The Palestinians' opposite poles

Divide between Gaza and West Bank may affect thinking on an independent state

Two brothers, one living in Gaza and the other in the West Bank, reside in opposite poles of Palestine, each increasingly distinct, adding fresh obstacles to the quest for a two-state solution that envisions Israel and Palestine side-by-side.
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."

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