Rifts widen in Palestinian society

Leveling the playing field among Palestinians may be a bigger challenge

At a club called Rumours, Ramallah's new in place for dancing and dining, private parties cater to those who can afford it.

Tonight is twenty-something Joumana's birthday party, where young women dressed in snug black pants, chic spaghetti-strap tank tops, and stiletto heels slink around the floor. Their clingy boyfriends, dressed as preppy as a pack of American college kids, all go sans mustache - the traditional symbol of manhood here and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Most of the guests have been educated in private schools. Many lived or were raised in the United States and Europe before the 1993 Oslo accords brought parents - and their sometimes reluctant children - back to the Palestinian territories with the hope of enjoying peace and prosperity in their homeland.

In the small villages just a couple of miles outside of town, however, dwells what seems like another people. The average woman the same age as Joumana has been long married and is typically on her second, third, or fourth child. She wraps her head and shoulders with a snug white scarf, spends days doing chores, and speaks with an accent that cityfolk just minutes up the road have a hard time understanding.

"Palestinian society is divided into two," says Shukri Abd el-Mageed Saber, a professor at Cairo University on sabbatical in Gaza. "One part, a small part, has lots of money that it spends just to show it. It's easy for them to move in and out of the Palestinian territories. And on the opposite side is the majority, which spends its time looking for food, clothing, and housing, and it has no skills."

In fact, the Egyptian sociologist says, some of the worst problems of the Palestinian Authority may be not in finessing a final-status accord with the Israelis, but in leveling the playing field at home.

Increasingly, those people without the trappings of privilege and political connections seem to be broiling with resentment. "The ones who came from outside got cars and houses, second cars for their wives, and Sri Lankan maids. Those who resisted the [Israeli] occupation got nothing," says Baleegh Basir, who lives in Taibe, a predominantly Christian village near Ramallah.

Asked if he thought education could provide a chance to move up the ladder, he laughs. "What does that mean? You can get your degrees," he says, referring to his studies in accounting at Bir Zeit University, considered the best in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "There was no job for me, so I start work at 5 a.m. each day as a driver, while many directors of the government ministries have no degree at all. Connections are what's important."

The disconnect between different sectors of Palestinian society is becoming a growing concern for those who think the work of nation-building is far from over. Though Palestinians have always born differences - between rich and poor, urban and rural, Muslim and Christian - observers say many of these rifts have grown much more pronounced in the past five years. That is, after PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat took control and brought with him many Palestinians-in-exile with strong ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"There are two cultures here, the insiders and the returnees," says Eyad Serraj, head of the Gazan Community Mental Health Program. "When the Palestinian Authority arrived, a new elite was created. The insiders say these new people are arrogant. They're saying, 'We're the ones who should have these cars and houses and nice jeeps - we're the ones who fought the intifadah [uprising].' "

A sense that a certain class of people is above the law, he says, as well as widespread resentment over corruption at all levels, might presage trouble. "I think we can expect a rebellion of the poor against the rich if the gap begins to widen," says Dr. Serraj, considered one of the foremost experts on Palestinian social problems.

The tensions became all the more apparent when a long-awaited "safe passage" route between Gaza and the West Bank was opened last October. Here in Ramallah, well-to-do Palestinians could be heard expressing fears that the city would be overrun by unkempt, unskilled day laborers from Gaza, loitering in the streets and sleeping in mosques. In Gaza, members of the original upper class who nonetheless lack "VIP" cards to leave the territory without prior permission will avoid coming and going during certain hours, because they consider traveling through the regular Israeli checkpoint alongside the workers to be "humiliating," says Serraj.

"Palestinians were unified in facing a common enemy, so all the lines dividing them were narrowed," Serraj explains. "Now, suddenly, people seem to feel that the question of Palestine has been settled. There is no more identification with the cause, so now the cause is to secure our income, our education, our children's future. And when we get to that level, we start to become selfish."

Dr. Saber, the Cairo professor, says that the stratification of Palestinian society is not necessarily typical of the Arab world. "Here, to get to a better place, you don't have to be qualified for it," he says. "Each family tends to have its own field of work, and that controls if you're going to advance or not."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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