In the Gaza Strip, a forgotten front

With the conflict continuing to escalate in Lebanon, another conflict is overlooked. But it's still raging.

Published July 30, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - On Thursday morning, a smartly dressed delegation from the European Union arrived with a gift for Shifa Hospital - fuel to keep its generators running after Israeli missiles knocked out power to much of the Gaza Strip.

While the EU officials were going in the hospital's front door, members of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad were arriving in the back. They had come to collect the still-bloody body of a comrade killed in a gunbattle with Israeli soldiers.

Dozens of men crowded into the hospital's morgue, wrapped 18-year-old Malek El Masharw in a black Islamic Jihad flag and loaded him onto a pickup. Then they drove off with an ear-splitting volley of Kalashnikov rifle fire.

No one in the hospital paid any attention.

Weapons are everywhere in Gaza these days as the narrow coastal strip teeters on the edge of anarchy. Nearly a year after Israel withdrew its soldiers and 8,000 Jewish settlers, Gaza's 1.3-million Palestinians have seen their hopes for a better life crumble amid fresh fighting with the Israelis and a new surge in militancy.

"The situation here is so difficult," said Thalal Abu Aeda, an unemployed father of five, sweat soaking through his sports shirt. "There is no work, nothing."

Palestinian voters in January rejected the corrupt, ruling Fatah party in favor of the radical organization Hamas. Its refusal to accept Israel's existence has led to international sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian economy and further inflamed anger against Israel.

After months of firing rockets into nearby Israeli cities, Hamas and other militants kidnapped a Jewish soldier on June 25 and are still holding him in Gaza. Israel responded by bombing Gaza's main power plant and destroying groves and neighborhoods from which the rockets are launched.

Scores of Palestinians have been left homeless and at least 100 have been killed.

The violence in Gaza has been all but obscured by Israel's three-week struggle in Lebanon where it has encountered surprisingly strong resistance from the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, which crossed the border to kidnap two Israeli soldiers July 12.

Some Gaza Palestinians, unhappy with their own government, are cheering for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. They see him as the only Arab ruler able to stand up to Israel.

Other Gazans continue to back Palestinian "resistance" groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And then there are those like Khaled Albarssi, manager of the Western Union office in Gaza City, who are sick of it all.

Single and 27, he no longer goes out with friends at night for fear of being hit by an Israeli missile. He moved his refrigerator to his office because he rarely has electricity at home. Even if he did, he wouldn't watch coverage of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict.

"I'm not interested in what they're doing," Albarssi said. "We have enough problems just to live."

* * *

Dr. Jumaa Al Saqqa keeps several grisly souvenirs on his desk at Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest. They are pieces of missiles - the Hebrew writing still visible - that have killed Palestinians, he says.

Saqqa also has two jars of tissue samples from recent victims. The hospital plans to send them to Italy to be tested for phosphorous. The Palestinians suspect, though Israel denies, that the missiles contain the flesh-searing substance, which would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.

In a city where many businesses have closed and the rest are struggling, Shifa Hospital is by far the busiest place around. Through the heat of the day, dozens of men, boys and Arab journalists hang out at the entrance, waiting for the Red Crescent ambulances to unload the latest casualties.

The busiest day was Wednesday, when Israeli tanks and airstrikes killed 23 Palestinians, 11 of them militants. Among the many injured was 13-year-old Sumaia Okal, who on Thursday lay in the intensive care unit with her eyes half open, seeing nothing.

"Her heart is okay, but her brain is dead," said head nurse Nasser Hammad. A tank shell hit Sumaia's house, killing her mother and sister.

In the blood bank downstairs, the five chairs were constantly occupied.

"If there is any incident, a lot of people come to give blood," said Najah Elaiwa, the director.

The hospital has no shortage of blood. But with Israel often closing the border in response to rocket attacks, there are shortages of many other things, including blood bags and test kits to screen for HIV and hepatitis C. The blood bank can't afford to give donors juice or a candy bar so they don't feel woozy when they get up.

Elaiwa, the mother of three, is among more than 100,000 Palestinian public employees who went for months without pay after the United States and other countries cut off funding to the new Hamas-led government. Last week, she finally received 1,500 shekels, or $340 - half her usual monthly salary.

