How to save Gaza: A Palestinian American argues it’s time to bring in the UN and stop blaming Israel
Ten years ago, terrible events were unfolding in my native Gaza Strip. The Fatah-Hamas conflict was escalating, and all signs were pointing to an outcome that many in the George W. Bush administration did not want to believe was coming.
Despite millions of dollars in cash and arms from Arab countries and the United States, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas misplayed his hand and failed to stop Hamas’ violent military takeover of the coastal enclave, thereby raising tensions within Palestinian communities and with Israel.
By sheer coincidence, the very day the Islamist movement declared Gaza under its full control, June 14, 2007, my interview for political asylum status in the United States was underway.
Now, as an American citizen living in San Francisco, I can write about my experiences and perspectives in ways that many in Gaza cannot, fearing only that my parents, siblings and other family members who remain there are not held responsible for my opinions. My folks are sometimes jealous of my ability to speak my mind and remind me frequently to consider the implications for them of what I say.
While Israel continues to play a significant role in Gaza’s affairs, the grim anniversary of the Hamas takeover warrants focusing less on Israel than the role that Palestinian political organizations have played in worsening the misery for Gaza’s more than 2 million residents. And that has led me to conclude that the United Nations, for all its problems and the hate it incurs by Israelis, is perhaps Gazans’ best hope for progress.
After Hamas won local and parliamentary elections in 2006, Fatah — led by Abbas — was reluctant to relinquish executive authority to what it believed was an incompetent ideological group, unfit to govern and lacking the international recognition necessary for success. Hamas, on the other hand, felt emboldened by its popular victory to take the helm from Fatah, whose corruption had reached epic proportions that caused many — even some seculars — to vote for Hamas, hoping for change.
The years that followed have proved that change remains elusive. Gazans’ hope for a better life was never realized. An Israeli and Egyptian blockade, initiated because of security concerns after Hamas seized power, set the stage for the degradation of the quality of life in the troubled Strip. The three major conflicts with Israel that followed in 2008, 2012 and 2014 worsened conditions and caused tens of thousands of causalities and billions of dollars in damages to the economy and infrastructure. And while hundreds of trucks carrying goods enter Gaza from Israel on a daily basis, restrictions prevent numerous consumer, industrial and even medical items from being sold to Gazans because of Israeli concerns over potential dual-use.
Virtually every aspect of life in Gaza continues to deteriorate. One can start with the crippling electricity outages, which can last as long as 21 hours a day, or the heavily polluted drinking water. Chronic illnesses have become untreatable. Massive unemployment, especially among youth and college graduates, is a major source of misery and uncertainty — it’s been reported as the highest in the world.
While some parts of Gaza have had a chance to rebuild since the last war, others still lay in ruins, and millions of gallons of untreated raw sewage continue to flow in streets and into the Mediterranean Sea, forcing most beaches to close. Then there are the contrasts between those living in sheer poverty and the flashy shopping malls — unaffordable to most people — that have popped up in some parts of town.
Darkness resulting from the electricity crisis makes Gaza feel like a sad, miserable place, particularly at night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if given a chance, more than half of Gaza’s population would choose to leave the Strip for any other place in the Middle East or Europe, in pursuit of a better, more secure and stable life.
Ongoing bickering between Hamas and Fatah only serves to increase the suffering. In an effort to pressure the Islamist movement, Abbas is retiring more than 6,000 Gaza-based Palestinian Authority employees. Red tape and politics are impacting the permitting process for Gazans who need to travel outside the small enclave to receive medical treatment. With several major heat waves and no electricity, nor, at times, water to cool off, people are experiencing hell on earth.
The humanitarian conditions are spiraling downward and may hit the point of no return. To hit back at the PA, Hamas is entering into an unorthodox alliance with Mohammed Dahlan, the group’s former enemy with whom it clashed in 2007, and the current arch-enemy of Abbas. This resulted in the recent delivery of Egyptian industrial diesel fuel for Gaza’s sole power plant but resulted in no tangible improvement in the electricity disaster.
