A determined few try to improve life in Gaza

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It is early afternoon in one of the Gaza Strip's eight Palestinian refugee camps, and Hattam Abu-Ghazalleh is touring his construction site with a visitor. By next spring, says Dr. Ghazalleh, the two-story building will open its doors as the first school for mentally handicapped children in a Gazan refugee camp. It is being built with funds from West Germany and other donors and will be staffed by Gazans.

``And here we will have a gymnasium for the children,'' Ghazalleh says enthusiastically. ``And over there, the changing rooms. And here the director's offices. Some people say it is all too elaborate, but I say, `Why shouldn't handicapped children in Gaza have the best facilities available?' ''

Ghazalleh, a physician-turned-administrator, is one of a handful of Gazan Palestinians who are assaulting both international philanthropic sentiments and the Israeli occupation authorities in a determined bid to win more services and facilities for Gaza.

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Gaza, a sliver of land on the Mediterranean coast, has been under Israeli occupation for 18 years. Israeli administration has brought soldiers, a chance for Palestinians to work inside Israel, and a few Jewish settlers to Gaza -- but little else, according to the Palestinians who live there.

A rural region, Gaza was dominated by a few landed families before the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. The local population was swamped by refugees fleeing from towns and villages in Israel and today there are still more refugees than local inhabitants.

Thirty-seven years of foreign rule -- first under Egypt and then Israel -- have driven many of the best and the brightest from Gaza to Europe, the Persian Gulf, and the United States. Almost every family has at least one member, usually more, studying or working abroad. Many of those who remain are either the middle-aged or elderly who long for a return to the old days -- or the very young who have known nothing other than Israeli occupation.

But there is a group of younger Gazans who have returned to the strip after their time abroad and who are determined to push the system as much as possible.

``When the Egyptians were here, we were fighting against them at the time, but it was quite a different fight than now,'' Ghazalleh says. ``Sure, things were not good here under the Egyptians. But things were not good in Cairo, either. We say now that we should have the same facilities as the Israelis.''

``A lot of people will tell you they can't do this or they can't do that because of the occupation. The occupation becomes an excuse for not doing anything,'' says one Palestinian who works in the United Nations-run camps.

``We have to educate our people. We have to get them out of the beggar's mentality and get them into the mentality of people who want to solve their own problems,'' she said. ``There are young people today who know that they must do things differently than their parents did.''

But changing Gaza and Gazans can only be an uphill battle. There is virtually no political organization in Gaza and activists such as Ghazalleh and others face not only the Israeli occupation, but a host of other obstacles.

As on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Palestinian society in Gaza is fragmented into a myriad of competing political, social, and economic groups. There are the old-time Gazans and the refugees, the wealthy landowners, and the impoverished Bedouin, the supporters of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Al-Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the followers of the various Palestinian splinter groups. There are those who believe that any concession to the Israelis is tantamount to collaboratio n and those who believe that only by working with the Israelis will Gazans be able to improve their streets, hospitals, schools, and living conditions.

Ghazalleh views himself as a pragmatist, determined to bend the rules as much as possible to build his institutions.

One of Ghazalleh's coups came when he registered his foundation as a private volunteer organization and became the first Palestinian organization in the Middle East directly funded by the United States government. Previously, the Americans had funneled money for humanitarian projects in the Palestinian community through American volunteer organizations.

``Hattam is unique,'' says one American diplomat. ``He's adapted Israeli tactics. Rather than wait for approval for something from the military authorities, he goes ahead and does it.''

The Americans have funded several projects of Ghazalleh's, the largest being the building of a five-story center he hopes will attract students from the West Bank to Gaza to be trained as special education instructors.

``He exhibits an entrepreneurial ability rare in Gaza,'' says another American diplomat.

Ghazalleh was in boarding school in Jerusalem in 1948 when Israel was declared a state and was attacked by the combined Arab armies. Ghazalleh remembers that his father, also a doctor, sent an ambulance to the boarding school to carry him to safety in Gaza during the seige of Jerusalem.

Ghazalleh received his training in Cambridge, England, and then returned to Gaza where he became a successful surgeon. He has given up his private practice entirely, Ghazalleh says, to spend his time building services for handicapped children.

``He has his critics because he works within the system,'' says one Western diplomat. ``But the fact is that he has built an infrastructure that didn't exist.''

Ghazalleh generally stays clear of politics, focusing instead on fund-raising for his school, an outreach program to mothers in the refugee camps, and building projects.

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