Her husband is retired, but the family has scraped by because his brother runs a grocery store. Elaiwa's own brother, who worked for the Palestinian security services, was killed by an Israeli tank shell last year.

"I didn't support Hamas or Fatah," she said. "I support peace.

A colleague, Dr. Mazen Elaloul, also relied on a relative's help during the months without pay. He knows nurses who stopped coming to work because they couldn't afford a few shekels for transportation.

In January, Elaloul voted for the "Third Way" - a moderate alternative to Hamas and Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party. But he is angry that Israel and the United States rejected the results of an election both had pushed for.

"Not all people here are Hamas, but they wanted to change the past and the people of Arafat," Elaloul said. "Always Bush talks of the need to impose democracy, but then you see what he and the Israelis do."

* * *

The overwhelming majority of Gaza residents are Muslim. Yet 2,500 Christians remain, many of whom worship in St. Porphyrios Greek Orthodox Church.

"There is no difference between Muslims and Christians," insists Kamel Ayya, a church member. "We are all Palestinians."

As if to prove the point, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas was among the scores of people who turned up at 11 a.m. Thursday for a churchyard rally to support the Lebanese. Haniya still ventures out in public although more hard-line Hamas leaders are in hiding from the Israeli missiles that have already have killed several of their colleagues.

Given the ecclesiastical setting, there were prayers for peace and calls to end the violence. But to almost everyone here, the violence is entirely one-sided. No one criticizes Hamas and Hezbollah for the rocket attacks or the kidnappings.

"No to the Israeli aggression against the Lebanese and Palestinians!" screamed the banner on one wall.

Across the courtyard, a large poster showed a photograph of an Israeli girl smiling as she wrote her name on a missile destined for a target in Lebanon. Beneath that, dozens of other photos of Lebanese children who had been horribly burned or maimed. Some were barely recognizable as human.

"Shocking images of gifts from Israeli children," the poster said. "Disgusting? Appalling? No. Just Zionism."

Ayya said many Christian Palestinians support Hezbollah just as "they support any party that offers resistance against the Israelis."

"Israel creates bad feelings," he added.

A speech pathologist, Ayya has a degree from Wisconsin's Marquette University. No, he said somewhat wistfully, he has never been to the United States - he graduated from a Marquette-run program in Gaza. He envies those who had a chance to go abroad before it became almost impossible to leave the Gaza Strip.

"Most of the Christians are outside searching for jobs and better lives," Ayya said. "Students live in Europe or the United States or Australia. Then they stay because the situation here is not so good."

* * *

Back at the hospital, Mahmoud Abu Aeda carried a stack of plastic cups and a chrome teapot with Lipton tags hanging out. He works from midmorning to sunset, selling sweetened tea at a shekel a cup to help support his family.

Mahmoud is 6 years old.

His father did construction work in Israel until two years ago, when the Israelis severely restricted Palestinian entry because of the terrorist threat. His mother stays at home to clean and cook for Mahmoud, his sister and three older brothers.

Cardboard covers one window: the Aedas say it was shattered by the sonic boom from an Israeli fighter jet.

On Thursday afternoon, an Israeli drone buzzed over their apartment building like a loud, annoying mosquito. The sound often means that the Israelis are homing in on a target, as they did last year when a missile slammed into a nearby building that members of Islamic Jihad had recently vacated.

"It's not right for Hamas and Jihad to rent apartments between innocent people," Abu Aeda said.

"We're scared all the time," his wife chimed in.

Mahmoud and his brothers make about $9 a day selling tea, which their father brews on a small gas burner just outside the hospital. That money is the family's only income; they are among the nearly 80 percent of Gaza residents now living in poverty, aid agencies say.

The Aedas get flour, lentils and other basics twice a year from the United Nations. Their second and final allotment came in June, but is almost gone. So, after a brief break at home, Mahmoud and his brothers went back to work.

Their territory is near the crowded entrance to the hospital, where a week ago a gunbattle erupted between feuding families. Members of Hamas' "special forces," wearing black T-shirts and armed with Kalashnikovs, have since taken over guard duty from Palestinian security forces loyal to the rival Fatah Party.

Just as Mahmoud returned to his spot, someone tried to enter the hospital with a gun. A fight broke out, weapons were pointed and dozens of people scrambled for cover until the gun was wrested away.

Mahmoud had seen it all before. He kept on swinging his shiny little teapot.

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.