IMEU: Gazans are no fools

Wasseem El Sarraj, The Huffington Post, Jan 7, 2011


Thousands of Palestinians fly kites on the beach of Beit Lahiya town in Northern Gaza Strip during an event organized by the UN Relief and Work agency summer camps. (Ahmed Ghabayen, Maan Images)

“Could you comment on the mood in Gaza since the events on the Turkish Flotilla?”

I was asked this question in the aftermath of the botched Israeli raid on the Turkish Flotilla that killed eight Turkish participants and one Turkish-American. I sensed the Canadian interviewer was looking for a comment that would fit the narrative that depicted Gazans cheering and hugging each other in cafes. I politely informed the interviewer that I could not speak on behalf of more than 1.5 million people; but remarked that there was far more excitement on the streets after Real Madrid vs. Barcelona.

Gazans are no fools. They listened to President Obama’s honeyed words in Cairo in 2009, they recall Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s explicit and ill-fated demands to end all settlement activity, and they watch on television as international newscasters report selectively on Gaza’s plight from Washington — or at best from the comfort of the other side of the barriers that enclose the coastal strip. The overwhelming message they conclude from these dispatches is that the people of Gaza are allowed little say in the coverage of Gaza, let alone in articulating their hopes for the future.

After so many years of indignity, broken promises, and perverse neglect, not to mention heavy bombardment, Gazans would be foolish to look to the ajnebees (foreigners) for answers or for hope. But such is the paradox of donor aid, US power in the region, and EU ambiguity, that one dares not bite the hand that could and does sustain so many.

Thoughtful analysts recently concluded that Obama differed from his predecessor, and that the EU was on the verge of taking a lead role in the push for peace. Yet after two dismal years, Brand Obama has so far proven to be a figment of our wildest and most optimistic projections despite his obvious charm, intelligence, and the key fact that he was not George W. Bush. The continued siege on Gaza under his watch has revealed in full High Def that Obama is at a loss on Gaza and that the EU slavishly follows the U.S. There is a policy vacuum on Gaza that has become the only policy in town — namely do nothing that might help. The continued presence of the literal and figurative ruins of Israel’s brutal military onslaught on Gaza exactly two years ago this past Dec. 27 is the most disheartening and undeniable reminder of this fact.

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Much is spoken of realities on the ground in the conflict, typically in reference to Israeli settlement expansion. The other whispered reality is Hamas. And much like settlements, it’s thought better by western leaders to ignore it for now.

Hamas’ popularity is at 29 percent, down from last year. Yet their recent anniversary drew crowds in excess of 100,000. So in one world Hamas is an ugly representation of modern day Islamic barbarism and a problem to be expunged. In a saner world, however, Hamas represents an organic, though troubling, response to the Palestinian struggle for a legitimate and dignified existence. U.S.- backed Fatah leaders lived in villas; Hamas ministers choose to live in the dwellings of the poor. Hamas speaks the language of resistance. Fatahs speak the defunct language of Oslo.

Beyond ideology, Hamas over the last two years has gained respect for its on-the-ground practical advances. It governs with limited funds and under an illegal siege. Within these constraints Hamas can claim small victories: the export of strawberries and more recently furniture, a new sewage treatment plant, unemployment down to 33.9 percent according to the World Bank, a thriving tunnel economy, and increasing agricultural sustainability. There are failures too: the infringement of liberties, particularly women’s rights, and the superseding of laws, to close down and interrogate NGOs.

Reminiscent of Obama’s words in Cairo, Hamas has extended both clenched fist and open hand. This open-hand policy translates into a long-term hudna (truce/ceasefire), acceptance of borders (1967), and a referendum on the Peace Process. To its credit, Hamas has curtailed rocket fire from armed groups and at some cost to its claim to be a resistance movement. Hamas’ clenched fist is far less threatening than the world would like to admit. Whilst Hamas has discipline amongst its ranks and legions of young men to recruit, its projection of power amounts to homemade firepower: Rockets that have undeniably negative and counterproductive consequences and rockets that Israel has also to recognize will never go away, at least as long as Gaza remains isolated and occupied from without.

Today’s situation is untenable; but that is not to say it cannot continue for some time. Driving Gazans into the sea is not an option; neglecting and trying to forget Gaza is the next best thing. Therefore, this small Mediterranean community has little choice but to be anything but patient. Gazans will still be here after Cast Lead 3.0 and Gazans will still raise their families, celebrate the marriages of their children, and watch football on TV. Gazans, in other words, will be Gazans.

After decades of suffering and indignity, has it ever been more clear that when left alone Gazans can govern? Is it not self-evident that the vast majority of Gazans are moderate and lead mundane lives of routine? Perhaps it’s time President Obama learned a lesson from his Wall Street campaign backers and took a gamble on Gazans not being any more of a threat to regional instability than an out-of-control Israel.

Wasseem El Sarraj is a Palestinian researcher based in Gaza. He is the co-founder of TiDA, a Palestinian think tank.

IMEU: Gazans are no fools.

IMEU: Gazans are no fools.