10.16.09

Life After the Bombs

As the U.N. Human Rights Council endorses a report accusing Israeli forces of war crimes, Judith Miller reports from the streets of Gaza and finds the tide is turning unexpectedly against Hamas.

As the United Nations debates Arab-Israeli peace prospects yet again, consider Gaza’s zoo. The pint-size “Amusement Land” contains several generic “fish” in dusty aquariums, a cage filled with “house cats” and another with “dogs” (two Wheaten terrier mixtures and a mangy desert stray), a pair of falcons and ostriches, a peacock, which shares a cage with a rooster, parakeets and other assorted “birds,” monkeys, a gazelle, and one sad-looking lioness. The zoo’s centerpiece is a cage containing two bedraggled zebras. Only, it turns out, they are not zebras.

Ahmed Barghut, the zoo’s owner, said that the real zebra died during Israel’s 22-day bombing campaign this year, when he and his son could not travel to the outskirts of Gaza City to feed the animals. Unable to afford a new zebra, which the owner said would cost $4,000, his son painted stripes on two local donkeys and placed them in the zebra cage.

Over time, other cheaper replacement animals were brought to Gaza through the maze of more than 1,500 underground tunnels to and from Egypt that also supply Gazans with much of their food and daily necessities, at a hefty price.

A pro-Fatah university professor said he hoped that Israel would maintain its Gaza blockade for at least two more years. “By then, Hamas will be finished forever.”

Israeli officials assert and local polls agree that militant Hamas is losing ground each day that Israel continues its siege of Gaza, an enclave 25 miles long and 6 miles wide—the size of greater Detroit—where some 1.4 million people have been imprisoned for nearly three years. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says that 80 percent of Gaza’s refugee population, or about 800,000 people, now depend on its daily food rations to survive. Unemployment has soared and one-third of the population lives in abject poverty, says John Ging, the UNRWA office director.

The zoo, however, is but one example of Palestinian resilience that undermines Israel’s three-year old blockade and complicates its effort to persuade Gazans to reject Hamas in favor of its rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which unlike Hamas, is willing to make peace with the Jewish state. Thanks largely to cooperation with Israel and the U.S., the West Bank’s economy is booming—projected to grow at a rate of more than 7 percent this year. Tourism is up; so are agricultural exports and per capita income. A four-year-old U.S.-sponsored training program headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has helped Fatah, the Palestinian Authority’s core group, reform its police and security services, resulting in enhanced security on the West Bank and devastating pinpoint attacks against Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militants determined to strike Israel and foment discord among Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Gazans are being collectively punished—in violation of international law, says UNWRA director Ging—for their decision following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005 to elect Hamas over Fatah in the 2006 legislative elections. After Hamas violently expelled Fatah forces a year later, splitting Gaza administratively from the West Bank, Hamas used Gaza as a launching pad to attack Israel. Between 2001 and the end of 2008, Hamas and armed militants it once tolerated fired more than 8,000 rockets and mortar shells on Israeli cities from Gaza, killing 14 Israelis and wounding more than 400. The inevitable outcome was the short, but devastating 22-day military offensive last December that resulted in war crimes by both sides—but especially by Israel—according to the report by the United Nations “fact-finding” task force headed by Richard Goldstone, the Jewish South African jurist, which Israel and the United States have both criticized. (On Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Council endorsed the report).

While Israel claimed to have targeted Hamas’ “infrastructure of terror,” said Ging, it had actually destroyed Gaza’s “infrastructure of democracy”—the parliament building, as well as schools, a biscuit factory, a juice producer, a cement plant.

“We are trapped in a prison where stress is normal,” says Eyad Sarraj, a Western-trained psychiatrist who runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Centers. More than 15 percent of the population, he estimates, suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Children— —one half of the population is under 18—are the primary victims, registering unprecedented levels of bed-wetting, sleeplessness, phobias, depression, flashbacks, loss of concentration, and impulsive behavioral disorders.

Ten months after Israel’s bombing, almost nothing destroyed has been rebuilt because Israel, aided by Egypt, refuses to permit most Gazans to import cement and other materials for reconstruction.

But, like the zoo, signs of resourceful defiance abound. Gaza’s markets are filled with Israeli goods imported directly from Israel and some that enter from Egypt via the black-market tunnels.

At Metro, a supermarket, shelves are well-stocked with goods, most of them Israeli, at seemingly exorbitant prices for Gazans. But the manager says turnover is high and that he sells out of even such pricey items as Pringles, Nescafe, and balsamic vinegar. Shoppers seem undaunted by the frequency of torn or partly crushed containers, the usual wear-and-tear of having come through the tunnels.

On the night I visited, the wind was blowing out to sea rather than toward Gaza City. So there was little stench from the 60,000 cubic meters of raw or partially treated sewage that is dumped each day into the sea where Gazans persist in swimming. Because the sewage has been drifting north to the Israeli city of Ashkelon, endangering tourism and water supplies there, Israel has agreed to let the World Bank build a new $58 million sewage treatment plant. But the project will take two years to complete.

If any of this troubles Mahmoud Zahar, the 64-year old physician who co-founded and now heads Hamas in Gaza, he does not show it. Dr. Zahar was jaunty during an interview at his heavily guarded home a few weeks ago with me and a Palestinian woman who reports for The New York Times. He seemed proud of the relative efficiency of his government—garbage is routinely collected and power outages are less frequent—and cheered by the ostensible lack of progress on the peace process in New York, where President Obama had summoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Fatah West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The peace talks were “unimpressive,” he asserted. Fatah was achieving nothing due to its notorious “corruption,” whereas Hamas had just won the release of 20 Palestinian women from Israeli jails in exchange for a short “proof of life” tape showing that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier Hamas has held for three years, was well. His message was unmistakable: Hamas can deliver political benefits, while the Fatah cannot.

Zahar was willing, he said, to sign a reconciliation agreement with Fatah, despite his evident disdain for his rival. But there would be no elections in Gaza, he added, until Fatah released the nearly 1,000 Hamas prisoners being held in West Bank jails. Moreover, he said, although he “admired” President Obama’s speech in Cairo last spring and welcomed America’s “change of tone,” Lt. Gen. Dayton would have to be withdrawn from the West Bank before new elections could even be contemplated.

“Hamas,” he insisted, “is stronger today than ever before.”

Some dismissed this as “bravado” aimed at hiding Hamas’ declining popularity in the West Bank and especially Gaza. A pro-Fatah university professor, who asked not to be identified, said he hoped that Israel would maintain its Gaza blockade for at least two more years. “By then, Hamas will be finished forever,” he said. But others, such as Dr. Sarraj, warn that Israel’s punitive actions are spawning a new generation of extremists who make Hamas look moderate. In August, 28 Palestinians were killed and more than 120 were wounded when Hamas clashed with young rival militants of Jund Ansar Allah (Soldiers of the Companions of God).

Israel’s siege is not only illegal, but short-sighted, says Sarraj. “It is producing a generation that has never known an Israeli other than a solider and teenagers who believe not in the rule of law, but only in the Qassem rocket. In the long run,” he warns, “this can only end badly.”

Judith Miller is an author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times. She is now an adjunct fellow at Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to its magazine, City Journal, and a Fox News commentator.