Matthew Kalman / Chronicle Foreign Service – 2006-11-01 07:49:43
JERUSALEM (October 29, 2006 ) — It would have been hard last week to imagine a more miserable place to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr than the Gaza Strip.
“The feast was marked not by Palestinian children playing with fireworks, but the smell of burning tires in the streets and the flashes of bullets flying between Fatah and Hamas,” Khaled Abu Toameh said in an interview, of the three-day festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Toameh, Palestinian commentator for the Jerusalem Post, added, “This was a very sad Eid.”
More than a year after the historic destruction of Israel’s settlements in Gaza and nine months after the elections that swept Hamas to power, the Palestinian economy is in ruins, rival militias are shooting each other in the streets, and Israeli troops are killing Palestinians almost daily as they try — with conspicuous failure — to end attacks against Israeli towns nearby and to stop arms smuggling from Egypt.
“We are starving. We want a solution, or else there will be a big explosion here,” said Imad Abu Sabri, an officer in the Palestinian presidential guard Force 17, who celebrated the Eid festival with hundreds of colleagues by blocking streets and burning tires to protest the government’s failure to pay its employees. “We live in one big prison surrounded by Israel, and we are beginning to get at each others’ throats inside. Israel is killing Palestinians every day, and we are killing each other as well. We are headed toward self-destruction because of the economic crisis.”
Naji Hussein, who works at the Palestinian Ministry of Communications, is one of approximately 140,000 civil servants whose salaries have not been paid for months. Last week, the Hamas-led government handed out $50 in cash to several thousand workers after the Palestinian interior minister hauled $2 million through the border crossing from Egypt.
The crisis appears likely to continue as long as Palestinian politics remain logjammed in the standoff between President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the Hamas-dominated government headed by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
On-and-off national unity talks have been continuing for months with no clear result except increased suffering for ordinary Palestinians. Meanwhile, the government is sinking further into debt as donor states refuse to provide assistance until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
“I promised my children to buy them clothes and toys for the Eid, because I was relying on promises we would be paid our salaries before the festival,” Hussein said. “I felt very ashamed of myself because I couldn’t fulfill my promise. It was even worse when we saw other children playing with new toys. This power struggle between Fatah and Hamas is weighing down on the backs of the poor people.”
Rafat Abed, proprietor of a Gaza clothing store, said his sales this year were only 20 percent of the normal volume.
“Most families could not even afford to buy a shirt for 15 shekels ($3),” Abed said. “My heart hurts to see the tragedy of parents who can’t afford to buy their children what they need.”
Abed had no doubt who was to blame for the situation.
“Israel and America are responsible for this deterioration. They want to punish us because we voted for Hamas. But this is backfiring because it’s only strengthening Hamas,” he said.
“The economic situation in the Gaza strip is catastrophic,” said Samira Shawwa, a local social worker. “Many families can no longer afford to buy food for their children. The international sanctions are destroying the fabric of our society. We have regressed 100 years. What’s also worrying are all these reports that Israel is planning a big military operation. This is like shooting someone who is already dead.”
The World Bank estimates that unemployment in Gaza could be as high as 40 percent, while the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 45 percent of Gazans are living below the poverty line.
On Saturday, Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat announced that the Palestinians’ gross domestic product was projected to drop 28 percent in 2006 to $2.9 billion, from $4.04 billion in 2005.
Liz Sime, the director for Gaza and the West Bank for the international relief organization CARE, describes the situation as “dire.”
“The levels of violence in Gaza are fueled not just by politics, but also bleakness of the economic situation,” she said.
“We work with around 500 to 600 families directly on what we call ‘food security’ programs, helping people with access to some land to find alternative livelihoods. … Time and again, the land is destroyed by missile attacks or tanks. If they manage to get the produce out, it rots at the Karni crossing point — or sits in the market because no one’s got any money to buy things.
“We are increasingly doing direct assistance simply to keep food in mouths,” Sime said.
When Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza last year, leaving Palestinians in control of the Gaza Strip, Israeli leaders warned that they would re-invade if the area became a staging post for continued cross-border attacks.
