Paper presented at the academic conference on the Gaza Strip, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 31/10/2015 (translated from the Arabic by Toufic Haddad)
I would like to begin by pointing to the fact that discussion of the Gaza strip does not mean in any way that the nature of its emancipatory, unifying ideas, visions and goals differ in any way from those of any other Palestinian locality – from Jerusalem, Jenin and Bethlehem, to Jaffa, Haifa, the Triangle region or the Naqab. Rather they are an extension of the goals that unite our people on the inside (in historical Palestine) and in diaspora, on behalf of continuing the democratic struggle for liberation, and achieving the intermediate goal of establishing a fully sovereign, independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
From 1948 until the catastrophic signing of the Declaration of Principles or Oslo Accord in September 1993, the Gaza Strip was the sole part of Palestine that continued officially at the international and Arab levels to bear the name - “Palestine”. Additionally, the people of Gaza, who total 1.78 million at present, belong to all the cities and villages of Palestine – from Safad and the Galilee in 1948 Palestine to Jenin, Nablus, and Jerusalem, together with most Palestinian villages. For this reason it is not strange that Gaza bears the moniker, the Palestinian Noah’s Ark – and acted as the mother of Palestinian national identity from the time of the Nakba to the present.
During this time, Gaza has undergone a wide range of structural transformations on the social and residential levels. Before the Nakba, Gaza’s population totalled 90,000. In one year this increased to 300,000 persons, most of whom (residents and refugees) descended from very poor rural backgrounds, and did not enjoy particular technical skills.
Gaza additionally lost considerable portions of its economic means as a result of the Nakba:
A) The Strip lost 67% of its historical lands
B) Unemployment spread among the ranks of Gazan workers who had worked in the camps of the mandatory power, or in various Palestinian markets, and;
C) A great many of Gazan contractors and traders lost major parts of their businesses.
The large semi-feudal landholding families of Gaza (the effendis) who used to possess tens of thousands of dunams lost considerable portions of their land – more than 80%. Despite this, a number of these families continued to hold onto considerable portions of Gaza’s arable land in current times.
Here it is worth noting that these families remained preeminent and influential, sticking to their “aristocratic” character and behaving as lords in their interactions with the Palestinian public – especially with the poor, the peasants and agricultural workers.
This situation remained in place until the 1960s with the beginning of the establishment and spread of the Arab and Palestinian nationalist movements and later the PLO. Thereupon, the political role of the large landowning families declined. It ended after the defeat of 1967 and the emergence of the Palestinian resistance factions, whose leadership was formed from petit bourgeois social backgrounds, and which were composed of 70% of refugees.
These new transformations led to the collapse of the material basis of Palestinian society in the Strip, which in turn led to the disintegration of its tradition social relations. This was so particularly amongst refugees under the new conditions of life in refugee camps. This led to the emergence of behaviours that had been anathema to traditional understandings and practices of old. For instance, the need for women to work; the conferring of relative independence to sons; unemployment; and work in new professions. Collectively these contributed in the early years to the generation of a state of deep alienation, with the despicable reality of the camps giving birth to particular feelings of humiliation and inferiority, both materially and in terms of general morale. Refugees were forced to endure conditions of standing in lines in the refugee camps in order to obtain aid from UNRWA; or at water distribution points; common toilets; or health care facilities, and all the while poverty , unemployment and sickness pervaded their families and communities. This state of misery was compounded by the destruction and weakness of Gaza’s economy, giving birth to a feeling of collective alienation among the refugees, and a sense that their condition could not be redeemed strictly by improvements to living conditions. Rather they sensed that what was needed was a definitive end to this new existence. For this reason, they rejected – together with poor Gaza natives – projects for resettlement that were proposed as early as 1955, and did so in preservation of their Palestinian identity. This was despite the fact that 80% of the refugees in Gaza were living in extremely miserable conditions. It is in this light that we can understand the revolutionary awakening among the Strip’s residents, along with the direct and indirect influence of the national and pan-Arab new Nahda or Renaissance in opposition to colonialism and Zionism under the leadership of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. This, of course, in contrast to the present era, in which all Arab regimes have become submissive to varying degrees to the imperialist-Zionist alliance.
Gaza’s main characteristics until 1993:
Up until the Oslo Accord of 1993, the Gaza Strip had come to be distinguished by at least five particularities that are worth underscoring:
1. The emergence of the Palestinian national identity of Gaza’s inhabitants, not only in the patriotic or geographical sense, but also in the historic legal sense since Gaza was considered as “the remaining part of Palestine” within official Arab and international instances. This was quite positive indeed, but it also meant that Gazans had to deal with increased complexities and estrangement in their relations with Arab states. Thus, the official Arab order tended to deal with Gazans in especially repressive manners, refusing to grant them residency and work permits; preventing their enrolment in university, and placing restrictions upon their social and political lives etc. Collectively these impediments continue to follow Gazans wherever they turn.
