Poverty fuels anger in Gaza

Palestinians blame Arafat for chaos and corruption as violence mounts.

Published July 21, 2004 1:58PM (EDT)

As gunfire crackled nearby between between groups of Palestinian gunmen disputing who should head the police in Gaza, Ahmed Kaskin could only wonder at the cost of the ammunition and what the money could do for his family.

If one of his six sons was drawing a policeman's wage, he might have been more partisan.

"If I was employed or one of my sons was employed, I might think differently. But I can only look from the outside and all I can see is angry people around me cut off from that money," he said.

Mr Kaskin, 57, has six adult sons and he has tried repeatedly to get one of them a job with the Palestinian Authority's dozen security agencies.

After the last failed attempt, last month, a neighbour told him to stop complaining. "You know how it works. You have $500 or $1,000 and you pay the right person. You don't have the money so forget about it," he recalled.

The spate of kidnappings and gun battles that have occurred in the last week come against the backdrop of a power struggle precipitated by the Israeli plan to withdraw its settlements from the territory.

They are, in part, about political discontent with the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, and the struggle between armed groups associated with the authority and its dominant faction, Fatah, for control of the authority's resources.

These resources in turn come from the European Union and the Gulf states.

It is these resources that Mr Kaskin and the majority of Gazans who live in extreme poverty can only access, he says, with bribes they cannot afford. As a result they have little interest in the outcome.

"Look at who is firing the guns. They are not supporting the people, they are just trying to protect their jobs. The better they support their chief the more likely they are to keep their jobs and get advantages in the future," Mr Kaskin said.

He sits at the head of a family of 44 who live in a roughly built, concrete and asbestos house in the middle of the Shati refugee camp, known as Beach Camp, which stands next to Gaza City's small hotel strip and its upmarket Rimal district.

"We sleep together packed like rats," said his wife, Majdia.

He was once a fisherman but is now an invalid and must attempt to raise funds to pay for a back operation in Egypt. In Gaza's third world economy, a job as a police officer means a guaranteed income of $200 (#108) per month. Even for such a large family, a single wage would mean the difference between surviving and living.

While Mr Kaskin rails against the corruption of the authority, it is clear that he would rail less if he received more.

"I have six sons. Would Ghazi Jabali [the police chief who was kidnapped and fired by Yasser Arafat] give one a job? No. One was selected for training but he was not picked. We were devastated.

"If you want a job you pay. If you want to breathe you pay. We feel so out of the circle. We are just forced to watch. I am so angry about it but if I expressed my anger, it would do no good and I might land in jail," he said.

The family are divided about who could improve the situation. Mr Kaskin and his 29-year-old son, Muhammad, think that Muhammad Dahlan, a former head of one of the security agencies and an independent power in Gaza, backed by Israel and the United States, would be fairer. "Dahlan would be the best because he is a refugee and would represent us better," said Mr Kaskin.


Majdia Kaskin, 56, said that Hamas might make a better job of things and her husband adds that elections might make the Palestinian leadership more representative. In the poverty of the Beach Camp, many of the refugees look back nostalgically to the land they held in 1948 in what is now Israel.

Mrs Kaskin said: "My family had dozens of acres of land north of Gaza before 1948. Why are we here? What changed my life was Israel. The roots of the problem go far," she said. Her husband's memory is more recent.

"Before the Oslo peace agreement and the return of Arafat, I lived well. I did not agree with being occupied but I was able to work here or work in Israel. Since Arafat and his crowd came back I have come to know the meaning of poverty," he said.

While many Palestinians believe that tangled web of corruption has been woven since 1994, Mr Arafat has not borne the brunt of the criticism.

After the disturbances in Gaza, Danny Naveh, the Israeli health minister, suggested to his cabinet colleagues that it was a perfect time to assassinate Arafat because the Palestinian people would not react.

Mr Kaskin said: "I would not care. Well, maybe I would cry for a day but I have been crying every day for 10 years for my family." Muhammad and Mrs Kaskin both rejected any attack on Arafat. They believe that he is essentially good and the bad government attributed to him is the fault of the Israelis, who besiege him, and his advisers who misguide him.

"If he was here in Gaza, he would not let these things happen," said Mrs Kaskin. Her husband clearly did not agree.

"If you come back in some months time perhaps I will be dead and three of my sons mad from frustration," he said.

At this point Muhammad gets up and leaves. "I have hurt him. I should not have said what I said. But living like this, it's like living with a cancer inside of you.

"Look at my son," he concludes.

"He is healthy and well dressed in second hand clothes. But I can tell you he does not have a shekel in his pocket.

"As a father that hurts like a knife."

By Conal Urquhart

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