On the eve of President Obama’s visit to Israel, the mood here in neighboring Gaza is ... meh.
“Nobody is talking about it,” said Ahmed Yousef, a former senior adviser to Hamas leadership and now the head of a local think tank, speaking from his plush office overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. “The people do not expect that much coming out of the visit.”
In the center of downtown Gaza, a contrast in natural beauty and urban squalor, there are no posters of Obama, as there are in Tel Aviv and the Palestinian towns in the West Bank. At my hotel, businessmen and a few aid workers discussed some of the new development projects planned for the area. But very few people wanted to talk about Obama’s first foreign trip of his second term.
Rajae Adwan, a Palestinian entrepreneur who owns a chain of perfume shops, wanted to stick to business, but said he’d be happy to give Obama any perfume or cologne he wants—except for Adwan’s signature M75 perfume, named for a short-range missile. “For those who love victory,” reads the slogan.
Over a Turkish coffee at a nearby café, Mohammed el-Wahidi, who is 30 years old and unemployed, told me he considers Obama's visit to be a public relations maneuver for the benefit of Israel's prime minister. "This visit is meant to protect Netanyahu's new coalition," he said. His friend, Mohamed Khassaf, agreed. "This is politics. Obama will always be with Israel."
The president has no plans to come here. He’ll visit the Church of the Nativity, the Israel museum, the grave of Theodore Herzl, Ramallah, and Jerusalem, but he will not come to Gaza. Since taking office in 2009, Obama has declined to reach out to Hamas, the party that controls Gaza. In November he helped convince Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi to close down the tunnels into Egypt which Hamas had reportedly used to import the components of short-range rockets.
Overall, the economy in Gaza has improved in recent years. Israel has loosened some restrictions on trade, and last year began exporting a number of goods here. Nonetheless, poverty is rife, and while there is a prosperous upper class in Gaza, the latest U.S. statistics say 1.3 million Gazans lack access to adequate food supplies.
Yousef is now the secretary general of the House of Wisdom Institution for Conflict Resolution & Governance, a think tank for political Islam, the ideology of Hamas. Yousef’s office on the top floor of a twelve-story office building in Gaza city is a tribute to what he considers resistance to Israel. There are ceramic reliefs with verses from the Quran in ornate calligraphy, and a wall-size painting of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship boarded in 2010 by Israeli special operations forces after activists tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza’s shoreline.
At the time of the Mavi Marmara confrontation, Yousef headed the government committee that received the international volunteers aboard that ship. He remembers waking up at 5 a.m. and doing dozens of interviews. “It was one of the most memorable days of my life,” he said.
The blockade began after Hamas took over the government institutions in Gaza, which prompted Israel to seal its border. In 2007, the siege, as Gazans call it, was at its worst. My translator and fixer, Ahmed Abu-Hamda, remembered it was so bad that he could only serve water at his wedding because no one could get soda or juice.
Israel has slowly relaxed much of the restrictions since then. In December the Metro Market, a modern supermarket, opened. On Tuesday the shelves were stocked with everything from teddy bears made in China to cooking oil, juice, and pasta.
Yousef said he was hopeful at first that Obama would bring a “paradigm shift” in foreign policy after he heard his 2009 speech in Cairo that was addressed specifically to the Muslim people. But, he said, “Politics got in the way with the Jewish lobby and the pro-Israel Congress. It seemed like Netanyahu was dictating his policy,” he said.
Yousef has not given up all hope in Obama. “I do like Chuck Hagel,” he said of Obama’s new secretary of Defense. Some conservative pro-Israel groups and most Republicans opposed Hagel for being too hostile to Israel and too sanguine on Iran. “When I was in the United States, I could tell he is a man of integrity,” Yousef said. “He is a man of conscience.”