“People are only living because they are not dying. If death was nicer, we’d go for it.”
Eight months after last summer’s war between Israel and Palestinian militant groups, Gaza remains in ruins. Drive five minutes into the territory from the crossing point in southwestern Israel and you reach Beit Hanoun, one of the areas hit most severely by land and air during the conflict. Bright blue sky spreads over buildings with big bites taken out of them.
Half-eaten bedrooms and kitchens yawn open to reveal tangled wires, broken rock, and household goods: a slipper, a pack of sanitary pads, a ripped-up schoolbook. People peek over mounds of rubble from tents behind their former homes, like aliens come to settle an abandoned planet.
In Gaza City, the flags and slogans of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that governs Gaza, cover the street corners: “Resist, O Palestinian people, your perseverance is our only hope for freedom.”
Driving through the city, you see murals of doves and children holding hands, UNRWA cartoons about saving water and picking up trash, and then a stick figure blowing up an Israeli tank. Across the street, someone has scrawled a Star of David on a garbage bin.
But ask what people are doing, and they say, “Sitting. Waiting.” Hamas’s rhetoric is all about resistance, but most people I met in Gaza were not so much defiant as desolate, not so much resisting as resigned. Those who survived last summer’s war are trapped in 360 square kilometers of trauma and contradiction, choking on war and blockade, disillusioned with the Palestinian leadership and disempowered by the aid community. They sit without jobs, relief, or means of rebuilding, waiting for things to change.
“Gaza is hell,” 20-year-old Ahmad told me in Shejaiya, one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in Gaza City. He and his 19-year-old brother were picking over the leftovers of their home. Sometimes they sell salvaged iron and rubble for recycling; other days they search for their old photos, papers, and clothes. “Gazans have Israel on one side, Hamas on the other, and here we are just eating shit,” he said. “People are only living because they are not dying. If death was nicer, we’d go for it.”
Gaza, which was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 2005, when Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from the territory unilaterally, has been overseen by Hamas since the organization defeated the PLO-affiliated Fatah party in Palestinian elections in 2006. Fighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah the following year, leaving Hamas running Gaza and Fatah running the West Bank.
Israel responded by imposing a blockade on Gaza to deter Palestinian rocket attacks and other militant activity against Israeli civilians—forbidding all access by air and sea, controlling physical movement through its crossings, and placing restrictions on access to commercial goods as well basic supplies like fuel, electricity, food, and medicine.
Israel has also launched three military operations in Gaza since the Hamas takeover, with the latest leaving 2,131 Palestinians and 71 Israelis dead. Almost 70 percent of the slain Palestinians were civilians, including at least 501 children.
“I don’t support any political party. But when Israel is killing us, Hamas is like our special ops. They’re the only ones doing anything to defend us,” a 21-year-old nursing student at the Islamic University in Gaza City told me.
Another college student said she’d lost faith in politics, but would vote for Hamas if an election were held now. Palestinian politicians are corrupt, she said, but she’d rather support Hamas than forego resistance altogether: “We know that if we stopped, Israel would wipe us all out. We are being crushed and crushed and crushed and crushed. So it’s either die for your cause or compromise, but you’ll be killed one way or another.”
Last June, Fatah, Hamas, and other factions formed a unity government, promising to hold presidential and parliamentary elections within six months. But then the war broke out. The window for elections has passed and the politicians are split over several issues. Some are ideological: Hamas advocates militant resistance to Israel while the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank prefers negotiation.
Others are bureaucratic, bordering on absurd. For example, some 70,000 PA employees in Gaza were ordered to stop working when Hamas came to power in 2007. Forty thousand of them still receive monthly salaries from Ramallah, the PA’s headquarters in the West Bank, even though they’re not working. Meanwhile, the 40,000 civil servants and security forces that Hamas has employed as replacements have been working for a year without salaries.
Hamas wants the Palestinian Authority to pay these salaries but the PA has refused, arguing that many of Hamas’s employees are unqualified for their positions. Meanwhile, Ramallah imposes high taxes on Gaza’s fuel, imported to run the territory’s half-destroyed power plant, and uses some of that revenue to pay its employees in Gaza.
These employees, in turn, sit at home in the dark, forbidden from working but also without electricity because the high cost and scarcity of fuel has choked Gaza’s energy supplies.
Across the Gaza Strip, I heard one word over and over: naseeb—Arabic for fate or destiny, one’s lot in life as determined by God.
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