Gianni Carta, in Gaza
Palestine: This State does not exist
Talal, a robust man in his early forties smiles with a comprehensible disdain when I speak of the peace process between Palestine and Israel restarted in July by the Secretary of State John Kerry. We are in Balata, the largest refugee camp in northern West Bank, on the outskirts of Nablus. In the modest living room, sitting on worn leather sofas are his two brothers, the veiled mother and the translator.
We are having tea surrounded by photos and posters of Talal’s five brothers killed during the Second Intifada (uprising against Israel) from 2000 to 2005. They are all considered "Martyrs" by the Palestinians. Talal had ten brothers. He and the five surviving ones spent years in prison. A bricklayer, Talal’s left arm is immobilized as it was hit by multiple gunshots before he was captured by Israeli soldiers. He spent nine years behind bars. As Talal, the other surviving brothers have physical disabilities and all are unemployed. They do small jobs here and there in a refugee camp where about 50% of residents are unemployed. Eighteen people live in the house with one bedroom and a living room. "You want to know what I think of the peace process or ‘the Two-state solution,’ as they like to call it?" "It's a bad joke." Talal concludes: "You want to know what I think of the Israelis? They stole our land and today we are refugees.”
Around 30,000 souls live in Balata’s one-square kilometer. The houses, several of them with posters of martyrs stamped on their walls, seem stacked on each other. Children play soccer in narrow alley ways. Israeli soldiers, in the region to protect Israeli settlers, often make visits to arrest car thieves, illegal arms dealers and drug traffickers. Meanwhile, the situation is no better in other West Bank refugee camps, where arrests and deaths of residents are frequent. And the fact that the United Nations has made drastic cuts complicates the picture for Palestinians.
However, in Balata there seems to be hope thanks to the work of some enlightened people. One of them is called Abdullah Kharoub, the public relations at the Yafa Cultural Center. Founded in 1996, the center depends on foreign aid. People from all over the world volunteer for a while, and then go on to receive salaries. "Our main objective is to show that the Palestinians are not a band of terrorists, they are normal people and want to live as anyone, "says Kharoub, who is an academic specializing in jurisprudence and international law. The center offers, among other activities, debates, courses of Arabic and English, music, computer and drama. Psychologists are available for mothers and children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The center wants to give a north to these children who one day will – perhaps – be citizens of a national state.
On the way to Ramallah, West Bank’s capital, I ask myself: but what is the fate of this stateless people? John Kerry, who used to be a frequent guest at the palace of Bashar al-Assad not long ago decided to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He believes he can achieve his goal in nine months. Nine months? The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it is worth recalling, has been failing for the last 22 years. It had ceased three years ago. Even under the new negotiations, the Israeli Premier Benjamin Natanyahu encourages Israelis to continue expanding and erecting and new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This Israeli colonization, which is illegal under international law, is condemned by the so-called international community that does nothing to actually stop it. For his part, Kerry says the important thing is to continue to negotiate with or without settlements.
The most pressing issues are: one, establishing a Palestinian state on the lands annexed by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War; two, the future of the settlements; three, the issue of refugees who had to leave their land in the 1948 war when Israel was created; four, the status of Jerusalem. Netanyahu knows the increasing and expanding settlements are a price he must pay for freeing 104 Palestinians serving jail terms in nine months, according to the new program of negotiations. Otherwise his fragile coalition, which includes numerous politicians favorable to further colonization (and not to indulge in any of the above-mentioned issues) would implode.
The continued colonization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank weakens Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The reason? For two years Abbas stressed that he would not negotiate with Netanyahu if he did not cease all settlement activities. Recently Abbas said that several issues are being discussed and that the peace process is not dead, as some claim. For his part, Gaza Strips’ Premier Ismail Haniyeh is calling the PA to cease peace negotiations with Israel. He invites all Palestinians to prepare for a third Intifada. According to Haniyeh, Netanyahu is involved in these negotiations only to "improve his country’s image” in the Middle East. When he became premier in the election of 2006, Haniyeh, a senior political leader of the Islamist political party Hamas, and Abbas, who presides the secular political party Fatah, went separate ways. A civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah, which was expelled from Gaza. Nowadays Haniyeh, who does not recognize the Palestinian Authority, is Gaza’s leader. Still, in the new insurrection suggested by Haniyeh, the premier wants Hamas to join forces with Fatah, which controls the West Bank.
To many observers, Haniyeh wants to hold new elections in Palestine, including Gaza and the West Bank, because Hamas is isolated. According to media reports, Hamas was apparently supporting the opposition fighting against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian leader is defended by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political movement with a paramilitary wing funded by Iran. Therefore, Hamas, which also has a military wing (just as Fatah) went against its allies, mainly Iran. Hamas has also lost the precious alliance with former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, who was overthrown in July by the military. The new regime in Cairo destroyed more than one thousand tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that were sources for taxes levied by the Hamas government on commodities traded. Furthermore, the Egyptian government closed the Rafah Crossing, the only option for Palestinians to leave Gaza, as opposed to the almost impenetrable Erez Crossing, on the Israeli side. In any case, Abbas has not taken into account Haniyeh’s insurrection proposal.