2. Gaza is also distinguished by its narrow surface area– just 365 square kilometres – amounting to only 1.35% of the total territory of historical Palestine;
3. Gaza’s high population density, with a concomitant depletion of economic resources, also continues to generate social, economic and political problems. These in and of themselves can lend themselves to either the strengthened pronunciation of nationalism within objectively favourable conditions (Arab and International) OR to the exacerbation of conditions of desperation and demoralization. Such is the case today in light of the contemporary Arab predicament and its evolution, characterized by an increase in dependency, backwardness and the explosion of bloody sectarian struggles linked to the spread of Islamic political movements.
4. Gaza’s cultural isolation is embodied in the fact that there are no cultural institutions comparable to the dozens of cultural institutes of the West Bank. This occurs in addition to the absence of active popular institutions. It is known that in the period between 1967 and 1993 – no educational, intellectual, political or cultural newspaper or magazines were issued from Gaza. Here, all Palestinian national factions bear responsibility for this state of affairs in so far as their energies were focused from the beginning upon the military front as the sole component of their struggle. This led to the marginalization of necessary popular, democratic, cultural and trade-union struggles during this period, which together with other factors, contributed to the development and spread of Islamic political movements.
5. Last but not least, we are obliged to note the continued prevalence of blood lineages and loyalty to tribal/clan structures and narrow primordial social affinities as an enduring feature of Palestinian society carried on since the Nakba, particularly in Gaza. This strengthened loyalty to symbols of backwardness, materially tied through interests with corruption, impropriety and disorganization, takes place under the cover of traditional, customary practices and tradition, strengthened by features of social backwardness, and worsened in the shadow of the spread of Islamic political movements. Hamas’s control over the Gaza Strip and its practices that aim to implement the Muslim Brotherhood slogan that “Islam is the solution” typify the danger of a totalitarian interpretation of Islam that leads to entrench the authority of religious figures and institutions into establishing an all-controlling and domineering power, as noted by the late Egyptian thinker Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. This intrusive extension of authority has created a situation under which we are presently enduring social, political and intellectual oppression. In spite of the widespread and rather unconvincing claims that there is no religious authority in Islam that resembles or approximates the authority of the Church in Christianity, the reality in our countries is that such an authority exists, with Inquisition-like features indeed.
Main features of the contemporary situation in the Gaza Strip
Summarizing the effects of the political division and the aggressive Israeli siege, we can point to the following statistics and indicators:
Martyrs: the number of martyrs from the beginning of the Al Aqsa intifada, from 29 September 2000 to 31 December 2014, totals 10,062 persons. The year 2014 was the bloodiest whereby 2240 persons were killed, 2181 of whom in Gaza as a result of the July/August aggression, 58 in the West Bank and one in 1948 Palestine.
Destruction resulting from the Zionist aggression on Gaza in July/ August 2014: the number of housing units that were entirely destroyed during the Israeli aggression totals 9000. In addition to that, 47,000 housing units were partially destroyed, as were – in total or in part – over 150 factories, more than 200 farms, and over 40,000 houses, shops and workshops. This destruction has paralyzed economic life in Gaza turning the Strip into a disaster area. 327 schools have been totally destroyed, 50% of which were operating on double shifts, in addition to 6 universities that were partially destroyed. 71 mosques met a similar fate in addition to a few churches. 20 governmental building have also been totally destroyed together with 29 hospitals and clinics.
Estimates for the reconstruction of Gaza, based on the “national reconstruction plan” – the plan published by the Palestinian Ministry of Economy in Ramallah – allot 4 billion dollars for construction, in addition to 4.5 billion for budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority for the years 2014-17. Together this amounts to 8.5 billion. At the same time, the conference for the reconstruction of Gaza which took place in Cairo on 12 October 2014 promised US$5.4 billion for reconstruction, 50% of which was to be earmarked to support the budget of the Palestinian Authority. Of the remaining 2.7 billion, 701 million are earmarked for relief and social works while 1.235 billion are to go to the economic sector. This leaves only 764 million to remove the debris, provide housing, shelter and fund reconstruction! If we take into consideration the salary and residential costs of an estimated 350 international observers - which adds 100 million - as well as 183 million needed to make governmental institutions and municipalities functional again, then only 481 million of the original amount remains. This means that we are faced with a catastrophic situation that compounds that created by the Zionist onslaught itself.
