Two months after Israel's withdrawal, life for Palestinians hasn't improved much. But some business owners hold out hope for a brighter future.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published October 18, 2005
[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
Yehya Badul Rahman Bashir, 55, lives in the Gaza Strip and raises doves. He thinks Israel's withdrawal is proof that it reacts only to force.
Roots in Gaza City attracts high-level Palestinian officials with dishes like chicken cordon bleu and steak au poivre. "I may be a dreamer," says owner Basil Eleiwa, "but I think economic development can help the peace process."
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - "Roots - The Club" is the place in Gaza.
As a soft Mediterranean breeze caresses the palms, every table on the moonlit terrace is taken. The sounds of laughter mingle with the clink of fine china. Waiters serve from a menu featuring chicken cordon bleu and steak au poivre.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas comes here. So does Mohammed Dahlan, the ex-Palestinian security boss who coordinated with Israel on its historic withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip.
Now that the Israelis are gone, Roots' owner, Basil Eleiwa, has a vision for Gaza:
A tourist mecca, where wealthy Arabs fly directly to Gaza International Airport. Where they dine on plump prawns caught by trawlers based at the new Gaza Seaport. Where they jump on a limited access highway for a quick trip to the West Bank and the Vegas-style casino at Jericho.
"I may be a dreamer," Eleiwa says, "but I think economic development can help the peace process."
For now his dream is just that. The airport remains shut, its runway bulldozed by Israel. The seaport is nothing but a sign on an empty stretch of beach. There is no train, no highway, no tourists in the long-closed casino.
And in a place where 77 percent live in poverty, many Gazans can't afford a 75 cent glass of tea, let alone chateaubriand for almost $20.
After Israel withdrew two months ago, Palestinians hoped life would improve. But the pullout has been followed by scenes of violence - most recently last weekend - that renew doubts anything will truly change.
On Monday, Israel again called off peace talks and slapped new travel restrictions on Palestinians. Meanwhile Abbas, who is on a five-nation trip that will include a meeting with President Bush, struggles to control Hamas and other militants.
"Time is not on our side," says Salah Abdel Shafi, a Palestinian consultant to the World Bank. "Since the peace process began in 1991, nothing substantial has changed for Palestinians, a Palestinian state is as far removed as it ever was. That's why people think, "We tried negotiating, maybe resistance will bring a better solution."'
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For two weeks in August, Yehya Badul Rahman Bashir had a front-row seat to history. His home in the Palestinian city of Khan Younis is near what used to be Neve Dekalim, the largest of 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza.
As Israeli soldiers dragged fellow Jews from their homes, Bashir watched with satisfaction. "They are the occupiers - why feel sorry for them?"
Now a lean, graying 55, Bashir was in his teens when Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the 1967 Mideast War. Israeli troops, he says, seized much of his family's land and blocked it off with barbed wire.
Discouraged, Bashir left Gaza. He worked in Iraq for years, returning home only after Palestinians won a measure of self-rule under the 1993 Oslo peace agreement. But they continued to chafe under Israeli controls, and in 2000, Hamas and other militants launched an intifada that would kill more than 1,000 Israelis and terrorize the Gaza settlements.
Israel retaliated by destroying hundreds of Palestinian homes. Others were caught in the cross-fire; Bashir's house is pocked by Israeli bullets.
"This happened while they were asleep," he says, pointing to holes inches above his children's beds.
By late 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had had enough. There was no future, he said, for Gaza's 8,500 Jews in an overcrowded area of 1.37-million Arabs.
The aftermath of the pullout has been tumultuous. Thousands of Palestinians poured across the border into Egypt, eager to shop, visit relatives or - on the darker side - buy weapons to smuggle back into Gaza.
At a Hamas rally last month celebrating the withdrawal, a truck full of explosives accidentally blew up, killing 19 Palestinians. Israel, responding to rocket attacks on Israeli targets, assassinated two top Hamas members.
Since then, life in Gaza has quieted. Like most Palestinians in this flat coastal strip, Bashir says he wants peace. He hopes to reclaim his family's land and replant the orange groves destroyed so long ago.
But like many Palestinians, he also thinks the Gaza withdrawal is proof Israel reacts only to force.
"I'm not supporting Hamas, but the situation necessitates this. Israeli citizens should feel that whenever their government uses violence, there will be violence in return. But if there's peace, there's peace in return."
