In isolation, Gazans dismiss Bush's new push for peace

The strip's Islamist leaders have called for protests Wednesday against Bush's first trip to Israel and the West Bank.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Protest: A Palestinian in Gaza City held a poster of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bush at a rally Tuesday in the Gaza Strip.
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As Israel and the Palestinian Authority gear up for President Bush's first visit to the Jewish state and the West Bank, in which the president is expected to nudge along a hoped-for peace deal between the two sides, many residents of the isolated Gaza Strip are looking on with anger and cynicism.

This densely populated coastal territory has been largely shut off from the outside world since Hamas, the Islamist militant group that the US and Israel consider terrorists, seized control from their rival Fatah here in June.

Now Gazans are coping with frequent blackouts, high inflation, and surging unemployment as an Israeli blockade continues to stop fuel and general shipments from reaching the strip.

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In addition to the economic and political segregation here, many say they are not only being cut out of the peace push launched by the November Annapolis, Md., summit, but that any deals between Palestinians in the West Bank, under the helm of President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel will only make their lives worse.

"The intention of the US and Israeli blockade is to make me and my family suffer, so we'll withdraw our support for Hamas," says Salam Abu Salam, who runs a small tire repair shop in Gaza City's Jabaliyah neighborhood and says his income has fallen by three-quarters in the past six months, to about $15 a day. "But I didn't support Hamas to begin with. Now I see Abbas sitting down with America and Israel while Hamas continues to struggle for Palestinian rights. Who do you think I prefer?"

It's still easy to find Gazans quick to criticize Hamas, particularly among supporters of Fatah, whose security services were routed in that takeover and whose leader is Mr. Abbas. It's almost impossible to find anyone who expects Mr. Bush's visit, which begins Wednesday, to yield concrete improvements in their daily lives or even push the peace process forward.

The US and Israeli strategy toward the divided Palestinian body politic has been, and remains, straightforward: Bolster Abbas's Fatah movement in the West Bank while encouraging the economic deterioration of Gaza, which the two states hope will undermine Hamas.

Israel has also said it would reduce its attacks on Gaza – which have killed 15 Palestinians since last Thursday – if Hamas ended the frequent rocket fire targeting neighboring Israeli towns that emanates from here.

Hamas, which says it is not firing rockets of its own, has refused to take action to stop the shootings, most of which have been claimed by the Islamic Jihad organization. Last week, a rocket landed near the Israeli town of Askhelon, about nine miles from the Gaza border, the farthest any rocket has yet reached. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called that attack an "escalation" and promised a strong Israeli reaction. That rocket caused no casualties.

While the economic suffering here has been real, Hamas appears more entrenched than ever, with soldiers and police loyal to it deployed at most major intersections and many Fatah activists living in hiding. Hamas officials say they've taken the threat of a possible major Israeli assault on the territory seriously and have stockpiled explosives and rockets in preparation.

"If they come in, we'll suffer, but we'll make sure the Israelis suffer a lot, as well," says a senior commander in the Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas. "We've prepared the ground against a major assault."

And many Gazans argue that it doesn't look as if Fatah's growing relationship with Israel – Fatah recognizes the right of the Jewish state to exist; Hamas does not – has yielded major dividends for the West Bank.

"I don't know how secure the people in Nablus feel," says Mr. Salam, referring to a four-day sweep by the Israeli military of that West Bank town that ended Sunday and had confined the town's residents to their homes and, according to a Fatah official, left 40 Palestinians wounded. "That sort of thing isn't happening around me."

On Tuesday, Abbas and Mr. Olmert met in Jerusalem to talk about the outlines for peace talks and were expected to discuss the dismantling of dozens of illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, an issue that Bush is expected to discuss with both sides.

Mohammed Effan, who says his small business importing electric appliances has been "crippled" by the Israeli embargo, describes Bush's visit as a "sideshow."

"Do I or anyone I'm friends with expect a positive outcome from this visit? Of course not," he says. "I would support an end to rocket attacks, since they just seem to cause the Israelis to increase our suffering, but I think the status quo serves Israelis' and Hamas's interests: Israel can justify its tough approach, while the reaction in Gaza makes Hamas more popular in some people's eyes as a resistance organization."

He points out that Israel's responses generally cause more casualties here than the rocket fire in Israel. In all of last year, about 15 Israelis were killed in strikes from Gaza.

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