The Palestinians' opposite poles
Divide between Gaza and West Bank may affect thinking on an independent state

By Howard Schneider
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

JABALYA, GAZA STRIP -- Sami and Tayseer Barakat grew up together in the concrete warrens of this refugee camp in Gaza, but the common thread ends there.

As young adults, Tayseer moved to the West Bank while Sami remained in Gaza. The choices have shaped the brothers' lives, values, prosperity and opportunities, and they have placed the two at very different points in what is now a three-way feud among Israelis and Palestinians.

More than ever before, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank represent opposite poles of a future state of Palestine, each increasingly distinct, adding fresh obstacles to the quest for a two-state solution that envisions Israel and Palestine existing side by side. Gaza has become imbued with a narrow Islamist culture that considers Israel's elimination the ultimate goal; the West Bank, in contrast, has become relatively open and secular, with its government trying to resolve disputes with Israel through politics and diplomacy.

In the process, the two Palestinian territories have grown increasingly antagonistic toward each other.

The notion of a single "Palestine" seems to be receding, for the Barakat brothers and all Palestinians, a process accelerated by Israeli policies that restrict travel into and out of the Gaza Strip and limit its economic growth in a bid to undercut support for the area's ruling Islamist Hamas movement. Gaza and the West Bank are not only run by competing governments but also differ in indicators such as birthrates, population growth, cultural and religious attitudes, and prosperity. What is a two-hour car trip seems like a world away, with travel and other restrictions making it difficult for friends to visit and family members to gather.

Where the West Bank is enjoying renewed economic growth and an emerging sense of possibility, Gaza -- dependent on foreign aid even in the best of times, because of its large refugee population -- has become a place of makeshift jobs, handouts and smuggled goods, still not able or allowed to rebuild after a punishing three-week war with Israel that began last December.

Doubts have deepened about how and whether two places so different can be knit back together. As the different lives being lived by the Barakat brothers suggest, the divergence has a momentum of its own.

In one, an aspiring lot

On a Thursday in the West Bank, men and women gather at Ramallah's Ziryab restaurant for the start of the weekend. They sip beer and smoke in a room decorated with original art and sculpture, much of it made by Tayseer Barakat, the owner and the younger of the Barakat brothers.

There's a new burst of activity in Ramallah, the center of cultural and political life for the West Bank's 2.4 million Palestinians. Construction cranes slice the sky, and bulldozers clear large lots for the next project. There are film festivals and investment companies, new shopping centers and planned communities.

Though the West Bank remains occupied by Israel and suffered years of violence during an intifada, or uprising, this decade, Barakat has seen his horizons gradually open. He arrived here in the mid-1980s after attending art school in Egypt, looking for a livelihood that would leave time to paint and sculpt. After teaching for a few years, he pursued a more independent path, opening a restaurant and redecorating it by hand with a modern and elegant collection of artwork.

Ramallah was the ideal spot. It had a professional class that could afford a night out, returning expatriates who might splurge on a painting and the cultural temperament to let him do what he wanted.

"The situation here -- it is like giving someone an aspirin," said Barakat, 50. "It could change at any time. But compared to Gaza, it is good."

The politics of struggle has been replaced by a more aspirational sensibility. On a recent fall afternoon, Barakat prepared to say goodbye to his son, Odai, 18, who is soon leaving to study at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus.

It's a routine family passage, but it is profound in the Palestinian context. Tayseer Barakat is among the few Gazans allowed by Israel to shift his legal address to the West Bank -- a change in status that, among other things, means predictable access to the world beyond.

Odai hopes to study film and then return to make his contribution to Palestinian society. It has nothing to do with reconquering land, he said, but reflects an idea taking root in the West Bank -- to help put a bandage on old wounds so they can heal and give rise to something new and durable.

"The first film I'll make will be about the Palestinian cause. I'll tell the story," he said, likening his vision to the movie "Braveheart" and its tale of Scotland's rise alongside England. The Scottish leader William Wallace was not trying to destroy the English, Odai pointed out, but was attempting to carve out a place for his people on land of their own.

In the other, a grim lot

In Gaza, Sami Barakat gave his children strict instructions as an uprising against Israel raged through the first years of the decade: Stay away from protest sites such as the Erez crossing into Israel. On an October day in 2000, that advice came undone. Yousef Barakat, then 13, boarded a bus headed to a rally at Erez. Later that day, a rubber bullet hit him in the head.

He survived but lost sight in his right eye. A plaque displayed in the family's living room, sent to Yousef by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, honors "the blessed intifada, that you enflamed, and gave it your blood, which scents the Palestinian sand."

Yousef, now 22, is studying history at al-Quds University and has no clear sense of what will follow his upcoming graduation. Under the strategy that Israel has employed in Gaza, that lack of opportunity should lead the young man to certain conclusions: reject Hamas, reconcile with the rival government in the West Bank and then with Israel, and see Gaza reopened to the world.

But the incident nine years ago left its mark. If the West Bank branch of the Barakat family views coexistence with Israel as important, the Barakat branch in Gaza is not so sanguine. Although hardly radical and not supportive of violence -- the family members here say they are disenchanted with aspects of Hamas's governance -- the children, in particular, do not envision peace.

"There is no chance to coexist," Yousef said. "Israel does not want peace."

Israel's rules have choked off the economy in Gaza, increasing poverty and despair among its 1.5 million people. In addition, since winning elections two years ago, Hamas has shut down much of the cultural and political life.

The seaside nightspots that began to develop here in the 1980s and 1990s, a more open era, are now limited to ragged tea huts and a handful of hotels and clubs that host international visitors and the well-to-do.

There are no cinemas and little nightlife. Even seemingly nationalist events -- the anniversary of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death or an annual Palestinian independence day -- are shaped to reflect Hamas's aim of building a "resistance society" hunkered down for a long-haul struggle. That means tough going for anyone trying to build a business.

Sami Barakat, 55, ran a small grocery store near Jabalya before learning the money-changing trade and opening an office. It let him pay the bills and buy a house. But of late, being a money-changer is a losing proposition in an economy with little cash and little commerce with the rest of the world. He now depends on whatever Tayseer Barakat and a brother in the United States can contribute each month.

Nor are things much easier for the one member of the family who sees his future in religion -- what might be considered Gaza's growth industry.

Mohammed Barakat, 23, just graduated from Gaza's Islamic University with a degree in Islamic law and hoped for appointment as an imam at a mosque. He sees himself as a sort of bridge, strict in his observance of Islam's social aspects but against the use of violence against Israel.

But he is not a member of Hamas. As a result, his ideas won't be heard from the pulpit at Friday prayers.

"The problem is that people who rely on their emotions are the majority," he said. "I try to convince them that you should react out of logic. They call me a coward."

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