Fracture Lines Are Political, Cultural, Economic
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 10, 2007; A01
GAZA CITY -- Ali Hussein is making money, quite a bit of it, which places the low-key sales manager in a small minority in this economically depleted city.
The company he works for is the sole provider of videoconferencing equipment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the separate parts of an elusive Palestinian state whose connections today run mostly through broadband and cellphones. More than 100 clients, including universities, trade associations and government ministries, have turned to him for links to the classrooms, offices and committee rooms in the West Bank that they can no longer visit.
"These two places should be one," Hussein said. "In the meantime, there's us."
Since withdrawing from Gaza a year and a half ago, the Israeli government has severed this coastal strip from the West Bank. The Palestinians have fractured politically at the same time. Many Gazans have embraced Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that won national elections in January 2006, while the West Bank has remained more loyal to the once-dominant Fatah party.
The ensuing power struggle has battered Gaza as Palestinians in the two territories have veered further apart, making the emergence of a viable state even more difficult.
Long the poor provincial cousin of the West Bank, Gaza has been further impoverished in the past year by Israeli border restrictions and an international aid embargo. Unemployment and poverty rates have jumped sharply in the strip, a largely resourceless 140-square-mile stretch of sand dunes, warrens of gray tenements and roads cratered by Israeli artillery shells and neglect. Eight in 10 of Gaza's 1.4 million residents now rely to some extent on U.N. food aid.
The West Bank, whose roughly 2.5 million Palestinian residents have long enjoyed greater freedom to work, study and travel abroad, has also slid, but not nearly as dramatically.
Nearly 500,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel fled to the West Bank and Gaza during the 1948-49 war that accompanied the nation's founding. Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and began building a network of Jewish settlements inside them. Israel placed few restrictions on Palestinian travel between the two regions, whose distinct politics, culture and economies grew closer.
In signing the 1993 Oslo accords, Israel pledged to treat the West Bank and Gaza as "a single territorial unit" and guaranteed "safe passage" for Palestinians traveling between them. The arrangement functioned sporadically before collapsing after the second Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.
Israel withdrew from its settlements in Gaza in September 2005, in part to establish a southern border that was simpler for its military to defend. In a deal brokered by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israel agreed to begin bus convoys between the West Bank and the strip by December 2005, but the agreement was never implemented because of Israeli security concerns.
Shin Bet, Israel's security service, reported that Palestinians fired 1,726 crude rockets from Gaza last year -- more than four times as many as in 2005. Two Israelis were killed and 163 wounded in the attacks, which persist today despite several intensive Israeli military forays into the strip last year that killed nearly 400 Palestinians.
"I am not one of those who say there are two Palestinian peoples, but there are two mentalities, two geographies, two economies, that make the places different," said Shin Bet's director, Yuval Diskin. "We have very strong security interests in not allowing strong ties between Gaza and the West Bank. If you open channels between the areas, you will see an increase in terror in the West Bank."
Since leaving Gaza, Israel has maintained control over the crossings into Israel, the strip's airspace and coastal waters, and the population registry used to assign Palestinian identity cards and travel documents. The West Bank remains a closed military zone, which Gaza residents have been denied permission to enter since Hamas's election.
West Bank residents must also secure permission to visit Gaza, which Israel is no longer granting. They can enter Gaza through Egypt, but Israeli officials say only several hundred West Bank residents visit Gaza each year, down from the thousands who once did.
Palestinian officials say the growing separation is designed to prevent an economically sustainable state from emerging in Gaza and the West Bank.
"This is clearly Israel's intent," said Mohammed Dahlan, a powerful Fatah lawmaker from Gaza who has negotiated with Israel over the years. "It's not just a question of besieging Gaza, but of separating it from the rest of the world."
During factional fighting over the past year that killed more than 100 Palestinians in Gaza, Dahlan rallied his armed supporters against Hamas's militia, making clear that his goal was to challenge the Islamic movement for control of the strip. But the better-trained Hamas gunmen beat Fatah's more numerous ones, in the assessment of Israeli security officials and the Islamic movement.
"We are able to say that Fatah's effort to erode our government has ended," said Mushir al-Masri, 30, a Hamas lawmaker from northern Gaza.
Gaza has emerged as the seat of Palestinian political authority since the victory of Hamas. During its nearly one year in power, the movement has imprinted its uncompromising vision of Islam on the government at a time when foreign donors, who cut off aid following its election, are demanding that it renounce its founding charter and recognize Israel.
Dahlan, who wields great influence in the Fatah-controlled security services he helped build more than a decade ago, has been recruiting, training and arming fresh forces since the two parties agreed last month in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to stop fighting and form a power-sharing government.
