Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Return to Gaza
The sweat trickled down my back. I was pulling a cart full of television gear and flak jackets, had a heavy rucksack with my laptop and a jumble of cables on my back, and a camera and two helmets in my free hand. Most of the sweat came from the intense heat, the clinging humidity and the exertion, but part of it from a tinge of tension. We were passing through the Erez crossing, from Israel in to Gaza.
I hadn't been there since January. The kidnapping of the BBC's Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston on 12 March had made the strip a no-go zone. That had kept us away, plus the vicious rounds of factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah, during which it was virtually impossible to report from Gaza in a meaningful way.
But Hamas' stunning victory in the final round of fighting, which ended on 15 June, had changed everything. Fatah had been roundly defeated, and my sources in Gaza told me we could return.
On the Israeli side of the crossing we had a bit of a wait, for reasons that weren't altogether clear—they rarely are. The scene once we passed through the final gate, remotely controlled by Israeli border security, was surreal.
Around a hundred people—mostly young men with a smattering of women and children, were huddled by the sides of the concrete corridor. There was a strong stench of sweat, urine, human excrement and rotting garbage. The people were mostly members of the defeated Fatah security services and their families, desperate to get out of Gaza.
When CNN Jerusalem cameraman Adil Bradlow raised his camera to capture the scene, many of the young men shouted for him not to film. Others covered their heads. But a few did speak with us, and let us film them, and told us Hamas was rounding up Fatah members and executing them.
Bilal Jaradan, a man in his late twenties, had served in Force 17, a Fatah security body. "Tell Abu Mazin (the nom de guerre of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), to help us, to pay attention to us, to take care of us. We’re stuck here. We can’t go back because of Hamas, and if we go any closer to the Israeli gate, they'll shoot us." He had been in the passageway for six days, kept alive by food and water provided by the Israelis.
A bit further on, I met Khitam Ahmed, a young woman with three children, including a four-month-old baby who had a sickly, pale face and a strange, fixed stare. Her husband was also with Force 17, from the southern Gaza town of Rafah. She didn't know where he was, however, didn't have any contact with anyone, and like Bilal, begged me to get a message to Mahmoud Abbas to help them leave.
As I was speaking with Khitam, a crowd of boys, ranging between 9 and maybe 15 years old, began to gather around us. They asked the usual questions - "what network are you from?" "Where are you from?" "What is your name?"
I tried to ignore them, but they were oddly giddy. I asked one where he was from, and he said Beit Hanoun, a village on the border with Israel near the crossing.
As we left the stranded Fatah refugees behind and headed down the passageway, the boys tagged along with us. They were sticking close to us, and suddenly I saw that they were probing our defences, trying to open the zippers of my backpack, reaching for our mobile phones.
The usual Palestinian security forces that manned the crossing had abandoned their posts. Authority, law and order, had disappeared. I heard a loud banging of metal on metal. I looked overhead. A young man was trying to remove the metal beams that had held a plastic tarpon in place. Looters. Others had banged their way through the cement floor and were trying to pull up electric cables.
I was reminded of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. All semblance of authority had vanished. Everything was for the taking. Kids who normally would be kept in line by adults were free to steal whatever they liked. And the young looters saw the moment of chaos as a chance to profit.
Erez is a mess, I thought. How will the rest of Gaza be?
Once we passed through the first checkpoint manned by Hamas gunmen, the atmosphere changed. There was order. And the deeper we went into Gaza City, I was struck by how calm the place was. There weren’t as many cars and people about as usual, but I could hear no gunfire, and some stores were open.
After dropping off the gear at our office, our first stop was the Saraya, the old security headquarters for Gaza built by the Israelis after 1967, taken over by Fatah-dominated Palestinian security forces in 1994, and captured by Hamas during the fighting. When we entered, I saw a man in uniform tinkering with the engine of an armoured personnel carrier. This was just a fraction of the mountain of weaponry, equipment and ammunition captured by Hamas.
Inside, we met briefly with Islam Shahwan, one of the leaders of Hamas' Executive Force. He was in a buoyant mood. "You’re welcome," he told me. "You are free to do whatever you like."
"And what about Alan Johnston, will he soon be released?" I asked.
"Any day now," he replied, his buoyancy evaporating. "We are working hard to win his freedom."
Alan, who I’ve known since he moved to Gaza three years ago, is believed to be held by the Daghmoush family, a powerful Gaza clan notorious for its criminal activities. Hamas has issued a string of deadlines for Alan to be released. So far, all those deadlines have passed.
Sources tell me the Daghmoush want guarantees that, if they release Alan, they will not be harmed. Hamas has promised not to punish them, but they don’t trust Hamas, and so continue to hold on to Alan.
Next we passed by the villa of Mohamed Dahlan, once Fatah's Gaza strongman, now residing in Ramallah on the West Bank. Dahlan was Hamas' arch-enemy, a man who, when he headed Palestinian Preventative Security, had mercilessly cracked down on Hamas during the 1990s, and was believed to be the point man in Fatah's attempt to scuttle the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
The villa's was a shambles. Doors and windows had been stripped, wiring yanked out from the walls. Everything that could be carried away was long gone. Three teenage boys were busy loading up a donkey cart with the marble flooring. Nothing better symbolised the utter humiliation of the men who were once the ruthless masters of Gaza.
What happened here is a revolution. For the first time in modern Arab history, a militant, revolutionary, Islamic movement has successfully and decisively overthrown the established Arab order. It was made possible by a variety of factors, including direct and indirect assistance from Syria and Iran, and by a single-minded determination to crush Fatah.
But the victory wouldn't have been possible if Fatah hadn't done such a miserable job of managing the affairs of Gaza in particular and the Palestinians in general over the years.
When the leadership of Fatah returned to Gaza and the West Bank after decades in exile following the Oslo Accords in 1993, they seemed more determined to profit from the new era than create a viable Palestinian entity.
Their rule was characterised by blatant corruption, mismanagement, heavy-handed oppression and nepotism—all the ills that have plagued the modern Arab world. They're the same ills that the Islamic movement—whether it be the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan or Hezbollah in Lebanon—has been able to capitalise on. Hamas proved its political power and popularity when it trounced Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. And it has matched its political prowess with military might by crushing Fatah this month, even though Fatah outmanned and outgunned Hamas.
But Fatah's security force—charged with protecting the established order—simply didn’t have the conviction or the will to stand their ground and fight.
Most of Fatah's leadership in Gaza had long ago fled to the relative safety of the West Bank, leaving junior officers and their men to face a foe that believes God is on its side. Not surprisingly, almost every regime in the Arab world is terrified by what happened in Gaza, and is scrambling to do whatever they can to shore up the bruised and battered leadership of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. They see themselves in Mahmoud Abbas, and know that the forces that bolster them could, if faced by a determined, focused, well-organised, and well-armed Islamic opposition, crumble just as easily.
That's the big picture. For many Gazans, the return of order is a positive change, or at least a relief after more than a year of sporadic and intensifying factional fighting.
“It's better now,” Ahmed, an old friend, told me. “The fighting has stopped. We feel much safer. The problem is no one knows what will happen next. We don’t know if Israel will allow food in. We don’t know if Israel will continue to provide petrol or electricity. Today things are fine. But tomorrow? We just don’t know.”
And that seems to be the worry of most people in Gaza. The future only gets foggier. It’s a tiny, overcrowded patch land that always seems to be going somewhere, but never arriving. One period of uncertainty is followed by another, and another and another.
From Ben Wedeman, CNN Jerusalem Correspondent
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