids. I talked to people and asked them why they liked going there. They said ‘there is a zoo, a pool full of fish.’ So I went there and it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. The zoo was one cage of monkeys. And imagine, these people were so impressed that they called it an amusement park. You go there and it’s so bad, but they’ve never seen anything else. For them, one cage of monkeys was a zoo. You go to the fish farm that they created, and it’s smelly, but for the children it was meaningful and exciting. It’s a place to sit, a place to barbeque. They have a new project in the evacuated Israeli settlements for farmers to rent land and grow produce to sell at market. So they are becoming creative. For workers who used to work in Israel, they are also giving money. From my observations, it’s depressing, but this segment of society is happy with it. That’s the thing.
They are producing films, too. The latest one was about Emad Akel, who was 23 when he was killed by Israel in 1993. He was a fighter that Hamas portrays as establishing a whole military philosophy. Why? Because he managed to target Israeli soldiers only. So they made a story about him. And who wrote the script? Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader. And that will be shown to the public starting August 1. And everybody, whether they like Hamas or not, wants to go because it’s entertainment, and because there are no other movie theaters. Then you have a play by an independent writer. In the play they mock the firing of the rockets as useless—the fighters fire them just for the sake of firing.
These are examples of how Hamas is promoting their agenda but they are also letting other voices come out. And it’s fine—anyone can criticize—but there are limits, of course. They know that there is criticism of the rockets from the people on the ground, so they listen. They are coping. The topic for them now is PR and how to promote their ideas. Because after the war, they realized that they didn’t win. In Gaza, a huge segment of the population blamed Hamas for the war, and Hamas is realizing that neither they nor Israel won the war. Israel is complaining about international public opinion, which was really bad for Israel after the war. So, in a way they think they lost the war and they didn’t stop the rockets. Hamas, of course, didn’t stop the rockets, but the people in Gaza were very frustrated and think that Hamas invited Israel to go for it and people believe they are the ones who paid the price But Hamas won the war in the Arab Muslim world. Arabs think Hamas won the war. And Hamas are employing this to their advantage within the Islamic-Arab world. So they are in the process of focusing on finding ways out.
Last year there was a problem with the Fulbright program. What is your sense of educational exchanges this year? Do you think there will be a Fulbright program?
The Americans are working on it and it’s a priority for them. I heard that the Fulbright students will leave soon, likely the beginning of next month. I think they are getting the Israeli permits and everything they need. The story we did last year created pressure on Israel to let the Fulbrighters leave and for the Americans to work more on it. I think they were aware of the benefit of education. The Americans can do it, though not many people get Fulbrights. But you have to think also of European countries that provide scholarships for young people. These scholarships are not available because these European countries do not have the same power as the U.S to get the students the Israeli permits. So these students do not get to leave the Gaza Strip. Also, Rafah doesn’t open. It only opens from time to time for three days. I know a case of a woman who wanted her son who has been living in the U.S. for 10 years to visit. He came down to Dubai for her to go to see him. For a variety of reasons, she could not cross. In the end, her son had to go back to the U.S. and she didn’t see him. She hadn’t seen him for ten years. You have many other cases of people seeking medical treatment. Education is something, but you have all these painful stories around you. It’s very depressing. And people don’t just blame Hamas. Of course, Hamas is one element to such pain. But they also blame Egypt, Israel, the U.S., the international community. Everyone gets blame from the people on the ground.
You had a chance to go to Damascus. It seems like it’s very hard to understand what’s going on in terms of what Hamas is thinking about. For example, Khaled Meshaal said Thursday that Hamas would not stand in the way of an agreement between the PA and Israel if it came to a referendum. It seems that there is an element of a public relations effort to make Hamas seem more willing to engage. Is there anything you can say about that?
I was the one who did the interview for The New York Times. I sat with Meshaal for many hours, for two days, and the sense is that Hamas is very keen to engage in international politics. Meshaal told me that they are willing to be part of a solution when it comes to a peace process, and that they are not going to be the one obstructing an agreement. The international community must really read between the lines. There has to be an understanding, because after all, on the ground, Hamas is in Gaza, Fatah is in the West Bank, completely isolated from each other. I think you also need to learn from Oslo. Hamas was out of the game, therefore they obstructed. At that time they obstructed through a series of suicide bombings. This disequilibrium will always be there if the international community strives to marginalize a party that is too influential. I think the challenge is to come out with a solution given the current situation.
Is there anything positive that you’ve seen recently? Any hope you can give us?
So far, no. But I am an optimist, as you know, and I am an observer. I always observe the people—how they feel—and the dynamics around me. And I think to myself, this is frustrating because there is no change whatsoever. There are people suffering on a daily basis due to the policy of the siege. It’s very sad, all these stories around you. I don’t know, I cannot see anything positive. I managed to cross through the Erez crossing after a long time. It was the first time for me to leave since the war, through Erez, to Israel. It was humiliating. I was locked in a room. If you treat some one like me, who works for an international paper, who is an independent, that way, how do others get treated? I don’t understand, it’s very frustrating on the ground. So if you’re asking me if I see something positive, I can’t. There are no positive stories.
But I’ll tell you something—how people are coping with this reality gives you hope. They can joke, they can laugh, you go here and there and there is a humor—it’s dark but it’s funny. So they go on, but, if you talk about the silent majority, they are frustrated by both parties.