ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 233

Gazan journalist Sami Obeid at his home in Gaza, 2021 (courtesy)
Main image: Gazan journalist Sami Obeid at his home in Gaza, 2021 (courtesy)
Interview'There will never be two states, so let’s create one country'

Gazan journalist to ToI: We, the people of Gaza, are also living like hostages of Hamas

Now with relatives in Rafah, Sami Obeid longs to return to his destroyed home in the north. Hamas hasn’t disappeared, he says, and without a ‘day-after’ plan, it will resume its rule

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Main image: Gazan journalist Sami Obeid at his home in Gaza, 2021 (courtesy)

Since 1997, Sami Obeid, 65, has appeared frequently in Israeli media as a political commentator, providing a rare source of inside information on what is happening in Gaza. After spending eight years living in Tel Aviv in the 1980s, he speaks fluent Hebrew.

As a journalist, he has also worked as a broadcaster for a Gazan radio station, but he has held a number of other jobs — including driving instructor and real estate appraiser.

Obeid belongs to the generation of Gazans that could travel freely into Israel and the West Bank in the period between the Israeli capture of the Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war and the granting of freedom of movement to Palestinians in 1972. This was a world away from the restrictions imposed to prevent terror attacks following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.

With the takeover of Hamas in 2007, two years after Israel’s withdrawal, and the Israeli-Egyptian embargo intended to prevent the import of weaponry, travel abroad became a complicated, expensive affair, and Gaza was cut off from the rest of the world. Its population ballooned (from 1.4 million in 2007 to 2.3 million in 2023), and today nearly half of its residents are below the age of 18, meaning they have never known a time when Gaza was an open territory.

Obeid recently spoke with The Times of Israel about the hardships of living in the embattled Strip over the past six months, about how the people perceive Hamas, and what they hope for their future.

Gazans’ best hope today is to be annexed by Israel and to become citizens of a single country including Jews and Palestinians, Obeid maintains.

“Of course, the PA could take it over, but I think that if the Jews [i.e. Israelis] are smart, they will annex Gaza,” he said in a lengthy phone call. [Such an act is supported by some on the Israeli far-right, along with the annexation of the West Bank, but without necessarily extending citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians. Annexation of Gaza and/or heavily populated West Bank territory is generally opposed by the Israeli mainstream, since it would risk ending Israel’s status as a Jewish-majority state or a democracy, or both.]

“There will never be two states anyway. So let’s create one country, and we [Palestinians] will live together with you,” urged Obeid. “There is no other solution. The alternative is endless war, a Muslim killing a Jew, a Jew killing a Muslim.”

Palestinians walk through the destruction left by the Israeli air and ground offensive after the IDF withdrew from Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Obeid also presented his own perspective, as a Gazan resident, on the October 7 rampage by Hamas in southern Israel, in which 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered some 1,200 people and seized 253 hostages.

“Hamas knew the people [of Gaza] hated them, that they didn’t want them as rulers. So they did October 7 out of revenge against us, in the expectation that Netanyahu would retaliate and devastate Gaza. What do Hamas leaders care anyway, they are all abroad,” he said.

The following conversation was lightly edited for clarity.

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, Qatar, December 16, 2019 (from the Facebook page of Al Jazeera Palestine)

The Times of Israel: Good evening Sami. Where are you now?

Sami Obeid: I am originally from the north of the Strip. In the early days of the war, on October 11, my family and I moved to the house of my brother-in-law in Rafah, so we’ve been staying with him. We’re near Mawasi [an area declared safe by Israel in the early days of the war].

Right after October 7, I heard Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and IDF chief Herzi Halevi saying that they would destroy Gaza, and I told myself there was no other choice than to flee south.

Two hundred meters from where I used to live stood 15 residential towers that were razed to the ground within two days. I watched the bombardments, and with every boom, I grew more desperate. They were empty, everyone had already fled. The last remaining person was an old, sick woman who couldn’t move. Eventually, she was also rescued from the towers.

Illustrative: A plume of smoke rises above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike, on October 8, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

How would you describe the current situation in Rafah?

Rafah’s original population was 300,000, but a million and a half have come to shelter here now. There is no electricity, no water, no cash, no fuel. Not even cigarettes. Everything is difficult to come by.

People try to survive, they have no choice. Most come from Gaza City. Those who live in houses try to generate electricity for cooking with solar panels since neither Israel nor Egypt are allowing fuel to enter. Refrigerators don’t work, lights don’t work.

There is no electricity, no water, no cash, no fuel. People try to survive, they have no choice

Is humanitarian aid coming in?

Yes, it’s coming in, but it’s not like where you live, where you can go to a supermarket and find what you want. Here, the food is distributed to the displaced persons camps.

The situation is particularly dire for those living in those camps, with no running water and no sanitary facilities. They often resort to digging holes in the ground to relieve themselves and then cover it up.

Makeshift toilet at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on December 13, 2023, during the Israel-Hamas war. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

Before the war started, I had some savings. When we moved to Rafah, the money ended. But we are getting by. Nobody in the family is working, none of the five sons – one of whom is married. My wife is a school principal and has been receiving a salary from the Palestinian Authority which is still coming in.