In Ramallah, the political scientist Nadia Abu Zaher, who works in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Parliament that does not function since the 2007 conflict between Hamas and Fatah, says: "I do not believe in the relationship between leaders of Fatah and Hamas." She goes on to say that, "Fatah does not want to hand of its power in the West Bank and Hamas will want to retain control over Gaza. Moreover, Hamas is a religious party and the other one is secular.
Magid Shihade, a professor of international relations at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and currently a fellow at University of California at Davis, agrees with Abu Zaher that Hamas and Fatah will not unite. Shihade seems even more skeptical about the real intentions of Israel in the peace negotiations. The author of Not Just a Soccer Game: Colonialism and Conflict among Palestinians and Israel (Syracuse University Press, 2011, 175 pages, $26.96) says: “The Israeli state is a Jewish supremacist racial settler colonial state that aims at making the Jews the dominant group by its very nature.” He goes on to say that because “Israel is a self-declared Jewish state for the Jewish people wherever they live” it has “an interest and rationale to marginalize non-Jews (Palestinians).” Successive Israeli governments do that by displacing the Palestinians whenever possible, “as they did with the millions of refugees, and keep them as under class citizens/subjects, and always feeling uncertain about their future.”
At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dan Avnon does not perceive the settlements as an obstacle for the peace process. The political scientist believes there will be land swaps and some settlements will be dismantled. The academic also advances some theories to explain why Kerry restarted the negotiations. "The changes in terms of nuclear politics in Iran may have led Israel to judge the moment propitious to negotiate with Palestine.” Besides, Netanyahu, continues Avnon, may be really considering that is time to "reposition Israel towards Palestine.” In this context, Netanyahu seems eager to follow Kerry’s peace program.
For Ghazi Hamad, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Gaza, "the United States just wants to show it is moving.” The peace negotiations, he adds, “are only about crisis management.” The deputy Foreign Minister says: “Look, I’m 48, my parents were born in Tel Aviv, and I live as a refugee.” He adds that he wants to go back to his land, “that one of 1948. We must not give up.” Gaza, Hamad says, “is the biggest prison in the world.” I ask him if an armed struggle is the only solution. “Wars are not prohibited against invaders." But could Hamas join Fatah in case of an insurrection against Israel? "Of course they could engage in an insurrection together." For the moment, individual attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers have increased in the last year in the West Bank. These individual attacks encourage more attacks and have the potential of becoming a mass movement. Even so, who can guarantee that the two Palestinian parties would unite again?
Mahmoud al-Zahar also argues that the only solution to deal with Israel is via an armed struggle. "We started negotiating in 1991 in Madrid, but a peace process never existed. Instead, all we have seen is support for the Israeli occupation, "says the former foreign minister and one of the founders of Hamas. Rumor has it that Al-Zahar is the leader of Hamas, but for security reasons he is called the group’s spokesperson and a senior official. There is every reason to believe, however, that this medical doctor who has been attacked by the Israelis is in fact Hamas’ leader. In one of the attacks, his son Khaled and a security guard were killed when an Israeli F16 dropped a bomb on his house.
Al-Zahar, who is 68, is considered a terrorist by Israeli forces. His other son, whose poster is hanging beside his chair, was killed during an armed confrontation. I ask Al-Zahar in the stately living room of his home where several armchairs suggest that it is the center of large meetings, if the movement now would not be isolated without the support of Egypt , Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and even Lebanon. “This is pure media invention," retorts Al-Zahar. "We do not interfere in any way in any of those countries. Our only goal is to defend Gaza."
Whatever the case, Gaza was certainly affected by the regime change in Egypt. This fact is not even denied by the Minister of Economy, Ala al-Rafati . "With the destruction of tunnels to Egypt our economy loses about 230 million dollars per month, or one-tenth of our GDP," he tells me. The unemployment is in the range of 40%. Israel has imposed restrictions in exports such as cement and steel, therefore the construction industry that went from strength to strength is suffering. The scarcity of fuel makes transportation more expensive, and therefore prices are rising.
At the seaport of Gaza City there are few fishermen. Due to lack of fuel boats can hardly reach 3 nautical miles to catch larger fish. Before they had 12 miles, but Israel took care to brutally shrink the nautical mileage. "Today we could only catch a few sardines," says a fisherman. In those few kilometers of Mediterranean coast, the decrepit Gaza looks beautiful. In the middle of the port lies a monument to honor nine Turkish citizens that were bringing supplies to Gaza and were killed by Israeli commandos. The Turkish activists were onboard the ship Mavi Marmara, which in May 2010 was part of a flotilla that attempted to break an Israeli naval blockade over Gaza. The monument occupies a central position in the small port. Turkish flags next to Palestinian flags flutter with the slight breeze.
The translator Hussem gets his mobile and calls the Premier Ismail Haniyeh. "Will he receive us for an interview?" Haniyeh: "Foreign journalists distort everything I say." Hussem: "But this one is honest." Haniyeh: "They all say they are honest. But tell him to come shake my hand near Beach Camp (a refugee camp), where I will be playing soccer." Minutes later, I see an elegant man with white hair walking in my direction on a soccer field. He says in English: "My connection with Brazil is football and we meet on a football field." No, he does not want to talk politics. "Let's talk about Pelé and Ronaldo." In which position does he play? "I'm midfielder.” Is he any good? “Yes, I play well. Stay here and watch me play.”