In light of what has been said, I estimate that the Gaza strip is in need of 6 billion dollar for relief and construction, and for the creation of two water desalination plants, capable of producing at least 50 million cubic meters of potable water annually. This in addition to sewage treatment facilities, an electricity station and the importation of generators that can service Gaza’s needs of a potential of 350 megawatts, enabling it to end its reliance upon Israel for electricity supply. The donor conference however did not take into consideration the priorities of the Strip and these particular needs related to potable water, electricity and sewage treatment.
I am well aware, as you are too, of the fact that the donor conference was not concerned with the suffering of our people in the Gaza strip. I am equally aware of the fact that donor funds are not given charitably or in a humanitarian manner. Rather they are politically conditioned by an alignment with the Zionist state interests according to the wish of the United States.
This brings us back to the role of the official Arab order, particularly the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf states, which can ensure the entirety of Gaza’s reconstruction costs, i.e. US$6 billion according to my estimate, for no more than 0.5% of their combined GDPs. However these countries in general, and the Saudi kingdom and other Gulf monarchies in particular, are fully submissive to the imperial order and rely upon it - a matter which makes them enemies of our people and our cause.
In this regard, it is painful yet equally necessary to point to the failing of the diasporic Palestinian businessmen, who are in a position to support the plan for reconstructing Gaza and reduce its political price - given their estimated net wealth of upwards of 80 billion dollar.
Significant social and political transformations taking place in the OPT and in Gaza in particular are also worthy of note. On the one hand there is the emergence of a bureaucratic comprador strata holding political decision making power and dependent upon American and European funding, thus conforming to Israeli political wishes in one way or another. On the other hand, a sweeping decadence is taking place within Palestinian society as a result of increases in poverty and unemployment - with the latter reaching 44% of the total work force - in addition to the closing off of the political horizon.
In this context, social relations have developed in the direction of crystalizing deformed and dependent social classes, whose social development has a cumulative deformed character. This has resulted in the failure to coagulate any clearly distinguishable strata amongst the bourgeoisie, which could represent contemporary, enlightened or liberal values, be it intellectually or culturally. As a result of this, old, traditional inherited values and ideas remain prevalent within the everyday spontaneous consciousness of people, despite a few examples of formal imported modernity, which themselves have also contributed to the deepening of dependency, social backwardness and political decline.
What has thus happened is the deliberate dismemberment of the most important tenets of Palestinian political society as established during the pre-Oslo era of direct occupation – those being the labour movement, the women’s movement and the Palestinian left – a matter that paved the way for the rise of political Islam. These trends were only worsened of course with the retreat and dithering of wide sectors of the right-wing bourgeois leadership in the PLO, particularly after the explicit recognition of the state of Israel.
In light of the hardened polarization caused by the political division between Hamas and Fatah, and the fragmentation of the political order as a result of sectarian conflicts over interests between the two, our society has become host to selfish behaviour and practices characterised by a short term perspective at the expense of our collective long term interest. This can be inferred from the noticeable worsening of social backwardness, and the retreat of relations based upon the national cause and democratic diversity, in favour of hypocrisy, demoralization, opportunism and personal benefit, along with a rise in crime and waywardness of all kinds – moral and social –previously unknown to our society.
We also witness blatant privileges enjoyed by sections of the upper bourgeoisie who have historical relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and who are active in wholesale trade, real estate, money exchange and other services, as well as a few industrial and touristic enterprises – activities that have prospered after the arrival of Hamas to governance over Gaza and its monopolization of power in the Strip.
The number of people employed in the public sector has now expanded to 22.9% of the total Palestinian work force, with the number of employees in the two governments of the West bank and Gaza reaching at present roughly 200,00 employees, in both civil and security sectors. Of these 40,000 receive their salaries from the government in Gaza, and 160,000 from the government in Ramallah, while 72,000 of them reside in Gaza.
Last but not least, under the pretext of the siege, smuggling via tunnels – before their closure and destruction in large part by the Egyptian regime – also became a “legitimate” practice in Gaza. A wide assortment of hustlers, monopolists, and gamblers flocked to this economy, which led equally to the appearance of a strata of millionaires in the Strip. Thousands of very poor unemployed workers gravitated to this trade, risking their lives for a loaf of bread with the acquiescence of the security services or their very collusion.
