An Oct. 2 Outlook article by Abdallah al Salmi, describing life in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, stated incorrectly that there are 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza refugee camps. That figure is the estimated number of Palestinians in Gaza, of which 961,000 are registered as refugees with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). An estimated 471,000 live in refugee camps, according to UNRWA. (Published 10/13/2005)
"The border is open?" I cried in surprise and disbelief. "Won't they shoot at us?"
For as long as I could remember, it had been dangerous, even lethal, to approach the heavily guarded, shoot-to-kill border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. But on Sept. 12, Israel had pulled its last troops out of Gaza. Now, a few days later, my brother Ahmed was telling me that some militant Palestinians had managed to break through the 25-foot-tall border wall, and a flood of eager Gazans were heading south to visit the Sinai. Ahmed wanted to go, too.
These were exciting days. Desperate and frustrated by years of occupation, we Gazans saw the Israeli withdrawal as a historic moment, and listened eagerly to minute-by-minute radio reports of the evacuation and its aftermath. In our highly factionalized news media, every party attributed "victory" and "liberation" to its own heroic militants.
Amid the fanfare and hurrahs, Ahmed and I made up our minds: We would temporarily escape five years of entrapment in this narrow strip of land. We would make this fantastic trip to Egypt and see what the taste of freedom is like.
We knew the trip would be brief. We should also have realized how short-lived our excited optimism would be. When we got home, "liberated" Gaza would still be overcrowded and poor, and there would still be no jobs for most of its people.
Going to Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, had been difficult since the Israeli crackdown that followed the start of the intifada five years ago. For most of this time, Israel not only closed Gaza's borders -- particularly to Palestinian men like me, between the ages of 15 and 35 -- but also imposed tougher curbs on movement within the territory. The mere thought of getting through the obstacle course of checkpoints had been infuriating and depressing. Now that the Israeli settlements and military fortifications had become history, the road to Rafah was open and secure but still bumpy and suddenly overcrowded.
At dusk, we got out of my brother's jeep about 400 yards from the border fence. The scene was joyfully hysterical. A human tide of Palestinians -- men, women and children -- flowed into Egypt from Gaza, and back, through breaches in the fence. Leaving the jeep behind, my brother and I walked from the Palestinian side of Rafah to its Egyptian side. We felt happy and free.
There weren't enough cars and taxis for the huge influx of people, but we managed to squeeze onto a small pickup truck with 20 other Palestinians, and headed for the northern Sinai resort town of El Arish. Though it was more than 25 miles away, we saw many people trying to get there on foot, enchanted by the fact that no one was ordering them to stop. We rode past them in the dark, a truckload of Gazans overflowing with released emotions. Hussein Abo Amra, 22, told us he'd never been outside the Strip in his life. He kept saying "Great God!" and "Gone are the days when I had to wait three days to get through the Abo Holey checkpoint!" Ecstatic and slightly dazed, he was half-hanging from the rear of the pickup, and more than once he almost fell off.
El Arish did not turn out to be as exciting as the idea of visiting it. A small town, it was soon overwhelmed by the deluge of visitors. Shops were soon out of food, water and even cigarettes, consumed by the crowds of Gazans eagerly absorbing new experiences and different conversations. Ahmed and I came back to Gaza before dawn. By the end of that week, the fence at Rafah was repaired and the border was again closed, this time by Egyptian and Palestinian authorities.
The excitement lingered, at least for a couple of weeks. People in Gaza talked about their visit to Egypt, what they did, what they bought. Some of them were able to bring home beloved wives or children who had left Gaza for some reason and, lacking documents that would satisfy the Israeli occupiers, had not been permitted to return. Inside Gaza itself, there were holiday-like crowds on the Mediterranean beaches -- especially in Khan Younis and Rafah, where Palestinian access to the shoreline had been blocked for years by Israeli settlements. A better future for Gaza seemed to be waiting.
But the energy and enthusiasm of ordinary Palestinians has not been matched elsewhere in the world, not even by our own leaders. Now, only a couple of weeks later, Gazans' yearning for a better future has all but ended. A feeling of hopelessness has returned.
