Up against the Mediterranean Sea, its back to Israel, the Palestinian territory known as Gaza is a densely populated sandbox fenced in by barbed wire and concrete walls. A million and a half Palestinians live in this narrow strip, six miles wide and 25 miles long.
For nearly 40 years, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Gaza was under Israeli occupation. But Israeli settlers and the Israeli army withdrew in 2005. Now the radical Islamist group known as Hamas holds sway. Gaza is a Hamas stronghold, and in January of this year, they won a surprise victory in the elections for the Palestinian legislature.
At Islamic University, FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye finds young Gazans celebrating Hamas’s win by staging a play. “It’s the first time an Islamist party has come to power democratically in the Arab world,” notes Seelye.
But not everyone is pleased. Seelye finds members of the late Yasser Arafat’s defeated Fatah Party burning tires in the streets, protesting the new Hamas-led government’s failure to pay medical benefits. The United States and Europe have cut off aid to the Palestinians both because Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel and because the organization is still considered to be a terrorist group. Israel has withheld taxes and sealed the border.
“We hope to establish a fully sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” declares Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the new prime minister. He is under intense pressure from the United States and Europe to renounce violence and change his party’s charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel.
Everyone is asking: Will power tame Hamas? Will having to govern cause them to moderate?
Besieged by reporters, Haniyeh declines Seelye’s request for an interview, but she does manage to speak with Mahmoud Zahar, the new foreign minister and one of Hamas’s original founders. A hard-liner, Zahar insists that Hamas will not bend to international pressure. “We are facing a lot of sanctions, but believe me, the Arab countries are going to help us,” says Zahar.
To the outside world, Hamas is best-known -- infamous -- for its reliance on suicide bombers. Since the beginning of the last Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in September 2000, Hamas has carried out 58 suicide attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers, killing more than 300 people. In its propaganda, Hamas claims that its violent tactics were what forced Israel to finally withdraw from Gaza last September.
For a year now, Hamas has abided by a cease-fire, and its military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has remained in the shadows. But members of the military group agreed to a night meeting with the FRONTLINE/World team. Seelye finds them training with wooden rifles. When on patrol, they carry real guns and homemade Qassam rockets, which are notoriously inaccurate, but have nevertheless caused deaths and injuries when fired into Israel.
These days, rival groups, such as the Islamic jihad, are attacking Israel. In retaliation, the Israeli Defense Forces fire artillery shells into Gaza. Seelye watches the artillery barrages land in broad daylight. “Is it like this every day?” Seelye asks a local strawberry farmer.
“Yes,” he replies, “… eight to 25 shells a day. The children get very scared and shake with fear.”
There is near-constant violence in Gaza. One day Seelye comes upon a car bombing just minutes after the explosion. A leader of the Islamic jihad has been killed.
No one claims responsibility for the assassination, and there are rumors that it’s another case of Palestinian factions fighting among themselves. But at the funeral everyone blames Israel. Aziz al-Dweik, a Hamas leader considered to be a moderate, warns Seelye that it may become impossible to sustain the Hamas cease-fire.
Leaving Gaza, Seelye journeys north to the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank, inhabited by 2 million Palestinians. “It’s a place defined by Israeli walls, checkpoints and roadblocks,” observes Seelye. The de facto capital of the West Bank is Ramallah -- a more cosmopolitan place than Gaza, with a mix of Muslims, Christians and secular Palestinians. Many here worry about the spread of fundamentalism.
“The people of Ramallah are really concerned with the Hamas government coming to power,” says Hani Kort, a local businessman. “It’s a shock for everybody.”
Next Seelye goes to see the Fatah official who helped broker the historic Oslo Peace Accords with Israel. Saeb Erekat says Hamas must honor past agreements: “Hamas is saying, ‘I’m not going to recognize Israel. I’m not going to negotiate with Israel.’ If this is what people think will create peace and stability in this region, forget it. This is a path for enlarging the vicious cycle of violence and counterviolence. I’m asking Hamas to accept the two-state solution and to accept the Arab peace plan. By doing so, they will serve the interest of their people.”
Erekat insists that Hamas, now that it holds power, will have to moderate its policies and deal with Israel: “They have to change. If they don’t change, they’re out.”
“There is growing tension between Hamas and Fatah,” reports Seelye. “Hamas controls the parliament and all the ministries. But Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas is still the president of the Palestinian Authority and can veto all legislation. He says Hamas has to ‘face the facts’ and talk to Israel.”
But Hamas’s foreign minister, Zahar, tells Seelye bluntly: “Talking is not our intention. … Why should we deal with Israel? Why? Why? … We are not surrendering. We are still powerful enough to resist and to push the Israelis outside.”
Listening to the hard-liners, there seems little room for negotiation, but Hamas’s al-Dweik tells Seelye they will deal with Israel if Israel withdraws fully from the territory it occupied in 1967 and dismantles the security wall it is building.
