No Israelis in Gaza. No Jobs, Either
By Abdallah Al Salmi
Sunday, October 2, 2005
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza
- "The border is open?" I cried in surprise and disbelief. "Won't they
shoot at us?"
For as long as I
could remember, it had been dangerous, even lethal, to approach the
heavily guarded, shoot-to-kill border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
But on Sept. 12, Israel had pulled its last troops out of Gaza. Now,
a few days later, my brother Ahmed was telling me that some militant
Palestinians had managed to break through the 25-foot-tall border wall,
and a flood of eager Gazans were heading south to visit the Sinai. Ahmed
wanted to go, too.
These were exciting
days. Desperate and frustrated by years of occupation, we Gazans saw
the Israeli withdrawal as a historic moment, and listened eagerly to
minute-by-minute radio reports of the evacuation and its aftermath.
In our highly factionalized news media, every party attributed "victory"
and "liberation" to its own heroic militants.
Amid the fanfare
and hurrahs, Ahmed and I made up our minds: We would temporarily escape
five years of entrapment in this narrow strip of land. We would make
this fantastic trip to Egypt and see what the taste of freedom is like.
We knew the trip
would be brief. We should also have realized how short-lived our excited
optimism would be. When we got home, "liberated" Gaza would still be
overcrowded and poor, and there would still be no jobs for most of its
people. * * *
Going to Rafah,
the southernmost city in Gaza, had been difficult since the Israeli
crackdown that followed the start of the intifada five years ago. For
most of this time, Israel not only closed Gaza's borders -- particularly
to Palestinian men like me, between the ages of 15 and 35 -- but also
imposed tougher curbs on movement within the territory. The mere thought
of getting through the obstacle course of checkpoints had been infuriating
and depressing. Now that the Israeli settlements and military fortifications
had become history, the road to Rafah was open and secure but still
bumpy and suddenly overcrowded.
At dusk, we got
out of my brother's jeep about 400 yards from the border fence. The
scene was joyfully hysterical. A human tide of Palestinians -- men,
women and children -- flowed into Egypt from Gaza, and back, through
breaches in the fence. Leaving the jeep behind, my brother and I walked
from the Palestinian side of Rafah to its Egyptian side. We felt happy
There weren't enough
cars and taxis for the huge influx of people, but we managed to squeeze
onto a small pickup truck with 20 other Palestinians, and headed for
the northern Sinai resort town of El Arish. Though it was more than
25 miles away, we saw many people trying to get there on foot, enchanted
by the fact that no one was ordering them to stop. We rode past them
in the dark, a truckload of Gazans overflowing with released emotions.
Hussein Abo Amra, 22, told us he'd never been outside the Strip in his
life. He kept saying "Great God!" and "Gone are the days when I had
to wait three days to get through the Abo Holey checkpoint!" Ecstatic
and slightly dazed, he was half-hanging from the rear of the pickup,
and more than once he almost fell off.
El Arish did not
turn out to be as exciting as the idea of visiting it. A small town,
it was soon overwhelmed by the deluge of visitors. Shops were soon out
of food, water and even cigarettes, consumed by the crowds of Gazans
eagerly absorbing new experiences and different conversations. Ahmed
and I came back to Gaza before dawn. By the end of that week, the fence
at Rafah was repaired and the border was again closed, this time by
Egyptian and Palestinian authorities.
The excitement lingered,
at least for a couple of weeks. People in Gaza talked about their visit
to Egypt, what they did, what they bought. Some of them were able to
bring home beloved wives or children who had left Gaza for some reason
and, lacking documents that would satisfy the Israeli occupiers, had
not been permitted to return. Inside Gaza itself, there were holiday-like
crowds on the Mediterranean beaches -- especially in Khan Younis and
Rafah, where Palestinian access to the shoreline had been blocked for
years by Israeli settlements. A better future for Gaza seemed to be
But the energy and
enthusiasm of ordinary Palestinians has not been matched elsewhere in
the world, not even by our own leaders. Now, only a couple of weeks
later, Gazans' yearning for a better future has all but ended. A feeling
of hopelessness has returned.
We are still enduring
the pointless eruption of violence that began last week, when militants
in the Islamic group Hamas mistook an accidental explosion of Palestinian
weapons for an Israeli attack. They and other factions launched rockets
across the border, and Israel struck back with overwhelming force. The
Israel Defense Forces are now on the offensive. When F-16 jets bomb
near our urban areas, the explosions sound like doomsday. The building
where I live shakes. The bed rattles. In the morning, I wake up with
a backache and a sense of shock -- I'm back in the bad old days. The
Israelis aren't gone. It's just that they used to bomb us or do what
they wanted from inside the Strip. Now they do it from the outside.