We are still enduring the pointless eruption of violence that began last week, when militants in the Islamic group Hamas mistook an accidental explosion of Palestinian weapons for an Israeli attack. They and other factions launched rockets across the border, and Israel struck back with overwhelming force. The Israel Defense Forces are now on the offensive. When F-16 jets bomb near our urban areas, the explosions sound like doomsday. The building where I live shakes. The bed rattles. In the morning, I wake up with a backache and a sense of shock -- I'm back in the bad old days. The Israelis aren't gone. It's just that they used to bomb us or do what they wanted from inside the Strip. Now they do it from the outside.
Looking out of my eighth-floor window, I see that the irregularly interlaced urban and agricultural areas in view are no longer filled with excited crowds. It's quiet, depressing, apathetic. During the day, another bombardment rocks the office where I work in Gaza City. Everyone talks about air raids. No one talks about Egypt any more. No one mentions "the liberation."
With 1.3 million Palestinians living in heavily packed refugee camps, subject to IDF jets and militants' rockets, the 140-square-mile Strip is not a likely setting for a stable and prosperous life. The key to a successful future is a functioning economy, and we can't create an economy out of nothing. The Israeli settlers who had the support of a powerful government, financial backing, international friends and access to outside goods and resources left nothing but some greenhouses behind.
I talk with my friends. I met Ala'a Younis, 25, when we were in high school together in Gaza City. Today he is an unemployed engineer who lives in a small town called Deir el-Balah. Since graduating from university in 2003, he hasn't had a job that lasted more than three months. His despair is reflected in his dull eyes and unkempt beard. "I was very hopeful about the withdrawal, but I am disappointed now, as nothing really changed," he said. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, university graduates here have a higher rate of unemployment than any other group of Palestinians -- it's 47.5 percent.
I ask him about the job creation programs sponsored by the Palestinian Authority and some international organizations. These temporary, low-paying jobs are just "painkillers," Ala'a said; they're mostly useful "just to keep people's mouths shut." Ala'a is a supporter of Hamas because its Islamic charities provide food, education and medical services to many refugee families here. "Hamas provides not only political alternatives, but economic ones also," he says.
Because Palestinians will be loyal to anyone who helps them survive, Ala'a says, Hamas will do increasingly well as a political party. "Look at the head of Al Salah Association [an Islamic charity connected to Hamas], he is now the mayor of Deir El Balah," he said.
Ialso had a talk with Mohammed Hassoona, my neighbor. He's one of some 300,000 Palestinians who lost their jobs in Israel during the five-year cycle of violence. He has seven children. The $200 a month he gets from the Palestinian Authority "does not feed my children bread," he said. He had hoped that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would result in less tension and the possibility that he could work in Israel again, but "nothing really changed." He is frustrated not only with Israel but with his own leaders: "If the PA does not do something, our misery will blow up in their faces."
He's right. The key to Gaza's future is the restoration of the Palestinian economy. Only this will pull the rug out from under Hamas and eradicate the chaos resulting from poverty and unemployment.
The Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Planning says that it has plans for the economic and urban development of Gaza. Construction and development of the areas evacuated by Israeli settlers are supposed to create jobs. For example, the land left behind by the Netzarim settlement is to be annexed to the Gaza seaport project and used as depots and warehouses. And the PA says it will invest in the greenhouses that the Israeli settlers left behind -- I have been told there are as many as 4,000 -- to create 30,000 jobs.
To most of us, these plans have nothing to do with reality. The Seaport project is still a fantasy, since it requires Israeli approval. Reconstruction of the Gaza airport, which the Israelis bulldozed at the beginning of the intifada, also needs Israeli approval. And there is all the hassle of reaching any agreement with Israel over our border control and commercial traffic. Gaza needs these links to the outside world not only to ship goods, but to provide access to Israel and other Arab countries for our graduates and unemployed workers. We have heard international promises to make the Gaza pullout a success -- but the political realities and absence of goodwill between the conflicting parties make this a distant dream.
The world sees Gaza, I think, the way we saw ourselves a few weeks ago -- "liberated" from the Israelis. But I fear that the world now thinks it can ignore us. Given the passivity of the ruling authority, Gazans need help from outside to save the next generations from poverty and extremism. Without such help, Gaza is still a prison -- it has just become a little more spacious.
"I think we were better off before the Israelis left," said Mohammed, my neighbor. "At least we were termed 'occupied,' but now we are not; we have been left alone in this barren land."
I hope the world proves him wrong.
Abdallah Al Salmi is a translator and public relations specialist for the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City.