"Hamas is living as if Gaza is the most important geographical unit in Palestine -- its own kingdom of Gaza," said Dahlan, 45, who grew up in the central Gaza city of Khan Younis. "To me, the West Bank and Gaza are the two lungs of Palestine. We cannot live without one of them."
Apart from some reprisal kidnappings and vandalism by Fatah in the West Bank, the factional fighting has remained rooted in Gaza. Israeli security officials say Hamas's battlefield strength gave it the upper hand in the Mecca negotiations. Although it ceded control of some important ministries, the Islamic movement has refused to soften its stance toward Israel, as Fatah officials have demanded.
"The Israelis are trying to create a split reality on the ground," said Ahmed Bahar, 58, a Hamas founder who is now the deputy speaker of parliament.
On the walls of Bahar's office hang posters of Aziz Duwaik, the Hamas speaker of the Palestinian parliament who is one of 38 West Bank lawmakers in Israeli prisons. Nearly all of them are Hamas members, arrested for belonging to an illegal organization, and their imprisonment has concentrated power in the hands of their Gaza counterparts.
In a meeting hall one recent morning, four Gaza lawmakers chatted with four legislators from the West Bank by videoconference -- the weekly meeting of parliament's economics committee. "I can assure you we are one geography and one people," Bahar said. "With one culture and one enemy."
Many in the West Bank have viewed the fighting here in Gaza with disdain. Gaza residents such as Amr Hamad, the vice secretary general of the Palestinian Federation of Industries who returned five years ago from a U.N. post in Milan, say it is a sign of growing differences.
"We are becoming more aggressive as a people here," said Hamad, 33, whose wife's family lives in the West Bank. "At least Gaza has the beach, which could one day generate tourism. But first we need a change in mentality here. People still think women must walk around covered, and that is getting stronger. The only solution is to let people get out and communicate with other societies."
While overall Palestinian unemployment is at roughly 26 percent, nearly half of Gaza's population is without work. Those who have jobs with the practically bankrupt Palestinian government -- a far higher percentage of Gaza's workforce than the West Bank's -- have not received a full salary in a year.
About 5,000 Gazans had relatively lucrative jobs in Israel on the eve of its departure from the strip. That number has been cut to almost zero since Hamas took power, while 40,100 West Bank residents have permits to work in Israel's restaurants, vegetable fields and construction sites.
Gaza's export industries have also lost a higher proportion of jobs than the West Bank, because of Israel's frequent closure of the cargo crossing at Karni, which last year was shut entirely or partially for 129 days. Palestinian trade officials say 40 Gaza export businesses, mostly in the garment and furniture sectors, have folded since Israel's withdrawal.
The plummeting incomes in Gaza have increased pressure on Palestinian officials to break the 13-year-old customs agreement that binds their two territories in a single economy.
"Every piece of literature on how to fight terrorism mentions improving the economy," said Samir Hulileh, a former Palestinian negotiator who heads the Ramallah office of the Portland Trust, an economic development program funded by a private British foundation. "And Israel is doing the opposite."
In its 2006 annual report, Shin Bet noted that "terrorist infrastructures" in the West Bank "were increasingly guided and directed by elements in the Gaza Strip," citing the transfer of money, operational advice and "know-how on upgrading war materiel production, including rockets."
Diskin, Shin Bet's director, said Hamas has sent "tens" of its Gaza members to Iran for military training, with the "promise of hundreds" more. He said the training poses a grave threat to Israel because it can be shared across the territories.
Mahmoud and Ahmed Melow al-Ein are the oldest of five brothers raised in a neighborhood of concrete-block apartment buildings where on a recent afternoon, girls played in the streets in the head-to-toe cloaks favored by pious Muslim women.
Mahmoud, a 33-year-old construction contractor with bright eyes and retreating hair, still sleeps in their boyhood house in Rafah within sight of the Israeli-built wall marking the Egyptian border. Ahmed, 31, a policeman with a fleshy face and a head of gray stubble, lives in the West Bank town of Katana, in the shadow of Israel's separation barrier.
Prohibited from traveling between the regions, they have not seen each other in more than six years.
"We blame the Israelis, and the Israelis blame our uprising," said Mahmoud, who worked in Tel Aviv hotels before losing his work permit when Israel left Gaza. Over the years, the brothers, who once shared a room and long afternoons of soccer on the nearby beach, have missed each other's weddings and the births of their children. When their father died in 2002, Ahmed was absent from the funeral procession.
"The political situation exists now with no solution," Mahmoud said. "They will never be one state."
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