[Since Hamas wrested control from the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007, Ramallah has been paying salaries to tens of thousands of public sector workers in Gaza, including teachers, in a bid to maintain their allegiance to the PA.]

However, there are only two functioning banks in Rafah, serving over one million people. And they don’t open their doors to people; we need to take out cash from the ATM.

Most of the people I see in Rafah are living off money coming from outside of Gaza, from family and friends abroad. Nobody is working, and everything has become very expensive.

A pack of cigarettes today costs NIS 500 ($135). Before October 7, I used to smoke a pack a day. Today, I bought a single cigarette for NIS 27 – the price of a pack before the war. Israel is not allowing cigarettes inside Gaza. (Sarcastically:) They think we make rockets with them.

Palestinians walk at a makeshift market next to building rubble during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 12, 2024. (AFP)

Do you have any clue when you will be able to return to your home?

I hope that Israel and Hamas will reach an agreement in April, and the hostages will be released. We, the people of Gaza, are also living like hostages of Hamas.

After an agreement is reached, we will return to our homes and start thinking about how to rebuild them. I paid $550,000 for my house in north Gaza, and now I have no money, and I am displaced in Rafah. There are thousands in the same situation as me.

‘We, the people of Gaza, are also living like hostages of Hamas’

And on top of that, there are no hospitals, no mosques, no schools or universities, no electricity. My house is still standing, but has no walls, and the inside is burned.

I had been living in it for 30 years, spent $550,000 to buy it, and then it was wrecked. Even if I get money to rebuild it, how long will it take? How much longer do I have to live?

It’s 170 meters from the beach. You know, Gaza is a beautiful place. But it’s unlivable as long as there are [terrorist] “organizations” in Gaza, wars and poverty. Poverty is fertile ground for terror, and terror leads to wars. And there are no winners in war.

Nobody thought that this total destruction would occur. We’ve been taken back to the stone age. But I think that now “Netanyahu’s war” is over.

Palestinian boys ride a donkey-pulled cart near a building destroyed in Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 31, 2024. (Mohammed Abed / AFP)

So where are people going to go back to? We saw that some returned to Khan Younis earlier this week after the IDF pulled out, and found their homes destroyed.

Yes, indeed. But people still tell themselves that instead of wandering around in Rafah, it is preferable to return to Khan Younis and put up a tent next to the ruins of their homes, in the hope that one day someone will fix them, fix the roads.

How is the security situation on the streets of Rafah now? Are [Hamas] police patrolling the area? Or a Hamas presence?

There is almost no police. There is one police station for over a million people, once there used to be six. People have become accustomed to living with no police, no governance, no rule.

‘People have become accustomed to living with no police, no governance, no rule’

Of course, there are Hamas people, they moved down here from Gaza City with the rest of the population. The few police forces are from Hamas. They are also patrolling the Rafah border crossing, receiving the goods that come in, checking who goes in and out.

Those who leave Gaza need to pass by the Ministry of Interior, which is run by Hamas. But of course, each person needs to pay at least $5,000 to leave.

[According to multiple reports, Gazans who do not hold a foreign passport must pay between $5,000 and $10,000 to an Egyptian broker to be allowed to cross the border into Sinai.]

Those who have the money can go on “a trip” to Egypt for two or three months, until the war ends.

Travelers crossing from the Gaza Strip enter the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian enclave following their evacuation on December 18, 2023. (AFP)

Are you not afraid of an IDF invasion of Rafah?

Ok, and even if that happens, and I die, so what? I’ll be in the hands of God.

We wish Biden would give us visas to go to America. If he did, a million and a half Gazans would move there overnight. If Biden doesn’t want to put pressure on Israel to solve the problem, he should take us in

Where should we go anyway? Egypt doesn’t want us. As for other Arab countries, we don’t want to go there.

We wish [US President] Biden would give us visas to go to America. If he did, a million and a half Gazans would move there overnight. If Biden doesn’t want to put pressure on Israel to solve the problem, he should take us in.

But if Hamas doesn’t return to power, we will remain here, Gaza is a good place to live. We only hope that the mess with Israel will end. Gaza has gas reserves worth billions that it can live off.

[Obeid was referring to the Gaza Marine gas field discovered by British Gas in 2000, but whose development was delayed until recently due to political and security concerns. On June 18, 2023, the Israeli government gave preliminary approval for its development.]

Palestinian fishermen sit in their boat off the shores of the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, as an Israeli police boat is seen in the distance, March 26, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Do you think that Hamas can be ousted?

Israel says it will take one or two years to ensure that Hamas cannot come back to power. I hope so, I hope they won’t rule Gaza in the future, but I predict that they will return.

After all, who can rule Gaza? Mahmoud Abbas? He is old and sick. Do you think Hamas will ever give up on Gaza, even if all of its residents will die?

Of course they will announce they defeated Israel, even if they caused the death of 70,000 Palestinians and the complete destruction of the Strip.

[The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 33,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle.]

