A Castle in the Sand

Abu Raad’s home is built of mud. Hewn from concrete splits, water and sand, the artifice is necessary because of an Israeli siege that bars all raw materials into the Gaza Strip. Abu Raad lost six houses when the Israeli army blitzed northern Gaza in operation Cast Lead in December 2008.

Fifty-two of his family ran for their lives, under Israeli fire, waving white flags. In 2006 18 others had been killed when a “stray” army shell smashed into an earlier home near the Israeli border, forcing the flight to northern Gaza.

Today he sits on his own land before a mud-house that looks like a sand castle. When will he be able to rebuild his home? “When your country ends its blockade of mine,” he answers.

Steadfastness, cynicism, powerlessness: that’s the mood four years after the world slapped a blockade on Palestinians in Gaza for the temerity of voting for a Hamas government, and nearly two since the Israeli army tried to restore the lustre dimmed by its defeats in Lebanon by blasting Gaza to smithereens. That onslaught still reverberates, like an aftershock.

“I lived through the Israeli massacre in Khan Younis in 1956; I lived through 1967. But I never lived through anything like Cast Lead. You thought every moment would be your last,” says a friend from Jabalyia.

In 2009 northern Gaza was a detritus of bombed houses, scorched fields and flattened factories. Today, the land is clear, with reconstruction by local Islamic groups and international ones like the Turkish IHH, tribunes of the flotilla whose attempt to reach Gaza last May left nine dead but compelled Israel to ease the siege.

That victory has redounded to Hamas, the Islamic movement and now government that blockades, assaults and attempted coups all tried to topple. Three years since it vanquished Fatah in a brief but bloody civil war, Hamas looks indomitable in Gaza, shaping a new Palestinian polity out of the ruins of the old.

The new order is felt not so much in the marquee projects that so intrigue in the West: like the small flurry of resorts on the seafront and an even smaller mall in Gaza City. For Gazans it is felt more in a new sense of personal security.

There are no guns in Gaza, not even in the hands of the police. Hamas has banned their display. It is a far cry from the armed lawlessness of the Fatah era, when militia, tribes, even wedding parties could all suddenly ignite into warfare. The ban is rigorously enforced, with big families punished no less than small. This is populist, and very popular.

Nor do Gazans blame Hamas for an economic blitzkrieg in which at least 40 per cent are jobless and 80 per cent of Gaza’s 1.6 million inhabitants depend on aid. “Hamas is under siege too,” they answer.

A friend drives me across fallow lands once occupied by Jewish settlements that cannot be turned into agriculture or industry or residences for want of investment. He points out new housing projects amidst slums that cannot be completed for want of materials. “Were things equal, Gaza could advance,” he says. “But the siege retards all.”

Unable to develop, Hamas entrenches its regime. It is sustained by cash from Iran and a global Muslim Brotherhood but above all from a smuggler economy tunnelled under the Egyptian border that last year supplied 80 per cent of Gaza’s civilian imports and, say local bankers, earned Hamas a cool $150-200 million in revenue.

Tunnels won’t bring prosperity to Gaza. But they help Hamas pay 32,000 civil servants, including 16,000 security personnel, and 40,000 others engaged in the black market economy or welfare institutions. These are formidable constituencies — and powerful systems of patronage — that no other political group in Gaza can rival.

Yet Hamas is hardly more popular than Fatah. Like them, it cannot deliver what its people most want: not governance but liberation.

“Freedom to move, to travel, to leave,” says a man who hasn’t left Gaza for five years. Save for rare “exceptions”, most Palestinians remain interned in the largest prison camp on earth, locked in by Egypt to the south, locked out by Israel everywhere else.

Due to the blockade Fatah would win any new election, says a man from Nusierat. “We know Fatah are corrupt. But with them there’s at least a chance the siege might end. There’s a breeze through the gate. With Hamas, there’s not even a breeze.”

Hamas leaders seem to agree. They no longer speak of democracy: they speak of “10 year plans”. There is a creeping authoritarianism behind what initially had been a cautious, uncertain rule.

Since 2007, Hamas has banned all public activities by Fatah in Gaza, mostly in reprisal for similar actions meted out to Hamas in the West Bank by the Ramallah Authority. But the rod now reaches erstwhile allies like the PLO’s Popular and Democratic Fronts and Islamic Jihad.

And while Hamas has not imposed an aggressive Islamic agenda, certain of its younger cadres spoil to replace jihad against Israel (currently banned by an unannounced non- aggression pact) with moral crusades against the mores of their people.

“They fly kites,” says a woman doctor from Khan Younis. “Now telling women they cannot smoke water pipes; now telling women lawyers they must wear a hijab in court. When you resist, they back off. When you don’t, they Islamise”.

This is what angers people most. Their hunch is that Hamas — no less than Fatah — prefers the power acquired by office to any strategy to heal the worst schism the national movement has ever suffered. “They have grown accustomed to their chairs,” says a veteran activist in Jabalyia.

As for reconciliation between the two movements, he shrugs his shoulders. “It’s about as likely as Israel lifting the siege”. So, in distaste, Palestinians withdraw from politics. Some return to their families; others to the mosque. All seek escape. Depression is rife. And, even in a territory as crowded as Gaza, the sense of isolation is overpowering.

That’s why the flotilla inspired hope. When thousands of Gazans rushed to meet the boats last June, they did so not because they thought they would break the siege. (Any Gazan will tell you Israel’s policy is not to starve them but to contain them in a “bottle” permitting no development, no prosperity but no humanitarian crisis either). Rather they went down to the sea because the flotilla let them glimpse another world and defy a military occupation that, though remote, still controls every facet of their lives.

Since then, life has returned to a kind of dull habit. Watching the sun drop like a gold coin into the ocean I ask a friend what time it is. “The same as always,” she smiles, then frowns. She scans the horizon. She knows while the sea sometimes brings flotillas it can also send waves cast with lead to flatten whatever sand castle Gaza builds.

GRAHAM USHER writes for Al-Ahram Weekly, where this column originally appeared.