Back in Gaza, an Israeli hellfire missile kills two members of the Islamic jihad, wounding bystanders in the process. At the hospital, emotions are running high, and Islamic jihad supporters call for revenge. “For the militants,” says Seelye, “every death becomes another opportunity to recruit more followers.”
Today, the crowd’s anger is aimed not only at the distant Israelis but also at the Palestinian police. Lawlessness is a growing problem in Gaza. There is a threat of chaos, even civil war. Hamas is trying to convince the people that it can hold the Palestinian Authority together.
“We are going to succeed in this government,” says Zahar. “If not, we are going to tell our sons and grandsons that we did our best.” If Hamas fails, he says, America, Israel and the international community will be to blame, and it will be a disaster for the West.
“Hamas itself is now caught in the violence it helped create,” says Seelye. “The culture of martyrdom runs deep here.” Not long after the FRONTLINE/World team left the region, the Islamic jihad sent a suicide bomber into the middle of Tel Aviv. Nine civilians were killed. It was the first bombing in Israel since Hamas took power, and the world waited for the official reaction. Hamas issued a statement calling the suicide bombing “a legitimate act of self-defense.”
One night just before her departure, Seelye witnesses a nightly scene at Eretz Crossing, a checkpoint for those entering Israel from Gaza. Thousands of men line up in the hopes of making it in time to jobs they hold in Israel or of simply getting work in Israel. Although Hamas says it will not recognize Israel, these Palestinian workers have little choice but to work there.
“Why do you put up with this?” Seelye asks one man. “Why do you stand in line every night?
“I have three young children, and I have a 10-year-old daughter who is diabetic,” the man, called Zaki, replies. “She needs medicine, medical attention and clothes. I have to provide for her.”
“And is there no work in Gaza?”
“No work,” says Zaki.
With unemployment continuing to soar, the majority of Palestinians are living on less than $2 a day. And under their new Hamas government, their prospects only look bleaker.
GAZA/WEST BANK: INSIDE HAMAS
SAMANTHA GRANT WIESLER
Senior Associate Producer
Series Executive Director
For the Web
Senior Interactive Producer
San Francisco, CA
This conflict is definitely one that polarizes, as is obvious. There is no neutrality in war. My heart goes out to the Palestinian people--they are a people, worthy of land rights, human dignity and respect. My heart also goes out to the Israelis killed in the attacks. However, it becomes difficult to sympathize with those that broker power through tanks and bulldozers. Let's face it, Israel has the biggest guns in the region, it controls the region's economies, decides the region's politics. Israel is THE powerful state in that region, and as such, it plays the most crucial role in brokering peace with the Palestinian people. I am not Jewish, not Palestinian. I am Mexican American and Native American. Seeing the walls constructed by the Apartheid government of Israel makes me think of the wall demarcating the United States and Mexico--dividing human beings from other human beings. This is shameful. If Israel wants support and "love" and acceptance from the international community, then it must act consciously and abolish apartheid. What have decades of fighting won Israel? Isn't it time for a new strategy?
What a difficult mess this situation is. On one side, you have people oppressed. On the other, you have people living in fear. None are happy, none can see a way out. It strikes me that no one realizes that violence begets violence and that tit for tat retribution is the reward. Ghandi changed the world and showed that passive resistance can pay off, they got the British out of India and everytime the Britons responded with force, the world saw the foolishness of their actions. The only thing that can save the Palestinians now is this approach. Violence has gotten them nowhere and it's only caused them to split into two territories, with two lawless governments.
Gaza is reaping what it has sowed. They send hundreds of suicide bombers into Israel, and Israel tightens restrictions. They send shells over into Israel, and Israel bombs back. The cowards even launch mortars from schools, and then blame Israel for their dead children. Peace will not return until extreme Islam is no more.
Living in Birmingham, the birthplace of the American civil rights movement, I am sad to see the Palestinian people going through what many African Americans had to endure in America. Governments on both sides are not looking for the best solution to this age old issue. The U.N is at fault for not taking a strong stand against Israel and Hamas is at fault for the cruel behavior that has been shown. The only answer is to put real peace forces in the area and show the world that law and order is the only way to protect the innocent on both sides.
Palestine has never been a country. They do not have rightful heir ship to Israel. The Israelis should have never given them Gaza. The Arab Palestinians should return to Egypt and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Iraq. Why should the rightful heirs to a land give anything to a people that do not rightfully belong there, to a people that would love to see Israel removed from the map. This makes no sense. Can someone please tell me what makes the Palestinians think they are the rightful heirs to this land? Why should Israel give any of their land away? I am baffled.
I understand how the Palestinians feel. God, himself, promised Jerusalem to the Abraham and his descendants. They were to be strangers in a country not their own, and they were to be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years and then be given the land from the the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, Kenizites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Hittites, Amorites, Cannanites, Girgashites and Jebusites. Genesis 15: 12-20. Who is anyone to take that land away from them? Again during the crusades the land was taken away from the Jews and then given back to them. It's their land. There is plenty more land that the Palestines can have why do they have to have the land promised to Israel? Draw a map, put up a wall and stop killing each other.
