A diet of tomatoes and weeds fuels Gazan protests

Spilling sweet, hot tea from the glass he is holding, Mustafa Hamarneh lurches up from sitting cross-legged on a piece of cardboard and stalks off. Suddenly he returns, displaying a brown plastic bag stuffed with the leaves and stalks of a cress-like plant that grows wild in the Gaza Strip. He plans to take the greens home to feed his family.

"Animals eat this," he growls.

An elderly man with bristly white stubble on his chin, Mr. Hamarneh sits down again, and all around him sweaty, scruffy men nod their heads in empathy. One offers a recipe for the cress: "You mix it with tomatoes."

The economic despair of the Palestinians has reached a new low: People are eating weeds.

Hamarneh and the others stand and sit under a green-and-white tarp stretched over a frame they have put up in an empty lot. Unemployed for nearly two years, these and other Gazan workers have begun to put their frustration on display, mounting demonstrations and spending their days in protest tents.

In most societies, economic angst this severe would guarantee political turmoil. But among the Palestinians, the dictum of the Clinton years needs a rewrite: it's the intifada, stupid.

While Hamarneh and his jobless brethren are angry with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) for doing too little to help them, they insist their movement isn't political.

Mr. Arafat's main internal opponent, the Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas, is expanding its provision of food to the poor, but downplays the political import. Hamas's first priority, explains spokesman Ismail Abu Shanab, is to support the fight against Israel. "Without this aid," he says, "people will suffer more and won't promote the intifada."

The Gaza Strip is the home of more than a million Palestinians, most of them poor. Its main refugee camp, a sprawling cement thicket called Jabaliya, is twice as densely populated as Manhattan. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) estimated in February that nearly 85 percent of the population of Gaza lives in poverty.

The outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in September 2000 broadsided the local economy. Gazans were barred from entering Israel to work, sell their goods, or make deals with their Israeli counterparts.

The UN has maintained its support for Gazans who are refugees and their descendants. The PA has more or less continued to pay its clerks, policemen, and officials.

But for those in the private sector, the conflict has brought economic disaster. The PCBS says the median monthly household income in Gaza has dropped 56 percent since the intifada began.

Hassan Hasanein, a construction worker, hasn't been allowed into Israel since 1995 – he says the Israelis have never told him why – but until the intifada started he was able to earn money within Gaza. He drove a cab and found the odd construction job.

But those opportunities dried up with the unrest. First he sold his wife's gold jewelry, partly for food money and partly to add a room to his house. Then, last year, a bank gave him a $5,000 loan so his wife could open a hair salon.

The business failed. "People here don't have enough to eat, much less have their hair cut," he says. Much of the money went for food.

He says he can't pay school fees or utility bills, and when one of his 11 children asks him for a shekel to buy something in the market, he has to refuse. The family eats cheaply: bread, beans, lentils, potatoes, olives. As for meat, he says, "we see it." That they do. There is a butcher shop in front of the house.

Today Mr. Hasanein is putting his energies into the protest movement, insisting that the PA create jobs or at least provide subsidies for the unemployed. But he refuses to say which political faction he supports and says the movement is exclusively focused on getting help for unemployed workers.

Only when he is pressed does his apolitical stance weaken. If Arafat does indeed organize elections, as he has promised, and if Hasanein's situation still has not improved by then, he says, "maybe I won't vote."

Rasem al-Bayari, president of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, faults the PA for not responding to the Federation's appeal for financial help for the unemployed.

By his own calculation, jobless workers need a monthly subsidy of $100. But the Federation has been able to provide only occasional grants in that amount, relying mainly on donations from foreign trade unions. During the nearly 22 months since the crisis began, most union members have received the grants twice, some only once, and some three or four times.

Mr. al-Bayari resists the suggestion that the federation should agitate against the PA or that Arafat should pay a political price for not doing more for the unemployed. "Everybody knows Israel is responsible," he says.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Kurd, who runs an Islamic charity in Gaza that distributes food to the poor, says the workers' protests are "humanitarian," not political. "Those people are not looking for Hamas or Fatah or Islamic Jihad" – the main Palestinian political factions – "but for an end to occupation."

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