US envoy's visit could ease Gaza blockade

Forced to rebuild using mud and animal-drawn carts, Gazans are increasingly frustrated with Hamas's hard-line policies.

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    Thousands of Gazans who lost their homes in Israel's offensive, such as these in the Rafah refugee camp, are rebuilding with bricks made from mud. Concrete, steel, and other raw materials are banned under an Israeli blockade.
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    Under pressure from the visiting Mr. Mitchell, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet met in Jerusalem to discuss easing the two-year blockade. Here, Mr. Netanyahu (l.) speaks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on Monday.
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    Top Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, here in Cairo for Egyptian-led talks on forming a unity government with Fatah, said Hamas would not obstruct any effort to establish a Palestinian state along Israel's 1967 border – a position that contradicts its charter, which claims all of historical Palestine for Palestinians.
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For Hamas, the intervention of US special envoy George Mitchell may have come just in time.

Nearly six months after Israel launched a blistering offensive to undermine the militant group, destroying thousands of homes and lives, Gazans are growing increasingly restless under Hamas rule.

Many privately complain that Hamas's hard-line approach with both Israel and the rival Palestinian party, Fatah, has intensified their suffering. Israel has blockaded the coastal strip, making it virtually impossible for Gazans to rebuild their lives.

Under pressure from the visiting Mr. Mitchell, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet met in Jerusalem Monday to discuss easing the two-year blockade.

Hamas also responded to the Obama administration's recent overtures. Top leader Khaled Meshaal, in Cairo for Egyptian-led talks on forming a unity government with Fatah, said Hamas would not obstruct any effort to establish a Palestinian state along Israel's 1967 border – a position that contradicts its charter, which claims all of historical Palestine for Palestinians.

But Gazans, impatient with stalled peace efforts, have taken matters into their own hands.

Jihad Saher rebuilt his home in the wake of Israel's January military offensive here entirely with mud. Because of an Israeli ban on the import of construction materials like cement and steel, a handful of others, including the Hamas-led government, are following suit.

But while Mr. Saher and many other Gazans boast of their symbols of perseverance – mud homes, subterranean tunnels ferrying in consumer goods, animal-drawn carts collecting rubbish – others are beginning to blame their deepening economic plight as much on the political wrangling of the two major Palestinian factions as on Israel's clenching of their borders.

According to recent polls, the majority of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants believe they are worse off now than before the war and that the formation of a coalition between the Western-backed Fatah movement and Hamas Islamists is the best way to solve their crisis.

Sixty-five percent of Gazans now live under the poverty line, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says.

"We know Israel is the source of the blockade, but the problems between the Palestinian factions are the primary reason it has been able to continue," says Osman Shawa, a restaurant owner and mid-level leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Gaza. "In Gaza, we are the ones that suffer from the inability to overcome these differences."

Only 1 in 4 Gazans would vote for Hamas now

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been politically divided since June 2007 when Hamas, after winning Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, violently seized control of the Gaza Strip and routed Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) forces loyal to current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel and Egypt subsequently sealed their borders with Gaza, allowing only a trickle of food and humanitarian aid into the territory for the past two years. Since then, the governments of both countries have said the creation of a coalition that puts PA forces in control of the Gaza side of the crossings would persuade them to lift the blockade.

But five rounds of Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks in Cairo over the past four months have failed to produce an agreement that would pave the way for a Palestinian unity government. A recent spate of clashes between PA security forces and members of Hamas's military wing that left eight dead in the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya is likely to make a Hamas-Fatah accord even more elusive.

And while the parties squabble, Hamas's popularity appears to be dropping.

According to a poll conducted by the West Bank-based Bir Zeit University in May, just 23 percent of Palestinians in Gaza would vote for Hamas in a new parliamentary election, as opposed to the 37 percent who said they would opt for the Abbas-led Fatah movement. Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians in both territories believe a Hamas victory in future elections would lead to a tightening of the blockade, says another survey published by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research (PCSR).

"People who voted for Hamas did not know their real policies. And if they knew the consequences of these policies, they wouldn't have voted for them," says Abu Khaled, a Gaza City shop owner.

"It is not simply their duty to stay in power because they were elected, but to protect the interests of the Palestinian people," he says. "And that doesn't mean shooting rockets, but making sure we live decent lives."

Ahmed Yusuf, adviser to deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, says he agrees that Palestinian unity needs to move forward in order to improve the daily lives of Gazans, but dismisses reports his Islamist movement is losing support among the local population.

"The division between the West Bank and Gaza certainly deteriorates the situation. It's our obligation, here and in Ramallah, to unify the people, reconcile our rift, and create a transitional government to prepare for the next election," says Mr. Yusuf.

"Yes, there is suffering in Gaza because of the lack of many things we used to enjoy. But people here are benefiting from a type of security they did not have before," he says. "For that reason they will stand behind us no matter what kind of hardship they are facing."

'The people will explode'

But aid agencies say the Israeli blockade is pushing the territory deeper into despair, particularly in the wake of Israel's three-week military offensive that destroyed thousands of homes and much of the Gaza Strip's infrastructure in January.

Food security is on the decline, reconstruction is stalled, and international organizations continue to face difficulties in their efforts to bring much-needed aid to Gaza.

A June 4 report from the Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a UN disaster relief body working in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, says everything from wheelchairs, dry food items, and crayons, to stationary, soccer balls, and musical instruments is currently being stopped at the border without explanation.

Palestinian medical patients seeking specialized treatment in Egypt or Israel are now barred from exiting Gaza, after a Hamas-Fatah power struggle at the territory's health ministry in March prompted the PA-led government in the West Bank to refuse to approve medical referrals for patients abroad.

Ibrahim, a Gaza resident and university graduate, says if the situation does not change soon, Hamas is one day going to find itself the target of the anger and frustration beginning to build now among Gaza's population.

"As Palestinians, we can handle pressure. But we can't live like this forever," Ibrahim says. "If it continues like this, it will explode. The people will explode against the government, because we have nowhere else to turn."

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