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'It is a dream': In Gaza, they doubt blockade

-
busting truce
Hamas wants to 'break the siege' in talks, now stalled, with Israel but Gaza's
Palestinians are wary of false hope

Studying by candlelight during a power cut in Jabaliyya refugee camp
(MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)

Kaamil Ahmed
Wednesday 26 September 2018
GAZA CITY - Everywhere along Gaza’s coast – at its port, in coastal refugee
camps and by beachside stalls hawking coffee and roasted corn – sunset
beckons the blockaded enclave’s population to gaze out onto the
Mediterranean.
The sea has provided a mental release for Gaza’s two million people during a
decade of war and blockade that has destroyed homes, ravaged the economy
and strangled daily life - but ongoing ceasefire talks could provide a more
tangible escape.
A sea passage to Cyprus that would finally free Gaza’s captive residents to
move beyond its boundaries has been a crucial condition in momentous but
fragile negotiations between Israel and Hamas.
Hamas officials told Middle East Eye the route would “lift the blockade".

Palestinian children play by the beach in Gaza's Shati refugee camp
(MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)
“Gaza is on the brink of collapsing,” said Hazem Qasem, head of Hamas’
media unit, describing how the Palestinian enclave wants for everything from
jobs to electricity. He also warned it has teetered on the edge of another war
in recent months.
To prevent either of those outcomes under their watch, Qassem said
Hamas has shown just how ready the movement is for a peace deal by
controlling the intensity of weekly protests on the frontier with Israel and
reducing the number of incendiary kites and balloons sent to set fire to Israeli
crops.
Israel had been responding to both with lethal force, killing at least
187 protesters with sniper fire and carrying out air strikes on the alleged
masterminds of the arson attacks.
Qassem admits the talks - which Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, had
previously insisted would soon provide results - have been stalled by the
occupied West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, who oppose any deal that
does not involve them.
“Things are suspended right now but there is some communication to reach
an agreement. The current peace we have is fragile, it could end at any time."
'A dream'
On the Gaza coast, looking out onto the same empty seas that a deal could
transform into a hub of activity, expectations are more muted.
They told us 20 years ago that Gaza will be like Singapore. We are waiting
- Hani Thraya, Gaza resident and head of NGO Gaza Aid Association
Palestinians in Gaza have been promised radical changes before. The opening
of the border with Egypt was expected as part of sputtering reconciliation
talks between Hamas and the PA’s main faction Fatah, revived in October last
year, and, immediately before that, in a rumoured deal with the renegade
Fatah figure Mohammed Dahlan, whose forces Hamas chased out of Gaza
when taking control of it in 2007.
Since then, movement and trade beyond Gaza has been difficult because of an
air, land and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt.
"I feel so much pressure here. Every day, I see poor families - that gives me
negative feelings. So when I come here, I feel the fresh air. We return home
and feel good," said Hani Thraya, who brought a plastic table and chairs to
the seaport so his family could watch the sunset as they snacked on beans.
Gaza's mostly inactive port has become a place for the enclave's residents to
relax ahead of sunsets (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)
Being able to do more than stare out onto the sea, to have an option to freely
move to and from Gaza could transform life for individuals by giving them
freedom, he said, but could also revive the local economy, which has been
isolated from international markets by the blockade.
READ MORE ►
Gaza economy in crisis: World Bank report warns that it's in 'free fall'
He said he understood negotiations that allowed Palestinians in Gaza “to
breathe” by relaxing some of the blockade's restrictions, though he felt they
should be negotiated jointly by the Palestinian factions.
But, in reality, he did not expect Israel to honour its promises, even if a truce
is agreed.
“It is a dream,” said Thraya, the local head of Turkish-funded NGO Gaza Aid
Association. “They told us 20 years ago that Gaza will be like Singapore. We
are waiting.”
More failed talks?
The talks were prompted by a military escalation in August that both sides
feared could have brought about another war like the violence that killed
more 2,200 Palestinians in 2014.
Instead, they began discussing a long-term truce that hinged on Hamas
ensuring calm from the Gaza side and Israel loosening the more than decade-
long blockade of Gaza imposed when Hamas took control of the enclave.
Aside from a sea port, Hamas are demanding the permanent opening of the
border with Egypt and solutions to Gaza's lack of drinking water and
electricity, which currently only runs for four hours per day.

