In Gaza, blame turns toward Arafat

Economic chaos -- and a looming humanitarian crisis -- undermine both the Palestinian Authority and the intifada.

Published July 19, 2002 11:13PM (EDT)

A white-haired and white-robed elderly man stalks into the makeshift tent in the poverty-stricken Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City. Trembling with rage, he throws a bag of weeds onto the mats that cover the sandy ground. "Is this what I should bring home?" he demands. "Is this what I should feed my sons?" The other men in the tent try to calm him down; they are all in the same situation, unemployed since the beginning of the intifada almost two years ago and by now on the verge of starving. Over the last couple of weeks, they have started gathering in tents all across the Gaza Strip to protest their situation and to make the Palestinian Authority sit up and take notice.

Hassan Khaled Hassanein, a 37-year-old father of 11, is the unofficial spokesman of the unemployed laborers, as they refer to themselves, in Sheikh Radwan. He explains that the protest is not political, that the laborers make every effort not to identify with any particular political faction. Much of the anger is nevertheless aimed at the P.A., the Fatah movement that is its main component, and its leader, Yasser Arafat. Sometimes, though, the protesters cannot hide a growing cynicism about the achievements of the intifada.

P.A. officials downplay the political significance of the protest, but many are clearly worried. So, too, are other Palestinian leaders, even those in hard-line groups like Hamas. With the economy in disarray and Israeli troops continuing the lockdown designed to prevent more suicide attacks, few here can be sure how the laborers' anger will play out. Perhaps it will further deepen the resentment against Israel and win more support for the Islamic militants. Among many, however, there's a growing concern that the protest will provoke people to abandon their support for the intifada in hopes of restoring economic stability and getting enough to eat.

Some 200,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip work mostly in construction, agriculture and services. They lost their jobs in Israel after the start of the intifada because they are not allowed into the country anymore. The income they took home was a pillar of the local economy, especially in Gaza. Compounding the crisis, Israel controls -- and frequently interrupts -- the flow of goods and raw materials into and out of the strip. The result is the total collapse of the economy. Some Palestinian reports place the poverty level at over 80 percent. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council this week that 2 million Palestinians need food and medical assistance. More than half of all Palestinian children show evidence of chronic or acute malnutrition, he said.

While foreign governments and the United Nations regularly speak of the need to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories, little has been achieved in Sheikh Radwan or other communities. At this week's meeting in New York, the so-called Quartet of international mediators in the conflict -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N. -- agreed that a decision by Israel to allow full access to humanitarian groups "would be the fastest way to begin improving the plight of the Palestinians  though it is not a substitute for all the other steps that the international community has been urging."

The protesters in the tents in Gaza have very little faith, though, that humanitarian aid will be enough and that the situation will allow an unrestricted flow of aid. They can point to the two attacks on Israelis this week. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been considering steps to ease restrictions in the Palestinian areas, but after a double suicide-bombing in Tel Aviv Wednesday night, defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer froze those efforts. "Israel is striving to ease the conditions as much as possible for the broader Palestinian population," said a statement issued by his office, "but the Palestinian terror is continuing to perpetuate the suffering."

In Gaza, Hassanein looks at these developments pragmatically. "We expect the Israelis to make life difficult for us. They are the enemy, after all, and that is what an enemy does," he says. "But from the Palestinian Authority, we expect something different -- we expect help. They have a responsibility toward us, but all we get from them is encouraging words but no help on the ground."

The P.A. does not yet have a functioning social-benefits system. Some aid is distributed through the P.A.-affiliated Trades Union Federation -- mostly one-time payments of $100 -- that are financed through a 5 percent tax on government workers who do still get a salary. The U.N. refugee agency for the Palestinians also tries to help, but Hassanein says that most families receive one food coupon every six or seven months. Most of the aid that gets distributed comes from Islamic charities that have ties to the militant Hamas movement.

It has taken almost two years for the situation to get this bad for most people, says Hassanein, because most had saved some money from work in Israel or other sources. But as time has passed, people have gone through their savings. Some men sold their wives' gold. "I sold everything we had," Hassanein says. Eventually he took out a loan to survive, the repayment of which now makes life even harder. His situation is worse than most others' because he has been banned from entering Israel, where he worked in construction, since 1995.

The P.A. comes in for most of the criticism from the laborers, not only because of its almost nonexistent benefits system, but also because its perceived corruption and inefficiency are believed to aggravate the crisis. One of the main complaints the protesters in the Gaza tents have is that P.A.-owned utility companies have started cutting off people who can no longer afford to pay their bills. "People who are unemployed should not be forced to pay their electricity and water bills," says Hassanein. "Also, if a son or wife gets ill, they should get help for medicine and the hospital."

