The Common Enemy in Gaza: Religious Zealotry

By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, August 27, 2005

Watching Israeli soldiers dragging Jewish settlers from Gaza was a reminder of just how much Palestinians and Israelis need each other. Without the "enemy," Israelis and Palestinians would divide along the fault lines that are barely concealed beneath the face of unity they put up to confront each other. And there is no bigger fault line than the secular/religious crack that exists in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1998, many of my Israeli friends were clear in their contempt for the settlers. They could not understand them, least of all their religious zeal. "Many in Israel hope now that we are beginning a process of being normal," one of them said to me last week. "I mean that until now, the settlers imposed on us their agenda, and there were two types of laws and rules: for the people and for them. We hope that the priorities will change."

The religious/secular confrontation in Israeli society does not always take such dramatic turns as the scenes we saw from Gaza, but it's there. Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood is often the scene of confrontations between Sabbath-observing residents and secular Jews whose cars they pelt with stones for driving on a Saturday. Mea Shearim residents will also often berate women whom they consider immodestly dressed.

Religious fundamentalists are much the same everywhere. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims are often each others' mirror images.

Which takes me to the question that everyone in Palestinian society should be asking now that Israel has completed its withdrawal from Gaza: When push comes to shove will the Palestinian Authority confront its fundamentalists in the same way that Israel confronted the religious zealots in the settlements? When the greater good of Palestinians is at stake, is the Palestinian Authority willing to curb the activities of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization?

Hamas is trying to portray Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for its campaign of violence and terrorism. Any such victory for Hamas would be a defeat for the Palestinian people. They have been caught between the brutality of the Israeli occupation and Hamas's bloodletting, which brought nothing but more Israeli violence against the Palestinians.

The second intifada -- propelled and inspired by Hamas's tactics -- was a failure and a disaster for Palestinians. Unlike the first intifada, which galvanized world opinion for the "children of the rocks," the second was an exercise in nihilism that hurt the Palestinians more than it helped them.

The Palestinian Authority, under the late Yasser Arafat, must bear its responsibility too. Its corruption and lack of democracy and transparency left a vacuum that Hamas was all too willing and ready to fill.

Now a Gaza free of settlers and soldiers is Mahmoud Abbas's chance to show Palestinians how far he is willing to go to assert his authority. If Abbas doubts for a second how important it is to curb the religious zealotry of Hamas, he need only remember Yusra Azzami, 20, who was shot dead earlier this year by Hamas gunmen for "immoral behavior" days before her wedding. She was sitting in a car with her sister, her fiancé and his brother when masked Hamas gunmen forced their car to stop in a Gaza neighborhood and killed her.

When the settlers and soldiers were still in Gaza, these kinds of crimes were easier to conceal. Palestinian families that have suffered at the hands of Hamas have long been intimidated into silence for the sake of Palestine. With the settlers and soldiers gone from Gaza, Hamas's zealotry must be curbed for the sake of Palestine and its people.

The best way to strengthen Abbas's hand would be to make life better for Palestinians. Gaza needs investment if Abbas is to deliver the homes and jobs that he promised its people, even as Israeli soldiers were clearing the settlements.

The international community can show its confidence in the Palestinian people by directing some money their way, and the Palestinian Authority can return that confidence by ensuring that every cent goes into the future of Gaza and not toward building more villas for Palestinian officials.

The United States must push the Israelis and Palestinians into looking farther along the peace "road map" toward a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Both sides in this decades-long conflict can do more to help their people realize a future of peace.

Looking ahead will require much looking within to repair the fault lines that lie beneath. Religious zealots among Israelis and Palestinians must not be allowed to act as roadblocks on the way to peace.

The writer is a New York-based columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. Her Web site is

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