A group of men sit together in the dark during a power cut in the Jabaliyya
refugee cut (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)
Hamas have blamed the PA for slowing down the talks. Their West Bank
rivals, they said, launched an aggressive media and diplomatic campaign
against Hamas’s indirect contact with Israel and convinced Egypt that any
deal for Gaza must be negotiated by the national unity government that
Hamas and Fatah pledged once again to form last year but which has still not
materialised.
“The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want Gaza to have peace...they just want
to increase its suffering,” said Qassem, accusing PA President Mahmoud
Abbas of wanting to have total control of all political negotiations.
Senior Hamas political bureau figures have doubled down on their messaging
about the deal in recent weeks, generally referring to it as a process for
“breaking the siege” rather than specifically mentioning negotiations.
Mukhaima Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Gaza's al-Azhar
University, who was among a group of analysts and journalists invited to a
briefing by Sinwar on the deal in late August, said the Hamas leader was
convinced at the time that the deal was close to being finished.
That its prospects were dimming only became apparent around 10 days later,
he said, speculating that Abbas may have managed to thwart the deal but
threatening to suspend the PA security coordination with Israel in the West
Bank.
The Palestinian people are generally pessimistic about what is happening and
this is a justified feeling because we as Palestinians cannot make an agreement
- Hazem Qasem, head of Hamas’ media unit
Meanwhile both Fatah and Hamas have lost popularity among Palestinians,
according to the latest poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey
Research. Released in September, the data reveals a public irritated by a lack
of progress in reconciliation talks and “a pointless quarrel” over who has the
right to negotiate a truce for Gaza.
The same survey said that while almost two-thirds of people in Gaza
supported talks, many Palestinians were concerned that it could lead to a
permanent separation between Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
Qassem said Hamas recognises that for Gaza’s residents, the promises offered
by negotiations no longer inspire much excitement.
“The Palestinian people are generally pessimistic about what is happening
and this is a justified feeling because we as Palestinians cannot make an
agreement,” he said, insisting Hamas had not lost hope.
“The Palestinian people have heard tens of times about us going into talks
about reconciliation and truce talks. Unfortunately, in all these attempts,
we've returned without anything.”
Abu Saada said there was still some hope for the deal, despite the troubles it
had run into, because Sinwar appeared committed to ending the blockade.
"My impression was that Sinwar and the leadership of Hamas had taken the
decision that the Israeli siege and blockade against Gaza must be lifted in any
way," he said, pointing out that in recent weeks Hamas had increased the
pressure by calling for more regular protests against Israel.
"It's not an end but definitely there is a serious problem facing a truce
agreement between Hamas and Israel."
Palestinian women walk through Gaza's Shati refugee camp (MEE/Kaamil
Ahmed)
Lifeless
War and blockade may have dulled the life around the popular Anonymous
Soldier park that sits in the centre of Gaza City's commercial district, but
they had not previously managed to kill it completely.
New malls built after the 2014 war drew crowds in to polished shops and food
courts, competing with some of Gaza's most famous establishments for ice
cream and tradition sweets. Families gathered in the park at night for one of
the few remaining sources of children's entertainment; a ride in small buggies
pushed by Palestinian teens, blasting Arabic pop music and draped in
colourful fairy lights.
But more than a year of PA sanctions intended to pressure Hamas into ceding
control have taken their toll over the last year, including cuts to electricity and
medical supplies and the slashing of salaries paid to its own civil servants to
ensure that they did not work for Hamas.
If the number of fishermen before were ten from every 100 people here, now
it's two hundred from every hundred
- Salem Abu Riyal, fisherman
The snaking lines outside banks on the days PA salaries are paid are
truncated, which means less money is being spent. People still stroll through
the centre of the city, peeking through windows, but few carry shopping bags.
At night, informal shared taxis run by private residents from their own cars
shuttle down Gaza’s main thoroughfares, but few carry passengers.
A new World Bank report published on Tuesday warned that Gaza’s
economy has gone into “free fall”, highlighting that a quarter of families in
Gaza are struggling for cash because of the PA salary cuts and Hamas’s
inability to pay many of its own employees.
Unemployment rates have continued to reach new heights, reaching 53.7
percent in the second quarter of 2018, according to the Palestinian Bureau of
Statists, encouraging many into the informal work.
Salem Abu Riyal, who has 11 children and describes himself as the “godfather
of fishing” in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp, said he has seen the industry
transformed by the blockade.
Where he once owned a fleet of boats that could go deep into the sea, he now
works with a single boat. Finding the fish is a harder task in the overfished
three miles that Israel limits them to for most of the year. Finding people to
work for him is much easier.
"What do you expect me to find in just three miles?” said Abu Riyal. "Today,
if I look for some workers here, I'll find thousands. If the number of
fishermen before were ten from every 100 people here, now it's two hundred
from every hundred.”

A Palestinian
fisherman untangles his fishing net as he waits for customers in the Shati
refugee camp (MEE/Kaamil Ahmed)
Shati camp’s fishermen commonly complain about these changes, especially
the increasing number of unemployed Gazans who have turned to the sea for
work, hoping to catch something with basic nets or simply by taking fishing
rods out to the coast to get their own catch for the day.
They say the inexperienced fishermen use nets that catch even young fish that
should be thrown back, depleting the sea's stocks.
Abu Riyal and others sell their catch on the main road between the homes of
Shati camp and the sea but Gaza’s financial problems mean few can afford
the crates of crab they have on offer, leaving the fishermen out of pocket.
“When I started fishing, I never suffered from any kind of financial problem
until recent years, when the blockade started,” said Abu Riyal. “Now, when
my children ask for a single shekel for pocket money, and I can't even afford
that.”
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