Thus, the accumulation of deleterious social and political practices since Hamas’s takeover in Gaza on 14 June 2007 until today, represent the antithesis to national liberation, social development, and democratic politics, to the extent that a condition of oppression , authoritarianism and social backwardness prevails now, together with economic demise. After 8 years of division between the WB and GS, a reality has hardened characterized by desperation and the closing off of horizons, not only with respect to the political process alone but also with respect to social conditions, public freedoms, and freedom of opinion. The Palestinian citizens has thus become governed by restrictions that limit their political freedoms, ideas and personality. As such they lose their role and the incentive to voluntary engage within the national liberation struggle on one hand, in addition to the loss of agency on democratic, social and cultural levels on the other.
Here precisely the socio-political transformations of the West Bank and Gaza strip have led to conditions that negate progress - a state that can be described as the re-production of backwardness, dependency and submission. Despite differences in the form of this phenomenon and its particular instantiations in the WB and Gaza, the transformations produced as a result of the conflict of sectarian interests between Fatah and Hamas in the shadow of the occupation, have resulted in the destabilization, dismembering and weakening of the consciousness of our people in respect to national liberation and the ideas and goals that unify them towards this end. They also weakened consciousness of a unified socio-political existence in spite of the condition of collective displacement and fragmentation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or the refugee camps of the diaspora. This process has been exacerbated through Hamas’s efforts to enforce religious identity or a political Islam identity as a substitute to Palestinian national identity on one side, and the practices of Fatah and the Ramallah government on the other, which ultimately align themselves with American, Israeli and official Arab policies. From this we can conclude that both Hamas and Fatah have offered to the Palestinian people and to the Arab peoples, the worst possible image of a present and future Palestinian society - backward, authoritarian, repressive and alienated. These will not achieve advances on the path to national liberation, but to its antithesis: to enhancing the factors that lead to the collapse of national liberation and popular disaffection towards it.
In light of what has been said, I don’t believe it is possible to speak of the Gaza Strip’s future and its political, social, and geographic unity with the West Bank in the framework of a Palestinian national democratic political structure, as long as the division remains in addition to the continuous effects of Israeli plans. Here it is important to note that Israel has achieved successes in advancing its plans towards Gaza and cleaving it geographically and politically from the rest of the Palestinian body. Israeli policy is keen on continuing the division and achieving a truce with Hamas in the framework of a “statelet” of Gaza, particularly after Hamas affirmed its agreement to consolidating the ceasefire after the onslaught of July/August 2014. Israel equally prefers the continuation of the current situation for an extended period in which it can work to increase Gaza’s exhaustion in various respects and to transform the political division into asocial division that aims to weaken the historical role of the Gaza strip in making and strengthening Palestinian national identity.
In line with this, I would like to point to several practices of Hamas in Gaza which give clear evidence that it is preparing for the establishment of “the state of Gaza”. These include, for example, the establishment and development of security services; the imposition of taxes; the creation of legislation which limit public freedoms, particularly freedom of opinion and belief; and the prohibition of any political or cultural gatherings without prior agreement from the security services - in violation of the Palestinian Basic law. Add to these the imposition of hijab upon all female students in universities, secondary, intermediary and primary schools, and the imposition of “Islamic shorts” – shorts descending below the knee - upon all males wishing to go to the beach.
Therefore, the primary and only gateway to confront Israeli plans consists in the ability of the Palestinian national forces to engage with the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and in the diaspora in order to exert all forms of popular pressure to end the division without belittling the dangers posed by the contemporary, miserable Arab regional order - where bloody sectarian, ethnic conflicts preside via reactionary Islamic movements. This matter causes us to equally be aware of the fact that the future of Gaza – and the Palestinian cause as a whole – will be determined only after the clarification of the status of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and others.
In light of what has been said, the political factions of the democratic national and left-wing opposition are placed before a period which demands the return to the origins of the conflict – something that cannot be made light of. For it is not a process of improvisation which is needed. They are before the challenge of a future that demands of them a revolution in consciousness, and a revolution in the activation and development of their internal condition. This would enable them to transcend their present crisis, their weakness and isolation, in order to revitalize their political, and democratic organizational practices. Implementing a project of popular resistance against the Zionist presence must take place in a targeted and systematic manner. This must happen in parallel to the democratic social struggle, enhancing the role of the poor masses, so as to reactivate their trust and role in the struggle to end the division and return to national unity in diversity. What is needed is an emancipatory, democratic national political regime, ensuring the provision of the conditions for resilience and resistance in all their forms on behalf of achieving our democratic national liberation goals, within a fully sovereign independent state as an intermediary solution that enables the struggle to continue until we achieve our strategic goal of establishing a democratic Palestine for all its residents, whether Arabs or Jews.