In the protest tent, tempers frequently boil over at the mention of the P.A. "The police already complain if they get their salaries one month late," shouts one man. "We haven't had salaries for two years." Many ask where all the money goes that they think the P.A. gets from international donors and the Arab countries. "We see it on TV, but not here in the street," says one man. Another complains that the P.A. knows how to look after its own but has abandoned the workers. "They still have cars and they have petrol for the cars to drive," he says. "How come they make me pay my electricity bill, which they know I cannot afford?"

The protests may yet influence the Palestinian elections that have been announced for early next year. Indeed, the frustration and anger may do more to undermine the standing of Arafat than any speech by President Bush. Hassanein says he voted for Arafat in the elections six years ago, but now regrets it. This time around, he does not know who will get his vote. "The situation is so bad," he says. "Just in order to get a little bit of money, most people are prepared to make a deal with the devil." By "devil" he seems to refer both to the Islamic extremists who oppose Arafat and to the Israelis, for whom most laborers would gladly work again if given the chance.

Rasem al Bayari, the chairman of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions in Gaza, works in an office overseen by a large portrait of Arafat. In an interview, he initially minimizes the challenge that the laborers pose to the P.A. and Fatah. "The Palestinians are united," he says. "These economic pressures are not going to undermine our solidarity."

Al Bayari explains that the unions collect a tax from government workers who still get a salary and that they make payments to the unemployed whenever they can. Thus far, he says, 110,000 people have received the $100 payments, most of them only once in the last two years. But some large families or families in difficult circumstances have received up to five of the payments, he says. The unions also try to get free medical treatment for as many workers as possible. But the problem, he explains, is basic: There is just not enough money to help the unemployed more effectively. "Donations from Arab countries?" he says. "I haven't seen them yet."

Al Bayari is clearly a Fatah man, and after much prodding, he admits that he is deeply troubled by the mood in the street. "To hold elections now is a mistake," he says. "The people are angry and if elections are held now, they may elect extremists." He is scathing about international efforts to alleviate the humanitarian situation. "There needs to be more pressure on Israel to release funds that belong to the P.A.," he says. Even if the international community does not trust the P.A. with the money, he says, it can be distributed to the needy through organizations such as his own union federation.

The P.A. and Fatah are clearly worried by the head start enjoyed by Islamic charities in the field of humanitarian aid. Networks affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and later with Hamas go back decades in the Gaza Strip and are highly regarded by the population. And some militant and Islamic foreign regimes have begun to provide direct and high-profile aid during this intifada. Saddam Hussein, for example, has ordered direct payments -- ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 -- to the families of suicide bombers, to those who lose their homes, and to other victims of the uprising. Saudi Arabia, too, has been accused by Israel of providing payments to families of "martyrs," although Saudi officials have denied it.

Sheikh Ahmed Al-Kurd heads the Islamic Salah Foundation, whose main backers are the Saudis. He downplays the Islamic character of the foundation, and in doing so, implicitly downplays its political character and impact, too. "The aid is purely humanitarian and doesn't have anything to do with support for Hamas or Fatah," he says. "We are Islamic just like the Red Cross is Christian."

With a weary smile, Al-Kurd says he has been active since 1978, subtly drawing a distinction between himself and relative newcomers like the Palestinian Authority. The P.A. is responsible for feeding the people, he says, and points at the failure of Arafat and the party to build up a strong, independent economy after the 1993 Oslo accords. "Our job is not to take the place of the P.A. but to complement it," he says. But since the start of the intifada, the number of people who regularly get food from the Salah Foundation has increased 10-fold, says Al-Kurd, from 10,000 before to well over 100,000 today.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, is less circumspect about the ties it has with the Islamic charities. "Of course Salah and other Islamic foundations are identified with us," says Ismael Abu Shanab, a senior spokesman who lives in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood. Hamas made huge strides in popularity among the Palestinians at the beginning of the intifada with its hard-hitting attacks against Israelis, but Hamas is clearly worried now that economic pressure may cause most people to abandon the uprising. Hamas may derive some political gain from the works of these organizations, Abu Shanab concedes, but he insists that is not the objective. Even though the tactics have not changed, he says, Hamas considers it prudent to also emphasize its humanitarian work. "We don't want to derive immediate political benefits," he explains. "We see it more as a means of extending the life span of the intifada."

Just a few streets away in Sheikh Radwan, Hassanein's house lies at the back of a small market that looks half abandoned. Every time he enters his small home, where he lives with his wife and children, his shoulders almost brush against the meat that the butcher shop out front has hung from hooks in the open air. "That is the only meat we ever see," he remarks bitterly. In the sweltering heat of the Gaza summer, some of his children chime in: "We never eat ice cream anymore, either."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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