Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Gazan Scholar's Analysis of Post-Flotilla Politics

I recently interviewed a prominent Gazan professor and political analyst named Dr. Mkhaimar Abusala (pictured above at the Gaza harbor) for a Global Post article about Hamas' raids and closures of six nongovernmental organizations last week.

Dr. Abusala has been busy these days giving interview after interview, in both Arabic and English, with the flocks of reporters who’ve come to Gaza in the wake of the flotilla tragedy. He begins most conversations with foreign journalists by inquiring about their backgrounds and experiences. Where did they grow up? Why did they choose a journalism career? What are their impressions of Gaza? Have they had any troubles with the Hamas authorities? He speaks in a measured, academically curious tone imbued with warm hospitality that is deeply ingrained in Palestinian culture.

Like me, Dr. Abusala lives in Gaza's lovely seaside neighborhood and enjoys privileges not accesible to most Gazan civilians. While most of the 1.5 million people here are trapped inside this tiny strip of land as a result of Israeli and Egyptian travel prohibitions, Dr. Abusala is among an elite few who can go through Israel to attend academic conferences abroad. This year, he presented academic papers in Berlin and Athens.

As often happens in Gaza, the interview with Dr. Abusala was arranged on the fly. I had met him on previous occasions, and called him on the afternoon of Monday, June 7 to see if he’d be available within the next few days. “A few days?” he joked, “How about in 30 minutes!”

We met for about an hour at the quaint Al-Deira Hotel, which overlooks the harbor, and spoke not just about the Hamas raids, but about other aspects of Gazan politics. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.

The flotilla tragedy has brought international attention to the three-year blockade of Gaza. Overall, do you believe the blockade helps or hurts Hamas?

The aim of Israel and the international community was to weaken Hamas, or squeeze Hamas, and put more pressure on Hamas to moderate its views with regard to Israel. Unfortunately, the blockade benefits Hamas in two ways. First, Hamas was able to become much more popular in the Arab and Muslim world as a result of the siege and blockade. Second, Hamas benefitted a lot from turning the Palestinian economy from a formal economy into a black market economy where Hamas is in control of the smuggling tunnel business between Gaza and Egypt.

Pictures and video have been released of the flotilla activists beating Israeli soldiers, presumably before any shots were fired. How do you think people in Gaza view this controversy?

Well, I have to say that these video shots were not seen by most Gazans because most Gazans watch Al-Jazeera and other Arab networks which do not really show this stuff. But even though it’s very obvious that some of the Israeli commandos were grabbed by the Freedom Flotilla participants, or attacked by them, Palestinians believe that Israel has no right to keep its siege and blockade of the Gaza Strip and has no right to obstruct these ships. They view Israel as a country that sees itself as above the law and that takes the law into its own hands.

It seems likely that more flotillas will try to break though the blockade. If Israel let an aid boat pass in exchange for a Red Cross visit to Gilad Shalit, do you think Hamas could be convinced to accept this offer?

Hamas has already said no. They’ll never let the International Red Cross visit Gilad Shalit because they are convinced that Israel will be able to know where Shalit is being hidden. They think Israel may even bomb the place where Shalit is hidden and kill Shalit along with those who kidnapped him. Hamas thinks the Red Cross visit proposal is a trap. It’s not going to happen.

Do you think the flotilla tragedy will make it more difficult for Hamas to maintain the undeclared ceasefire and obstruct violent actions against Israel?

The Freedom Flotilla incident took place against Turkish citizens and the level of international condemnation is satisfying Palestinian public opinion. It seems to me that Israel is in a diplomatic crisis with countries all over the world, so I don’t think that Palestinians are going to retaliate by launching missiles or using violent resistance against Israel. It seems to me that resistance groups in Gaza know what to do—they know that launching missiles would give Israel a pretext to launch new attacks on the Gaza Strip and shift international focus onto Palestinian violence.

But Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade [the armed wing of Fatah] both launched attacks this week. Islamic Jihad launched missiles into Israel and, as I understand, the armed militants shot in the water off the Gaza coast this morning came from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade….

Islamic Jihad has never stopped firing missiles against Israel. They’ve always vowed to fight against the Israeli occupation. They are not even part of the Palestinian political process. They refuse to even run for elections since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. There is nothing new about Islamic Jihad continuing to fire missiles.

