Common enemy in Gaza: religious zealotry

Watching Israeli soldiers drag Jewish settlers from Gaza was a reminder of just how much Palestinians and Israelis need each other. Without the "enemy," Israelis and Palestinians would divide along the fault lines barely concealed beneath the face of unity each side puts up to confront the other. And there is no bigger fault line than the secular/religious crack that exists in both societies.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1998, many of my Israeli friends were clear in their contempt for the settlers. They could not understand them, least of all their religious zeal. "Many in Israel hope now that we are beginning a process of being normal," one of them said to me last week. "Until now, the settlers imposed on us their agenda, and there were two types of laws and rules: for the people and for them. We hope that the priorities will change."

The religious/secular confrontation in Israeli society does not always take such dramatic turns as the scenes we saw from Gaza, but it's there. And fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims are often each other's mirror images.

Which takes me to the question that everyone in Palestinian society should be asking now that Israel has completed its withdrawal from Gaza: When push comes to shove, will the Palestinian Authority confront its fundamentalists in the same way that Israel confronted the religious zealots in the settlements? When the greater good of Palestinians is at stake, is the Palestinian Authority (PA) willing to curb the activities of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization?

Hamas is trying to portray Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for its campaign of violence and terrorism. But any such victory for Hamas would be a defeat for the Palestinian people, caught between the brutality of the Israeli occupation and Hamas's bloodletting.

The second intifada, propelled and inspired by Hamas' tactics, was a failure and a disaster for Palestinians. Unlike the first intifada, which galvanized world opinion for the "children of the rocks," the second was an exercise in nihilism that hurt the Palestinians more than it helped them. The PA, under the late Yasser Arafat, must bear its responsibility too. Its corruption and lack of democracy and transparency left a vacuum Hamas was all too willing and ready to fill.

With Gaza free of settlers and soldiers, now is Mahmoud Abbas's chance to show Palestinians how far he is willing to go to assert his authority. If Abbas doubts for a second how important it is to curb the religious zealotry of Hamas, he need only remember Yusra Azzami. Earlier this year, the young Palestinian woman was sitting in a car with her sister, her fiancé, and his brother when masked Hamas gunmen forced their car to stop in a Gaza neighborhood and killed her for "immoral behavior."

When the settlers and soldiers were still in Gaza, these kinds of crimes were easier to conceal. Palestinian families who have suffered at the hands of Hamas have long been intimidated into silence for the sake of Palestine. With the settlers and soldiers gone from Gaza, Hamas's zealotry must be curbed for the sake of Palestine and its people.

The best way to strengthen Abbas's hand would be to make life better for Palestinians. Gaza needs investment if Abbas is to deliver the homes and jobs that he's promised.

The international community can show its confidence in the Palestinian people by directing some money their way, and the Palestinian Authority can return that confidence by ensuring that every cent goes into the future of Gaza and not toward building more villas for Palestinian officials.

The United States must push the Israelis and Palestinians into looking farther along the peace "road map" toward a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Both sides in this decades-long conflict can do more to help their people realize a future of peace.

Looking ahead will require much looking within to repair the fault lines that lie beneath. Religious zealots among Israelis and Palestinians must not be allowed to act as roadblocks to peace.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. ©2005 The Washington Post

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