When Hamas approached the elections in 2006, it had two goals. First, it was convinced that it could bring its agenda of armed resistance against Israeli occupation to the global stage through the PA, which was created by the Oslo peace accords — the very agreement that Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, despises and rejects. The group also believed that its Islamic principles would result in better governance in Gaza, based on integrity, honesty, discipline and compassion. Surely, many believed, the religious folks would be better than the secular nationalists with their scandals and unchecked corruption.
However, even in power, Hamas has failed to convince the world that its armed struggle against Israel is, in fact, legitimate. To many around the world, engagement in a political process often means abandoning violence. Shooting unguided rockets into Israeli communities — and in the process endangering many local lives through inevitable Israeli retaliations — does not effectively foster international compassion for one’s cause. Nor does digging smuggling tunnels near residential areas without the consent of local residents, many of whom are intimidated into silence.
As for Hamas’ second objective, the international and Israeli blockade against Gaza has meant that the group had virtually no financial or political capital for improving lives. Promises of better infrastructure, power-sharing and improved government-to-people relations were never kept because there was no way for them to be realized given Hamas’ ideological stance. This has hindered its ability to rule effectively.
To its credit, Hamas has been able to restrict the public flaunting and use of firearms in Gaza, and it holds a monopoly on force. It has established an agreement whereby armed groups cannot engage Israel militarily at random. And it has cracked down on ISIS-inspired Salafists in recent months.
Overall, however, Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip was a grave miscalculation that resulted in nothing short of a disaster for the people. Ask most people on Gaza streets today about what their concerns are: Most are worried about not having power, water, clean air, housing, jobs, quality health care and other necessities that Hamas’ government has been unable to deliver. It is unlikely that you’ll encounter many people concerned with long-term issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas’ decade-long adventure has reduced people’s interests to the mere basics, destroying their hopes for a resolution to the big and historic challenges.
Still, it is terrifying to know that Gaza is a powder keg, with many young people who are desperate and vulnerable to radicalization and violent tendencies. Gaza also is full of young people who have dreams just like Israeli and other youth do, but they lack the means to pursue their aspirations and realize their true potential as capable, talented contributors to humanity.
The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, shares responsibility for the misery in Gaza. Fatah derives much of its legitimacy from two things: its historic battles with Israel before the Oslo accords and the ability to create public service jobs that reduced unemployment. But it was the corruption and failures of the PA that paved the way for Hamas’ takeover. Despite dozens of redundant security services, safety in Gaza was a serious issue and rampant gun violence promoted desperation for change.
The Palestinian authority and Hamas have failed the people of Gaza miserably.
Gazans feel that the PA has abandoned them. This is evidenced in the recent cuts to the salaries of public servants on the PA’s payroll: My mother, who teaches high school math, had her salary reduced by 40 percent last month just as she is about to retire. In April, the PA stopped paying for electricity being generated by Israel in an effort to apply further pressure on Gaza’s rulers. After the Hamas takeover, the PA told many of its employees to stay at home and not work for Hamas. Many of these public servants have been decaying at home, their skills diminished and mental health worsened by their inability to work daily and to be contributing members of society.
The PA and Hamas have failed the people of Gaza miserably. People’s lives are reduced to waiting for change that cannot come as long as this stagnant impasse continues. How is it that a jewel on the Mediterranean with one of the most strategic locations and a nearby unused gas field does not have a functional airport, a seaport, a vibrant economy, sound infrastructure or robust exchange with its neighbors?
We cannot place the entirety of the blame at Israel’s feet. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leadership missed an opportunity to demonstrate to the entire world that, when given a fair chance, Palestinians are able to govern effectively and create the foundations for a state worth living in. Success in Gaza could have demonstrated that the West Bank would look the same, were Israeli settlements vacated. Instead, we have made the lives of pro-occupation political parties in Israel much easier, affirming the claim that security threats have been too great to give back the land.
