After the war, over dinner, I’d used the word hurriya (freedom)—but before I could finish a local girl proudly working at one of the large international NGO’s (INGOs) interrupted me: “Don’t say that: you will remind us we are under occupation.” It’s a stunning statement that reveals the delicate mind games that middle-class and more fortunate Palestinians in Gaza get to play with themselves. Their wealth enables them to push realities to the side; their newfound international wasta (connections) means their futures may lay outside of Gaza. It’s an ideology that the apolitical environment of an INGO inadvertently nurtures. Water cooler talk of the occupation is at best frowned upon. Meanwhile, the rest of Gaza celebrated the last few weeks with an authentic departure from the alternate reality of INGO life.
Khaled Meshaal’s visit to Gaza—on the back of what is widely conceived of as a triumphant couple of weeks for Hamas—brought the community out for a day of celebrations. A smattering of kids dressed up (albeit in resistance regalia), stalls selling hot nuts, roads cordoned off for pedestrian use only andludicrously-sized missiles. The speeches of Meshaal and Haniyeh were to be broadcast on Hamas’s Al Aqsa TV. Feigar, the middle-aged women who provides an extra, part-time, pair of hands in our home, was sitting on quite literally the edge of her seat watching from home Khaled Meshaal’s speech at the Kateeba, Gaza’s prime demonstration space. I was surprised given how she’s never broached politics with me.
It does not take an in-depth interview to understand the emotions swirling around the everyday Gazan and their nascent re-connection with Hamas. The gist right now is that Gaza—for once—managed to fight back. That’s enough for most people to understand and process what just happened. Whether Hamas is any better placed to end the occupation than Fatah is not dwelled on: both parties are flawed, both appear hopeless. But what Hamas, unlike its West Bank rival, is able to offer, almost by default, is both pragmatism and hope—and, once in a while, a little courage. Hope by way of the party’s Islamic nature, which it can always fall back on as a tactic in and of itself; pragmatism through Meshaal’s ability to converse on more than equal terms with the likes of CNN’s Amanpour; and courage by not taking it lying down.
But also at the heart of the last months events is that top representatives of not just one but three Arab and regional Muslim states came to Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense: Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt. At the same time Western states who are heavily invested in Palestine only come during times of peace, and at times of war muster phrases like: ‘all parties must show restraint’.
Feigar tells me: “We didn’t feel alone.” Western nations and their people appear to not grasp the importance of this. Feigar, struggling to make ends meet, does not see any of the millions of dollars of relief aid that come to Gaza, nor does she shake hands with the diplomats who turn up to smooth-talk Hamas; and she would not be able to tell you what the donor backed ‘civil society’ does. That world is completely unknown to her. What she knows is that tomorrow she may have nothing: no house, no job, no family and no one to support her. Her reality is immediate, her fate is Gaza’s fate. When the Turkish foreign minister comes to Gaza and sheds tears with its people, she ‘gets’ that. When Hamas police arbitrate on her side during a traffic incident she ‘gets’ that; and when Hamas make Israel feel a little uncomfortable, she ‘gets’ that, too.
She is not Hamsawi, she never voted for Hamas, she acknowledges their corruption—seemingly every state has trust issues—but Hamas are Gazans: she recognizes them. Walk into the Bank of Palestine (a Fatah bulwark) in Gaza and try connecting with the teller whose gelled hair and watch glisten under the lights. Fatah, even to the untrained eye, appears to have it all. And that’s precisely their problem.
Pervasive insecurity and perpetual defeat does not necessarily ferment fundamentalism. Gaza is just not like that, yet. What this impoverished, and deeply religious, environment needs is the occasional Pyrrhic victory to make people feel something, anything, else. Feigar is not about to dress her kids up in the clothes of the muqawama (resistance), nor is she going to wave a green flag from her door. She is going to pin a little of what’s left of her hope on the belief that Hamas may, with the help from their new Arab friends (and Allah), do a little bit more for Gaza than the absent, but well-endowed, Fatah and their international partners. Who, to their credit, have done their best to humanize Palestine to the world and create a slither of wealth for Gazans—but little else to give Palestinians in Gaza the political agency they so desperately desire.
Wasseem El-Sarraj is a writer and activist living in the Gaza Strip.