“Welcome to Gaza; welcome to hell,” said the taxi driver, throwing my bags into the trunk of his battered yellow Mercedes. I had just crossed the Erez checkpoint from Israel into this spit of Palestinian territory along the sea. The contrast was remarkable. Minutes before, I’d been driving through the rich agricultural lands of southern Israel. Now I was in Gaza, standing amidst broken concrete and debris, feeling slightly anxious about being in a place even my war-weary Lebanese friends had warned me about.
I was there to meet up with FRONTLINE/World producer Marcela Gaviria and Gazan field producer Azmi Keshawi for a whirlwind drive around the strip. Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, a miserable sandbox of crowded refugee camps and cinderblock homes -- many pockmarked by shrapnel; others, heaps of collapsed concrete and rebar following Israeli demolitions.
It’s beaten and battered by nearly five years of Palestinian revolt against the former Israeli presence here. Trash is everywhere, and the narrow streets are crammed with donkey carts and scruffy, barefoot children. Only the rich blue sparkle of the Mediterranean in the distance offers any relief from the perpetual harshness of Gaza’s landscape.
Our tour of the place didn’t take long. Gaza is only about five miles wide and 25 miles long, walled in along its northern border by the Israelis and along its southern frontier by the Egyptians. Its eastern border is patrolled by Israeli troops who frequently fire artillery shells into an agricultural area -- a warning to Palestinian militants who still risk their lives trying to sneak into Israel to carry out attacks. Many Gazans say they feel trapped on this thin strip of land.
Israeli border guards allow some 3,000 workers daily into Israel to do construction and agricultural work; other Gazans have permits to travel to the West Bank. But for most of the 1.3 million residents, Egypt is their only outlet. And that’s a fairly recent concession. When Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza last fall, Gaza’s residents were allowed more freedom to enter Egypt. But few Gazans have the income to even dream of an Egyptian weekend getaway.
Despite the poverty and the detritus, Gaza is a colorful place. Crudely painted posters of shaheeds (“martyrs”), men who died fighting the Israelis, hang everywhere. And campaign graffiti from the Palestinian parliamentary election, which took place in January, covers the walls. “If you trust us with your votes, we’ll give you strong, trustworthy men,” reads a Hamas slogan, spray-painted in green. “Yes for security and jobs,” declares a slogan, in red, from Fatah, the former ruling party. The different-colored flags of the competing political parties vie for space on every available telephone pole and balcony. One color stands out above the rest -- the green of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that stunned the world by winning a resounding majority of seats in the elections.
Gaza is Hamas country. This is where the organization was born in the 1970s as an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Initially focused on providing social services, Hamas leaders set up a vast network of charitable organizations, including schools, orphanages and clinics that helped earn it the trust and appreciation of many poor Gazans. The organization later cut its teeth as an armed resistance movement during the first intifada, carrying out dozens of shooting attacks on Israelis. But it wasn’t until the start of the second intifada that Hamas gained international attention, notoriety and condemnation for bombings and suicide attacks against buses, markets and cafés in Israel, killing almost 400 Israelis and wounding more than 2,000.
I’d come to Gaza to try to get access to Hamas leaders for a story about the militant group’s transition from an armed opposition movement into a ruling party. After winning 74 out of 132 seats in parliament, Hamas suddenly found itself the ruling party, in a position to appoint a prime minister, the first democratically elected Islamist prime minister in the Arab world.
I wanted to know how a group categorized as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union was going to rule the Palestinian Authority (PA). How was it going to pay its bills, when Israel had cut off some $50 million in monthly tax revenues to a Hamas-led government? How was it going to pay the salary of more than 140,000 PA employees, given U.S. and E.U. threats to cut off funding as well? And what about Israel? How would it deal with a neighbor that it not only refuses to recognize but has sworn to destroy?
Our first challenge was to convince Hamas officials to agree to give us some face time. Here in Gaza, no one has ever heard of PBS. Furthermore, the American media is hated in the Palestinian territories, where its coverage is considered biased and pro-Israeli. As our fixer Azmi explained to me, “It would be easier to get access to Hamas with just about any other foreign broadcaster -- the French, the Japanese, the Germans. But the Americans?” He sighed. “Well, it’s not easy for the Americans. Hamas doesn’t really care for them.” He shook his head, perhaps regretting he’d ever agreed to the assignment.
