At a press conference at the elegant Al-Mathaf Hotel in Gaza City last week, speakers announced a forthcoming academic panel presentation entitled, “War on Gaza: Consequences and Future Prospects.” It was timed to avoid known hours of daily power outages. This is Gaza today: the self-reflective confidence of an academic conference along with the dwindling of public services.
This visit to Gaza—my fourth—was brief. By now, nearly everyone I meet knows I am Jewish and a Zionist, which makes me a real curiosity. Some fall all over themselves to express their philo-Semitism. A young man I will call Munib (he didn’t want me to use his name) who teaches politics at a major Gaza City university told me that he admires the electoral system in Israel where parties with nothing in common form coalitions to govern for the good of the country and the public interest. “We Palestinians have not learned to do that,” he said. “Our democracy is corrupted because our representatives put the party ahead of the people.” Omar Shaban, an independent consultant, added: “Hamas and Fatah don’t really understand partnership and Arabs don’t understand democracy."
Another academic, whom I will call Nadim, told me, “I admire the 7 million Jews world-wide who have more education and influence than 1.5 billion Muslims." He asked me more than once: "How did they do that?” adding with certainty, and for obvious reasons, that the Jews of today are not genetically connected to the Jews of 2,000 years ago. He teaches a section on Jews and Judaism in his class on the history of the Middle East and he asked me to come and speak to his class about the American Jewish community. (I declined but offered to help him obtain better resource materials for the Jewish section of his course.) He and Asma al-Ghoul, an independent journalist, told me that some Gazans miss the days when Israel was in charge, the rule of law prevailed and the common necessities of life were available; they referred to a recent Facebook page to that effect that got hundreds of “likes.” (I have not been able to verify that there ever was such a page on Facebook.) Under Israeli rule, there was at least “the rule of law,” said veteran human rights advocate and psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj (who was quoted in the acclaimed documentary "the Gatekeepers" as having said, "Our victory is making you suffer").
There are few Hebrew speakers in Gaza (those who are fluent learned it in Israeli prisons) but now classes are easily available, according to a May New York Times story. Munib told me he is learning Hebrew so that he can be political analyst in the Israeli media.
His timing is terrible: the Hamas Press Office has just forbidden Gazan journalists from working for Israeli news media and has also prohibited Hamas officials from giving interviews to Israeli media. Abeer Ayyoub, who filed stories with Ha'aretz during the most recent Gaza War, had to quit her job with Ha'aretz or risk punishment. She told me her colleagues Mueen Alhelo and Samy Ajrami also had to quit their jobs, respectively, with Israeli Channel 10 and Ma’ariv. Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas deputy foreign minister (who speaks fluent Hebrew), confirmed the prohibition on Hamas officials talking to Israeli media. “Whose decision is this?” “I don’t know,” he said. “Yes you do,” I said. “Yes, I do,” he said, smiling. But he wouldn't tell me. (Israel prohibits Israeli journalists, but not the foreign press, from entering Gaza.)
It is commonly believed here that Israeli reporting on Gaza and Hamas is biased, which is why Hamas issued the rules. "I will not speak to Israeli journalists except Amira Haas and Gidon Levy because the others misuse the information," said Nihad Shaikh Khaled, a history professor at Islamic University, who voluntarily boycotts Israeli media. Hamas officials told me with a straight face that all press reports critical of Hamas are the work of spies and liars. Even al-Ghoul, who is liberal and independent, a winner of the 2012 Brave Journalist Award from International Women's Media Foundation, says the Western press often swallows uncritically anti-Hamas propaganda that has actually come from Fatah people posing as disgruntled Hamas supporters. Ayyoub thinks the ban is pretty stupid. “We need journalists on both sides,” she says. “We are the ones who see things first hand. We have to have our input into Israeli reporting or they will get their information only from the wire services. Talking to my editor at Ha’aretz is not like talking to Shin Bet.”
If Gazans disagree about whether to talk to Israelis, they do not disagree about Israel. They wish its demise. “If America is so concerned with a homeland for the Jews, let them go to America,” said Palestinian National Council member Yahia Abadsa. “If [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal accepts the two state solution, he will be expelled from Hamas.” While the November cease-fire with Israel (brokered by Egypt) is welcome, most feel it was on Hamas's terms and, as Ghazi Hamad said, "We have shown that crushing Gaza is not easy." The Hamas government is very unpopular (even Hamas officials admitted as much) but there is no insurrection talk in the air, only the desire for relief from too much war.
The cease-fire requires Hamas to hold its rockets and Israel to alleviate the siege. Does that mean Israel has to throw wide open the border crossings to people and material? Apparently not. “We need millions of tons of building materials," said Ghazi Hamad, the deputy foreign minister. "We have plans for $500 million in projects for houses and hospitals. The construction materials from the tunnels provide only 20 percent of our needs.” So far, construction materials are coming in at a trickle—20 truck loads in the last few weeks. Hamad waits patiently for the formation of the new government in Israel; others said Hamas will not be able to restrain other militias without tangible progress. And then there is the lack of much tangible progress in opening the Rafah border with Egypt. “Why hasn’t Egypt done more for you?” I asked. “We will be patient with our brothers and pray for them,” he said. “We do not want to do anything that affects their stability.”
Will Hamas stand still while Egypt and Israel take their sweet time? Hamas officials were clear that they have the right to re-arm. “There is no agreement on our part of the cease fire not to re-arm. We have the right to do so—we are still under occupation and we have the right to defend ourselves,” said Hamad. “Re-arming is not the question,” said Basem Naim, former Health Minister. “Using them is the issue."
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