So, what can be done? As someone with deep roots in Gaza, I cannot consider the status quo a viable option. Hamas and Fatah are ideologically and politically irreconcilable. It is almost certain that corruption and incompetence will continue to hinder the establishment of robust systems in Gaza to turn things around and improve the lives of its residents.
The best way forward may be back.
After the 1956 Suez crisis, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) established its headquarters in the Gaza Strip to facilitate military disengagement after the war ended. The multinational force maintained peace for almost a decade. It even operated an airport that facilitated the movement of goods and passengers, local and foreign.
Although Egypt was administratively in charge of the Gaza Strip, U.N. agencies provided the foundation for the stability and well-being of local Palestinians. The ill-advised decision by then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to demand the withdrawal of the UNEF set the stage for problems that Palestinians continue to face.
However, 50 years after the UNEF left Gaza, conditions are very different, with Egypt overtly allied with Israel to combat terrorism in Sinai and restrict movement and access to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
In 2014, because of concerns that the Hamas regime would collapse, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for Gaza to be placed under a U.N. mandate to facilitate the Strip’s resurgence as a vibrant territory. Although many ridiculed the proposal at the time, I was one of the few who vocally supported certain components of the idea because it would have removed Gazans from the control of intransigent Palestinian-Israeli political dynamics.
Furthermore, the U.N. has a track record of carrying out major interventions in places that suffer from instability, violence, collapsing infrastructure and political deadlock. Since the 1980s, the United Nations has been involved in significant humanitarian operations, using ground and aerial assets and networks, in countries such as Afghanistan, Liberia, North and South Sudan, Mali, Libya, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
A great example of such involvement is Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a consortium of U.N. agencies and international organizations operating in South Sudan to deliver humanitarian aid and assistance throughout the war-torn and drought-afflicted regions.
OLS was established in 1989 after it became apparent that major intervention was needed because of the second Sudanese civil war and a devastating famine. As a result of practical and detailed negotiations, the U.N., the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army agreed to deliver humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need regardless of their location or political affiliation. Civilians in need of travel were transported in and out of certain areas using various U.N. mechanisms, including aircraft. The northern Kenyan town of Lokichogio and its airport became primary staging areas for U.N. humanitarian air operations that serviced South Sudan. The U.N. dealt with a non-state armed group out of necessity, but without conferring recognition upon it.
Because the U.N. has been operating in Gaza for decades, it already enjoys a status in Palestinian society as a humanitarian platform and provider of essential services. A transitional period of five or 10 years could prove vital in stabilizing the Strip by preventing another war, reversing the deterioration of living conditions, initiating infrastructure renovations and managing aid money in a professional, nonpartisan manner. This stability could break the current deadlock and allow political resolutions that would empower the Palestinian people to truly achieve self-determination, with a focus on the needs of future generations.
Many nations and organizations can operate under the U.N.’s umbrella, which is the most accepted international entity to Gazans sensitive to the potential of “another foreign occupation.” Criticism may be hard to hear, but we all have an obligation to speak out against the continuing gradual destruction of hope for our Palestine.
Gaza is at a critical juncture. Internationalizing it offers the only hope for a pragmatic way forward. Conditioning improvements to Gaza’s situation upon Hamas’ departure from power or a fundamental change in its ideology only will further the suffering of Palestinian civilians, who are paying the price for circumstances over which they have no control.
I am optimistic that there’s a way forward to fulfill the needs of Gazans while addressing Israel’s legitimate security needs.
As someone who received political asylum status in the United States in 2008, I am one of very few lucky Gazans who have acquired this status over a 20-year period. I enjoy great privileges, now as an American citizen, but I won’t enjoy those alone: I cannot let go of where I came from. And I refuse to be hopeless.
AHMED FOUAD ALKHATIB is a San Francisco-based Palestinian-American humanitarian activist from the Gaza Strip and founder of Project Unified Assistance, which advocates for the establishment of a humanitarian United Nations-operated, Israel Defense Forces-approved airport in the Gaza Strip.