Since then, Palestinian militants from Hamas, Fatah and various smaller factions have bombarded nearby Israeli territory with daily rocket attacks, made regular attempts to smuggle explosives and suicide bombers into Israel, and excavated dozens of tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle guns, rockets and other weaponry into the strip.
For Israel, the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid on June 25 was the final straw. Since then, Israeli troops and tanks have been operating almost nonstop inside Gaza, targeting known militants, destroying weapons caches and exposing smuggling tunnels. Last week alone, Israeli troops discovered and sealed 13 tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.
Last Sunday, Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians in a raid on Beit Hanoun and also seized more than 10 pounds of weapons-grade TNT being smuggled through Karni, the main crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip for food and other produce.
Israeli officials say they want to keep Karni — which serves as a lifeline for the Palestinian economy — open, but incidents like the one last week present a real dilemma.
“This attempt is one of many made by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip to exploit the Karni crossing, the lifeline of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in order to promote terror attacks within Israel and against Israeli civilians,” an Israeli army spokeswoman said.
The Israeli government is under pressure from residents of the towns being besieged by Palestinian rockets to stop the attacks on Israeli civilians by mounting a full-scale invasion of Gaza. But such military action has proved ineffective in the past. Previous Israeli raids and assassinations of militant leaders, while failing to end the barrages, increased anti-Israel feelings among ordinary Palestinians.
“There is no plan to conquer the Gaza Strip, and there is no plan to remain in the strip. The activities are aimed at providing an answer to the immediate threats and the strengthening process taking place here,” Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said during a tour of the border area Tuesday.
With no political solution or economic respite in sight to resolve Palestinian woes, thousands of heavily armed fighters put Gaza at risk of a violent explosion engulfing the entire strip.
Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli army officer who is now a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Gaza was “on the brink of civil war.”
“In the aftermath of the breakdown of talks, both sides are now preparing for a decisive showdown,” Brom said. “Accelerated arms smuggling through the tunnels along the border with Egypt is not just part of preparations for a confrontation with Israel; it also reflects the determination of the various militias to be better prepared for the expected internal clash.”
A Violent Week
Some of the major clashes in the Gaza Strip just before and during last week’s Eid al-Fitr holiday, involving both Israeli-Palestinian confrontations and intra-Palestinian fighting between the rival Fatah and Hamas parties:
Saturday, Oct. 21
— Palestinians fire four Kassam rockets from Gaza at Sderot and Ashkelon inside Israel
— Israeli forces uncover tunnels near Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah
— Israeli missiles destroy a house concealing a tunnel entrance in Rafah
— Palestinians fire an anti-tank missile at Israeli forces
— Egyptian forces intercept a large arms shipment headed for Gaza
— Fatah militiamen fire weapons into the air and blockade roads in salary protests
Sunday, Oct. 22
— Palestinian security forces continue protests in Gaza City
— Hamas man is stabbed and a Fatah militia commander is shot dead in Fatah-Hamas clashes
— Seven Palestinian militiamen are killed in an Israeli strike in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip
— Israel intercepts about 13 pounds of weapons-grade TNT being smuggled through the Karni crossing
— Two Kassam rockets hit Sderot
— Israeli air strike destroys two Kassam rocket launchers in northern Gaza
— Islamic Jihad gunmen open fire at Israeli soldiers near Rafah
— Israeli forces leave the Gaza-Egypt border after discovering and sealing 15 smuggling tunnels in a six-day operation
— Palestinians fire rockets at Sderot and at Erez border crossing
— A firefight follows a Fatah bomb attack on an Israeli convoy near the Gaza-Egypt border
— Israel closes the Egypt-Gaza terminal crossing at Rafah
— Israeli troops kill two men and capture another in Abassan, east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza
— Israeli troops kill one Palestinian in a raid on Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza
— Islamic Jihad militiamen fire three mortar shells at Erez border crossing
— Popular Resistance Committee militants fire missiles at Israeli forces at Sufa crossing
— Hamas militants fire missiles at Israeli armored vehicles in Abassan
— Fatah militant assassinated in Khan Younis by Palestinian gunmen
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.