About two weeks ago, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met with a group of Israeli journalists, myself included, in the Muqata in Ramallah. The rais made firm statements against violence and terrorism and repeated his call for the resumption of peace talks.
On Wednesday afternoon, just hours after three Palestinian youths from Qabatiya carried out a horrific terror attack at Damascus Gate in which Border Police officer Hadar Cohen, 19, was killed, Abbas met in the same office with parents of several young Palestinian terrorists who had murdered Israelis — terrorists whose bodies had not been returned. He promised to rebuild the families’ homes, which Israeli security troops had demolished.
It may be that Abbas sees such a promise as a humanitarian gesture, perhaps an act of mercy, toward the families. But he must know how his words and deeds would be interpreted in Palestinian and Israeli society: as an act of solidarity and support for terrorists’ actions in a week that those three young men, from families that are strong supporters of Fatah, went on a killing spree outside Jerusalem’s Old City, and a Palestinian Authority police officer tried to kill three young soldiers. Plainly, this is no way to build peace; nor is it any way to convey a message against violence and terrorism.
It is true that the Palestinian Authority acts against terrorism, prevents terror attacks and arrests people suspected of planning terror attacks. Still, when the entire official and unofficial Palestinian media conveys the message that the terrorists are “heroes” and Abbas embraces the families of these “martyrs,” the impression that comes across in Israel and in the territories alike is that, just as in Yasser Arafat’s time, Abbas tries every so often to ride the tiger rather than get rid of it.
Reports came from the Gaza Strip that same Wednesday evening about the collapse of yet another tunnel in the Zeitun neighborhood. A day before, another attack tunnel that Hamas operatives had dug near the former community of Netzarim, quite close to Kissufim and Nahal Oz, had collapsed. The new collapse killed two members of Hamas, and the incident made headlines in Israeli and Palestinian media.
The tunnels themselves, and what leaders on both sides are saying about them, make for big news at present. Hamas’s media outlets publish videos almost daily showing — essentially mocking — Israeli engineering equipment digging on the border in an effort to locate tunnels. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas chief in Gaza, bragged last Friday that his movement was digging tunnels toward Israel and testing rockets.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by threatening that Hamas would pay dearly if it used a tunnel to attack Israel. In turn, on Wednesday, Mahmoud al-Zahar, the former Hamas foreign minister, scoffed to reporters: “The tunnels have already reached… beyond Gaza. That means that land that was occupied in 1948 is not safe [for Israelis]. The fact that you found one tunnel doesn’t mean that you found others.” He added: “Now, thank God, I inform you that we are in better shape than we were in the last war.”
This is unlikely. Eighteen months after the last war, Hamas has not regained all of its abilities, certainly not as far as rockets are concerned. Which may be why, later in the day, al-Zahar tried to say that “the statements he was quoted as saying were not exact.” In addition, Hamas also conveyed explicitly calming messages to Israel.
In a conversation I had that evening with a senior member of Hamas, I asked him a simple question: Was Hamas planning to start a war with Israel?
His response was unequivocal: Hamas had no intention of going on the offensive or starting a war. “Our position is clear,” he said. “We do not want escalation, nor do we want war. We have no intention, at the present time or in the future, of starting a war, and as far as we are concerned, that option is not on the table.”
He told me that Hamas officials had said the same thing to high-ranking Turkish and Qatari officials and also to UN envoy Nikolay Mladenov, who met with Hamas’s upper echelon in the Gaza Strip. Still, he warned that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip could lead to severe consequences.
“One of the main reasons for the last war was the economic situation in Gaza, and Israel knows it,” he said. “The situation is difficult now too, maybe even more so. Look what is happening with unemployment and poverty. It’s true that Israel continues to allow goods to be brought in and is making sure that rebuilding continues, but the pace of the rebuilding is very slow and we are under a great deal of pressure to do something. The people in Gaza demand that we act to bring about change in their situation. There are many people here who have no homes, and they cannot tolerate the situation any longer. And again, I emphasize: We do not want war. And we realize that most of the people want only to rebuild Gaza, and that is what we want — to continue the reconstruction.”
So which Hamas should we believe? The bragging, aggressive Haniyeh and Zahar? Or the senior Hamas member? And what about Hamas’s military wing, which has not been heard from at all?
The prevailing assumption in Gaza and Israel alike is that Hamas does not want an escalation… at present. Still, before the summer 2014 war, there were those in the Hamas military wing who pushed for a “pre-emptive strike” via the tunnels; the leadership abroad, headed by Khaled Mashaal, stopped them. Mashaal and his colleagues probably lack the authority nowadays to stop the military wing, which has Mohammed Deif at the helm together with Yahya Sinwar, the meteor in Hamas’s skies.
If Deif and Sinwar should decide to act against Israel, contrary to Hamas’s political interests or the will of the public in Gaza, Israel could find itself once again in a long war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Not ice cream, water
We can agree with the senior Hamas member about one thing. Public opinion in Gaza, which has strongly opposed resuming combat with Israel since 2004’s Operation Protective Edge, is already starting to show signs of the despair and hardship that led to wars with Hamas in the past. The Israeli public may not realize just how bad things are in Gaza.
“We have electricity for six hours a day,” A. tells me by telephone from Gaza. “And things in our area are relatively good. We also have two extra hours because we took power from another line. But our neighborhood is considered an ‘important’ one. My sister, who lives in a different neighborhood, gets only three hours a day.”
‘I know somebody who does not belong to any political group, but he wants to make a living, so he went to work digging tunnels’
He tells me that most of the public in Gaza lives on assistance from the various aid organizations. “Unemployment is at about 45 percent,” he says. “Those who don’t work, live on UNRWA assistance, and of course some receive salaries from the Palestinian Authority or aid from charitable organizations. The ‘employees’ do not receive high salaries either. You can find many Gazans who work as street sweepers for 20 to 30 shekels a day ($5-7). And even if you work for the Hamas government, they cannot pay a full salary. There are more than 100,000 university graduates who have nowhere to work. There are also people who completed their matriculation examinations, but their parents cannot pay for academic studies, so they sit at home. People want to live. I know somebody who does not belong to any political group, but he wants to make a living, so he went to work digging tunnels.”
He continued, “The vast majority here has no way to buy a home or build one. So almost everyone lives with their parents. Ninety percent of people live with their parents. Few can get married, because people have no money for weddings. There are offices that rent out halls and organize receptions and food for weddings by extending special loans, and the groom has to pay back $100 to $150 dollars a month. So the number of weddings is small. The number of couples that have divorced has also gone up because the men cannot make a living.”
I ask: What about water? “No one drinks water from the tap. Every home has a big drum that holds about 500 liters. Trucks come with large containers, playing special music, and that’s how I know that the water man is here. I live on an upper floor, so I throw down the rope and he connects the pipe. I tug on the rope and he turns on the spigot, and that’s how I get water at home. We’re not supposed to drink the water here, but the poor people do.”
Welcome to Gaza’s version of Somalia.