Looking out of my
eighth-floor window, I see that the irregularly interlaced urban and
agricultural areas in view are no longer filled with excited crowds.
It's quiet, depressing, apathetic. During the day, another bombardment
rocks the office where I work in Gaza City. Everyone talks about air
raids. No one talks about Egypt any more. No one mentions "the liberation."
With 1.3 million
Palestinians living in heavily packed refugee camps, subject to IDF
jets and militants' rockets, the 140-square-mile Strip is not a likely
setting for a stable and prosperous life. The key to a successful future
is a functioning economy, and we can't create an economy out of nothing.
The Israeli settlers who had the support of a powerful government, financial
backing, international friends and access to outside goods and resources
left nothing but some greenhouses behind.
I talk with my friends.
I met Ala'a Younis, 25, when we were in high school together in Gaza
City. Today he is an unemployed engineer who lives in a small town called
Deir el-Balah. Since graduating from university in 2003, he hasn't had
a job that lasted more than three months. His despair is reflected in
his dull eyes and unkempt beard. "I was very hopeful about the withdrawal,
but I am disappointed now, as nothing really changed," he said. According
to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, university graduates
here have a higher rate of unemployment than any other group of Palestinians
-- it's 47.5 percent.
I ask him about
the job creation programs sponsored by the Palestinian Authority and
some international organizations. These temporary, low-paying jobs are
just "painkillers," Ala'a said; they're mostly useful "just to keep
people's mouths shut." Ala'a is a supporter of Hamas because its Islamic
charities provide food, education and medical services to many refugee
families here. "Hamas provides not only political alternatives, but
economic ones also," he says.
will be loyal to anyone who helps them survive, Ala'a says, Hamas will
do increasingly well as a political party. "Look at the head of Al Salah
Association [an Islamic charity connected to Hamas], he is now the mayor
of Deir El Balah," he said.
Ialso had a talk
with Mohammed Hassoona, my neighbor. He's one of some 300,000 Palestinians
who lost their jobs in Israel during the five-year cycle of violence.
He has seven children. The $200 a month he gets from the Palestinian
Authority "does not feed my children bread," he said. He had hoped that
the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would result in less tension and the
possibility that he could work in Israel again, but "nothing really
changed." He is frustrated not only with Israel but with his own leaders:
"If the PA does not do something, our misery will blow up in their faces."
He's right. The
key to Gaza's future is the restoration of the Palestinian economy.
Only this will pull the rug out from under Hamas and eradicate the chaos
resulting from poverty and unemployment.
Authority's Ministry of Planning says that it has plans for the economic
and urban development of Gaza. Construction and development of the areas
evacuated by Israeli settlers are supposed to create jobs. For example,
the land left behind by the Netzarim settlement is to be annexed to
the Gaza seaport project and used as depots and warehouses. And the
PA says it will invest in the greenhouses that the Israeli settlers
left behind -- I have been told there are as many as 4,000 -- to create
To most of us, these
plans have nothing to do with reality. The Seaport project is still
a fantasy, since it requires Israeli approval. Reconstruction of the
Gaza airport, which the Israelis bulldozed at the beginning of the intifada,
also needs Israeli approval. And there is all the hassle of reaching
any agreement with Israel over our border control and commercial traffic.
Gaza needs these links to the outside world not only to ship goods,
but to provide access to Israel and other Arab countries for our graduates
and unemployed workers. We have heard international promises to make
the Gaza pullout a success -- but the political realities and absence
of goodwill between the conflicting parties make this a distant dream.
The world sees Gaza,
I think, the way we saw ourselves a few weeks ago -- "liberated" from
the Israelis. But I fear that the world now thinks it can ignore us.
Given the passivity of the ruling authority, Gazans need help from outside
to save the next generations from poverty and extremism. Without such
help, Gaza is still a prison -- it has just become a little more spacious.
"I think we were
better off before the Israelis left," said Mohammed, my neighbor. "At
least we were termed 'occupied,' but now we are not; we have been left
alone in this barren land."
I hope the world
proves him wrong.
Abdallah Al Salmi
is a translator and public relations specialist for the Palestinian
Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City.
© 2005 The
Washington Post Company