With regard to the other incident with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, they say that they were holding a training course and were not going to fight against Israel. I think the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are just provoking and annoying Hamas. They are saying, “We are still present in the Gaza Strip and we are still fighting the Israeli occupation while Hamas is not fighting.”

Was Hamas popular in Gaza before the flotilla tragedy and how do you think the flotilla tragedy will impact Hamas’s appeal in Gaza?

Hamas’s popularity was declining in Gaza before the Freedom Flotilla incident for a number of reasons….After the Freedom Flotilla incident, Hamas is in a much better condition. Even if their popularity has not improved in Gaza, they are being portrayed in the Arab and Muslim world as the vanguard of Palestinian resistance. Hamas is using the Freedom Flotilla incident to crack down on its opponents.

How does the average person on the Gaza streets regard the proximity talks led by George Mitchell?

To be honest with you, the Palestinian people lost confidence in the peace negotiation process. It’s been going on since the signing of Oslo in 1993. Instead of ending the occupation, Israel expanded its settlements in the West Bank and tried to change the facts on the ground by confiscating more land and deporting the Palestinians from their own territory. Most Palestinians—in the West Bank and Gaza—don’t think that proximity talks will be any more successful in ending the occupation, especially when we are faced with a rightwing government led by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

The Palestinian community is very polarized. The Palestinians who support Fatah want to give the proximity talks a chance. On the other hand, Hamas and its supporters do not believe at all in these proximity talks. They think it’s a waste of time and that it’s absurd and that nothing good is going to come out of it.

The economy in the West Bank has improved dramatically. There are new high-rise buildings, new coffee shops and restaurants, fewer road blocks and checkpoints. I was there a few weeks ago and was struck by how dramatically it’s changed from even a year ago. How aware are people in Gaza of what’s happening in the West Bank? And how do they view this notion of “economic peace” before “political peace”?

I don’t really know how aware the Palestinian community in Gaza is of what’s happening in the West Bank, but overall the Palestinians know that the West Bank is in much better economic condition that the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians know that Dr. Salaam Fayyad is doing his best to salvage the Palestinian economy and impose law and order in the West Bank.

In one way, Gazans feel sad because they are left out by the Fayyad government, which is not paying attention to the problems of the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, they hope that the model of the West Bank will be transferred to the Gaza Strip when it comes to economic improvement. What we know is that Fayyad has been embarking on almost daily projects in the West Bank that, as you mentioned, has improved the infrastructure, created more employment opportunities and improved the daily life of West Bankers.

You said that people know that Salam Fayyad is “doing his best,” but I’ve heard a lot of people here demonize Salam Fayyad.

Sure, pro-Hamas people demonize him and hate him. As I mentioned earlier, this is a very polarized community. Those who support Hamas think that he is an illegal, illegitimate Prime Minister and that the only legitimate Prime Minister is Ismail Haniyeh. Second, even non-Hamas voters are not happy with Fayyad because they believe he went too far with his normalization steps with the Israelis. And, some of the Palestinian community here is upset that he’s not directing more of his efforts towards the Gaza Strip—they like the model that’s being done in the West Bank but they want Salam Fayyad to deal with Gaza’s internal problems.

May I ask you two personal questions?

Yes. Well— it depends!

It seems that most Palestinians who are able to leave Gaza have already left. You have a wife and five children, and you could live a much easier life someplace else. Why do you choose to live in Gaza?

When I came back to the Gaza Strip from graduate school in 1997, the Gaza Strip was portrayed as the Singapore of the Middle East. The economy was booming. Everything seemed to be going well. Peace negotiations seemed to be progressing. Of course, there was a setback when the Palestinian intifada erupted in September of 2000. But this is my home and the situation was ok.

It has declined badly in the past few years, especially since Hamas took over Gaza. It’s something that I think about a lot—not for me, but for my kids. I want them to live a normal life and to get a good education and live in a politically stable country. Even though the situation is very critical as a result of the siege and the occupation, we are still able to manage our lives here. But, if things get much more complicated and unstable, we will have to look into other choices.

If your children had an opportunity to participate in a dialogue program with Israelis, would you allow this?

I wouldn’t have a problem with my kids having dialogues with Israelis, as long as the Israelis who interact with my kids believe in peace, believe in ending the Israeli occupation, and believe in a two-state solution. If they believe in ending the conflict in a peaceful way and respect Palestinians’ right to freedom and self-determination, I welcome dialogue with them.

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