Why Gaza's moderates are losing hope

Isolated by Israel and alienated by Hamas, they see little room for constructive lives in a society that is disintegrating.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Work to do: A Palestinian man took part in a July protest in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, that called for international donor aid. His house was destroyed during an Israeli offensive late last year.
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When the last Israeli tank rumbled out of the Kissufim checkpoint just south of here in the early morning of Sept. 12, 2005, the residents of this farming neighborhood flooded the streets with their compatriots in a mass celebration.

Now, Mohammad Abed Rabo sits amid heaping piles of broken concrete and twisted metal rods seven months after the neighborhood, named after his family, was flattened by Israel's war against Hamas.

He has nothing to do all day but survey the wreckage in this coastal territory whose borders are effectively sealed by Israel and Egypt, allowing only a trickle of humanitarian supplies and rebuilding materials. Gaza is "a lamp without oil," says Mr. Abed Rabo.

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The war was successful in its main aim: The frequency of rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip onto Israeli cities such as Sderot was vastly reduced. (See related story on how Sderot's residents are faring.)

But Israel's efforts to weaken Hamas have left in their wake a disintegrating society in which the traditional foundations of hope, security, and opportunity have been largely eroded. The Islamist militant organization, though increasingly unpopular with a disillusioned public, has a virtual lock on power that leaves little room for alternative ideologies, enterprise, or constructive pursuits.

According to the United Nations, more than 250,000 people here were affected by the last war, either by a damaged or destroyed home, or an injured or killed family member. And the nearly four-year noose around Gaza, which grew tighter at each step of Hamas's monopolization of power, has severely affected Gazans' outlook – economic and otherwise. At least 45 percent of Gazans are unemployed, and 90 percent now depend on some form of aid to survive.

The consequences of the war and blockade "may not be visible on the surface of Gaza right now," says John Ging, the territory's director of the UN program that provides relief to Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). But he says that there are more individuals "who are more determined on an extremist and violent agenda than ever before." Earlier this month, a battle between Hamas and an Al Qaeda-inspired group resulted in the worst violence since 2007.

"That's not success," Mr. Ging says, "that's failure."

Even moderates such as Eyad Sarraj, an independent politician and a psychiatrist who for years spoke to the Monitor of peace with Israel, now speaks of Israel as "an alien place which has decided to survive [only] through brutal power."

"And that, of course, has disillusioned many people who believed in strategic peace and making compromises and negotiations," he says.

Dr. Sarraj points out that part of Gaza's cultural metamorphosis is the dissolution of the traditional tribal power structure. While once the clan or family was the "frame of security," there is now only the Islamic Resistance Movement, as Hamas is formally known.

"Hamas has created a new identity for the hard core," he says. "It is us and them, even within Palestinian society. If you don't belong to Hamas, then you are 'the other.' "

The younger generation, which does not gravitate toward Hamas, is isolated and alienated in a society where Islamic extremism and closed borders have left little space – intellectually, physically, or politically – for those who would pursue more constructive lives by previous standards.

"The majority of people here aren't looking for work, they are looking for aid. It's very dangerous," says Jawdat al-Khodary, a developer whose Gaza projects lie idle. "What is the mentality that is being created here?" he adds. "If we put this together with the siege and isolation of Gaza we will have a society totally different from any other in the world."

The social changes are already percolating in the collapse of "morals and good manners" among the youth, Abed Rabo says.

"There is no tolerance" left in Gaza, he adds. "Now, if you accidentally touch anyone, he will fight with you."

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Find out what Gaza looks like through the eyes of four Gazans. And watch the video: Gaza residents say recovery is held hostage by politics.

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