‘You think Hamas will ever give up on Gaza, even if all of its residents will die?’

Nobody wants Hamas, but people also don’t see an alternative.

Netanyahu has been asked repeatedly who should rule over Gaza, and he has never given an answer. He thinks the people of Gaza committed October 7 together with Hamas. But we are the victims. If Hamas returns to power, I will not stay here one more day.

Hamas officials at a conference to discuss local elections in the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2023. (via Shehabnews.com)

But what would people prefer? To live under Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, or Israel?

Ninety percent of the people in Gaza don’t want Hamas, in any way. [This is Obeid’s personal estimate.] They know that Israel considers Hamas terrorists and will impose limitations on Gaza if it stays in power.

People would much prefer the PA to Hamas, but what is Hamas going to do if the PA is restored here? Go to Qatar? Hamas will not allow the PA to rule undisturbed. The lands of Hamas, of the Muslim Brotherhood, are here in Gaza – while their billions are in Qatar. So they will put up a fight.

Hamas is now conducting negotiations with Israel. Do you think that when they are over, [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh will tell Israel please come in, please take over?

Ismail Haniyeh (L), the Doha-based political bureau chief of the Gaza terrorist organization Hamas, speaks to the press after a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) in Tehran on March 26, 2024. (AFP)

What Hamas did on October 7 was due to the fact that they knew the people [of Gaza] hated them. Hamas was afraid of the people, there was a growing anti-Hamas sentiment.

If there is no Hamas in Gaza, I will remain here. I am 65, I have traveled around the world, but I love this place. There are good people here, but they cannot manage themselves. They need an outsider to control them. Of course, the PA could take over, but I think that if the Jews [i.e. Israelis] are smart, they will annex Gaza.

Annex Gaza? After disengaging from it 17 years ago? And rebuild settlements?

Yes, they can rebuild Netzarim [an Israeli settlement in the Strip evacuated in the 2005 disengagement] and in parallel give citizenship to the Gazans. Grant them a “right of return.” In any case, there will never be a two-state solution.

A settler in the Gaza Strip settlement of Netzarim argues with soldiers who have come to evacuate him from his home, accusing them of betraying Jewish values, during the disengagement from Gaza, August 22, 2005. (Flash90)

So let’s create one country, and we [Palestinians] will live together with you. There is no other solution. The alternative is endless war and killings — widows and sorrow.

I ask myself: Who does the Jew pray to and who does the Muslim pray to? Both pray to God. How many Gods are there? Only one. So we pray to the same God. Muslims are the children of Ishmael, and Jews are the children of Isaac.

In Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Jews and Muslims used to live together for centuries, with no wars. Only with [the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor] Herzl and the creation of the State of Israel did the problems begin.

‘In Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Jews and Muslims used to live together for centuries, with no wars. Only with Herzl and the creation of the State of Israel did the problems begin’

[While it’s true that Jews had lived in Arab lands for thousands of years, and many of their communities preceded the advent of Islam, Jews were generally subjected to the payment of a special tax to their Muslim rulers and did not enjoy the same rights as Muslims. In the 20th century, with the rise of Arab nationalism and the conflict in Palestine, Arab regimes began a campaign of massive violations of the rights of their Jewish citizens, expropriated their properties, and denaturalized, expelled, arrested, and murdered many of them.]

I think the overwhelming majority of the population of Gaza wants to live like 1948 Palestinians [a common term in Arabic for “Arab Israelis”].

Arab-Israelis cast their ballots as they vote in Israel’s general election, in Kafr Manda, northern Israel on March 23, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

So you think Israelis and Palestinians can live together? What do you remember from your eight years living among Israelis in Tel Aviv?

I knew many Jews, and never had a problem with them, I hung out with them all the time, boys and girls together. I always respected them.

It was a mistake that Hebrew was not taught in Gaza to every single person. When Hamas rose to power and started brainwashing people about its divine mission to fight the Jews and liberate Palestine, I started wondering “Where will they lead these poor people, with their lies and their wars? I don’t want to die for their cause, let them go to die.”

@sami.obied

רפיח היום אחריא 178 ימי מלחמ

♬ الصوت الأصلي – sami Obied

To me, Tel Aviv is the most beautiful city in Palestine. Jerusalem has its history, and so do Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron, and Nablus, but Tel Aviv is the best. Better than Netanya, or Herzliya. I love how it merges with the sea.

Gaza is also by the sea, no?

Yes, true, and it’s also beautiful. Listen, Palestine has a 270-km [170-mile] long coast, and every centimeter has its history.

I love the sea, it keeps me alive. Every day, I walk 10-12 km (6-7.5 miles) to get to the beach and walk by the sea. Before the war, I weighed 88 kg (194 lbs), now I weigh 65 kg (143 lbs), both because of all the walking, and because of the food shortage.

One last question: Where is [Hamas Gaza leader] Yahya Sinwar?

I am not his friend, I don’t know. I am pretty sure he is not in Gaza. If I had his money, tomorrow I’d be in Morocco. What I care about now is for me and my children to keep living our lives, without war.

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