Azmi decided the best way to tackle our dilemma was to embark on a public relations tour. We would start by meeting Hamas officials and activists before our cameraman arrived, he told us, and convince them of the worthiness of FRONTLINE/World. “Convince them that you care,” he said. It seemed like a good plan, so Marcela and I donned our headscarves and began what we hoped would be an American charm offensive.
The first meeting didn’t go terribly well. Azmi introduced us to Abdel Fatah Dukhan, one of the founders of Hamas, an elderly man in his late 60s. He was in mourning and receiving condolences from visitors. A few days earlier, the Israeli army had killed his son while he was trying to place an explosive device near the border. Dukhan launched into a tirade against America and the “Zionist-controlled American media.” He said he doubted that any American media coverage of the Palestinian situation would make a drop of difference. “The Americans are not free,” he added. “They have been colonized by the Zionists.”
The next day, we went to a town hall meeting in the village of Beit Lahia along Gaza’s northern border. Four newly elected Hamas members of parliament were addressing a crowd of several hundred village leaders, businessmen and young working men. They were all gathered inside a youth sports center, funded by Save the Children and USAID, and the largely poor audience seemed eager to hear what their new Hamas representatives were going to do for them.
The event began with a poetry reading about the courage of an early Islamic fighter. Hamas volunteers handed out cans of Classy Cola -- “Made in Palestine,” according to the label. Then it was the politicians’ turn. They were there to talk about some of their campaign promises, such as fighting corruption, establishing good governance and continuing the struggle to secure the “rights of the Palestinians.”
After several long speeches, the interesting stuff began. Members of the audience began asking some tough questions. The overriding concerns were economic. One man asked what Hamas would do if the Israelis cut electricity to Gaza because of bills unpaid by the PA. Another wanted to know how Hamas would deal with an economic crisis currently faced by Beit Lahia residents. They depend largely on the export of agricultural products to Israel, but since the Israelis had recently closed a key crossing in an effort to pressure the Palestinians, some 200 tons of produce had started to rot.
One man asked plaintively, “Will you forget us when you are in parliament?”
The majority of Palestinians present were most anxious about the daily struggle to survive. The Palestinian economy has tumbled since the start of the intifada. Recent reports claim that two-thirds of Gazans live below the poverty level, on less than two dollars a day, and unemployment is running as high as 50 percent. Gazans feel abandoned by the long-ruling Fatah party, founded by former PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. When Fatah took power (in the West Bank and Gaza) in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, most Palestinians say the party’s main preoccupation was lining its pockets with billions of dollars in foreign aid. The poor, especially the poor of Gaza, were left out of the bonanza. To many in the packed hall, Hamas was the antidote.
After the meeting, we cornered the youngest Hamas member of parliament, 29-year-old Mushir Masri, who won by a landslide in Beit Lahia. Azmi, launching into his pitch, did a little sweet-talking on our behalf. “The extremely independent, hard-hitting American documentary show FRONTLINE/World would like to get into the life of Hamas leaders to portray their goals and ambitions as they seek to govern and lead. They would like to spend some time with you, follow you around, show you at home.” He paused, then said, “They would like to show the Palestinians as humans.”
“Palestinians are humans?” responded the bearded Masri, with a wry smile.
Much of the world was astounded by the Palestinian decision to vote a radical Islamist party into power. Hamas’ 1988 charter is filled with extreme anti-Semitic statements. Its vow to destroy Israel is regarded by many as an enormous step backward for the peace process. But to many Gazans, it’s academic. Their priority now, they say, is to rebuild their society, clean up government, create jobs and salvage a little bit of dignity. Hamas -- with its disciplined, pious cadre of hardworking young men -- represents to Gazans a party that just might be able to meet some of those long-unfulfilled needs.
Earlier that day, I met Eyad Abu Hojeir, an earnest man in his 30s who runs the Palestinian Center for Democracy and Conflict Resolution in Gaza City. He was organizing an event in a public square to protest the increasing gun violence in the Gaza Strip, where a breakdown in security caused by the intifada has created growing anarchy and lawlessness.
“The situation has been very bad here for many years,” he told me as he kept a watchful eye on a troop of rowdy boy scouts who had shown up for the event. “We Palestinians want peaceful change. Hamas has reached their position through fair elections. They have pledged to make life better. They have introduced a new Islam; they can talk with other parties. We say, if Hamas does not work out good for us, we will demonstrate against them and change them.”
Abu Hojeir’s big fear, however, is that Israel and the West won’t even give Hamas a chance to fail.