* * *
On Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed three Israeli settlers in the West Bank. That came just days after Israel arrested more than 100 members of Hamas, including its first female bombmaker.
The shootings and arrests underscore what many Israelis feared would happen after the Gaza pullout: Hamas and other militants are moving their fight from Gaza to the more populous West Bank, where 250,000 Jews live among 2.4-million Palestinians.
Squeezed in the middle are Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
"The PA needs a cease-fire in order to get to the next step in the road map" for peace, says Raphael Israeli, an expert on Hamas at Hebrew University. "But Hamas says the hell with that, we want to liberate all our territory and the only effective thing is armed struggle."
Abbas commands at least 53,000 security forces - among the world's highest per capita - but they complain they lack enough weapons to control heavily armed militants. Another factor: Many in the security services have relatives who are militants, "and they are not very eager to fight against each other," Israeli says.
By cracking down on Hamas, he adds, Israel is doing Abbas a favor: "The less Hamas activity in the streets, the stronger he is."
Despite its militancy, there are signs Hamas is trying to become more mainstream. "It doesn't want to appear too soft, but it's going through a transformation that shows it wants to be part of a new, evolving, political process," says Shafi, the World Bank consultant.
While the notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority squandered billions, Hamas won popular support by feeding and helping the poor. It did well in recent local elections in Gaza and the West Bank, and is expected to win seats in January's parliamentary contests.
Israel opposes a political role for the organization because of its terrorist activities. But "the more you integrate Hamas into the political process," Shafi says, "the more you lessen the chances of it pursuing the military option."
Regardless of how closely they toe the road map, many Palestinians doubt Israel will ever agree to a Palestinian state. Though Sharon gave up small settlements in Gaza, Israel continues to expand enormous ones in the West Bank, some with 30,000 or more people.
"They will take the Jews out of Gaza and throw them on us in the West Bank," says Ramia Abu Soboh, a college student.
On a recent day, she was on her way to Ramallah from a village near Jerusalem. First, she had to go through a congested Israeli checkpoint. Those with Palestinian IDs are not allowed to drive through - they must walk several hundred yards, often in 100-degree summertime heat.
Nearby, cranes hoisted huge concrete slabs for the newest segment of Israel's security fence. The fence - actually a 20-foot-high barrier in many places - now snakes like the Great Wall of China across the hilly terrain, separating Palestinians from Jews and in many cases, Palestinians from Palestinians.
Israel rerouted parts of the fence to reduce hardships. But Palestinians complain it is a challenge to move around the West Bank, let alone build their own state.
"I'm ashamed to say I've never been to Jerusalem in my life," laments Raed Khamus, owner of a cafe just 20 miles north of the city. Nor has he been to Gaza.
Palestinians have long pressed for a "safe passage" between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, about 30 miles apart. Under discussion is a sunken highway or a railroad, though it would be years before either is built.
While Palestinians in the West Bank can get to the outside world through Jordan, Gazans live in what is often called the world's biggest prison. Even after the pullout, Israel continues to control the air, the sea and most major crossing points.
"Israel say it's willing to facilitate movement, but the devil is in the details," Shafi says. "We can't stimulate local investment and attract investors if people can't move."
In its poverty and isolation, Gaza is far more conservative than the West Bank. Here, many women wear head scarves and figure-hiding coats. Wine is available only in a dingy U.N.-run restaurant patronized by foreigners.
In 2000, a hotel Basil Eleiwa owned was torched because of rumors guests were drinking alcohol.
But as Israel's pullout from Gaza became a reality, Eleiwa noticed a difference. Women came into his new business, Roots, with uncovered hair and snug jeans. The idea of serving liquor drew "very positive comments" as a way to boost tourism and create jobs, he says.
Eleiwa is encouraging Arabs from other countries to invest in Gaza and would like to see joint ventures with Israelis. Supporting the Palestinian economy is the best antidote to Islamic extremism, he argues:
"When you have economic oppression, you naturally tend to go to the spiritual. When the economic situation is better, Hamas loses some of its power."
Israeli, of Hebrew University, isn't so sure.
"They say it's poverty that breeds Hamas - I think that's not only untrue, but also arrogant. That means ideology has no importance, throw them a few dollars and things will be resolved. Yet two of the richest countries - Iran and Saudi Arabia - are also the most fundamentalist. Men like Osama bin Laden could live like billionaires with palaces but he chose to run into caves."