I notice that there is one thing really striking about the Palestinian people and that is their lack of unity. United we stand, divided we fall. This is an ultimate truth.I also believe that if Isreal didn't even exsist there would still be violent conflicts in the region. There has been war in that region for over 5,000 years. Then suddenly like magic it'll stop because you take away the Jews? I don't think so. Frankly I think that it is the religions that are the problem. They'll never go away and neither will the conflicts that they spawn...We have enough problems in this world without [more wars and terrorism]...
At this moment in history I cannot see peace between these two peoples. Sadly, from time to time I wonder if the world would be better off without Israel or without the Palestinians and I just can't decide. There is so much blame on both sides -- and on America -- that I can't figure out who deserves what.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Whether or not a fascist organization like Hamas is elected or seizes power by force, it is still an uncompromising and extremist organization. Hamas will never believe in anything other than the destruction in Israel. At least Fatah believes in peace (2-state solution).
The real question from day one was not whether Hamas could govern, but whether it would be allowed to govern. The immediate answer to that question was a resounding, "No." Despite assurances that the purpose for the war in Iraq was to promote democracy in the Middle East, the U.S. and Israel refused to recognize the duly elected Hamas. True, Hamas refused to recognize Israel. But even with that the U.S. had an obligation to the world that we would support democracy, not just democratic results with which we agreed.
Whatever harm the Palestinians do to the Israelis, the Israelis come back with doing ten times the damage. Don't believe me? Look at the death toll numbers.
San Diego, CA
For the sake of the Palestinians next generation, I really hope they will grow smarter leaders than the present ones. Instead of taking advantage of the strongest economy in the area and living in peace with Israel, they blow up women and children (including their own) in buses, coffee shops and bars and kill not only humans but also any chance for a better future. As Mohamoud Azar (their foreign minister) said in this report: "We are powerful enough to push the Israelis outside," (I wonder where to), "and if we fail, we will tell our sons and grandsons that we did our best and those responsible of our failure are America and Israelis." Is there anything the Israelis can do to avoid this responsibility without committing a suicide?
I am totally appalled by other people not openly reacting to Israel's vicious attack on the Palestinians. If you don't stand for anything you will most definitely fall for anything. I know what I stand for. I have been residing on land that was occupied for over 500 hundred years and I am still standing, although I don't have much other than my oppressed life. I am a woman of this land, an indigenous woman and I am 100%, pure blood. Although my land has been occupied for years and my culture pounded out of my mother and her mother before her, I still stand proud. The bible was used to destroy a nation and did not work; it failed, just like the war against Palestine. No one speaks up publicly about the war Israel has projected on the Palestinians because they are afraid; they have given up all their rights when they became Canadian, therefore silencing them. I am not a Canadian, although I am living here. There is no justice on occupied land, and Israel should remember whose land they reside on. The greed and hatred they feel towards another race is unpredictable. How is it they live by the bible and project hatred towards another race; have they themselves forgotten how it was for them? I've read some of their history and like us, they need to heal from their pain and suffering, not direct it onto another race. I welcome the Palestinians to this land they call Canada. I welcome them to the meager reserves the government subjects my people to. But patience is a virtue and what goes around comes around. We all know who the villains are. They can enjoy being high up there, but you can stay on a donkey for so long before you come to a standstill or you get thrown off. Remember all those people you passed on your way up to the high life. You will eventually come crashing down and this is what I foresee for the Israelis. I have no empathy or compassion for a savage, hateful group of people. Long live Palestine and they will survive. I am proof that I have survived 500 hundred years of destruction and slow genocide of my people. Palestine has all my support, and my prayers to the creator goes out to them, 100%.
I know Moataz Omar. He is a chat friend of mine. I met him and his friend Yousef two years ago and we have been chatting most weeks. Young adults like Mizo will never have a future in Gaza. They are talented and good at what they do but they see no future for themselves or their families. I wish so much that I could help them.
Fantastic journalism! This film brought Hamas people into my home, so I could see and hear for myself where they stand. The human race needs a thousand times more of this kind of work. Please protect your archives. Make sure they are easily findable in 100 years and beyond.
Saeb Erekat said it best, "I think the Americans and the Israelis must try to respect the choice of the Palestinian people. And to recognize that they don't have the exclusive rights to what's wrong and what's right."
Most Americans just had no idea how bad the government was being run. We foolishly put all of our support in the last government, because we agreed with their policies. Just as we foolishly put our support in another unpopular government in South Vietnam during the sixties and early seventies. America is going to be up against the same problem with the new Iraqi government. We will expect them to carry out American policy, even if it is unpopular with the people. This will likely lead to their demise. When will America policy makers realize not every country has the same socio-economic privileges? Most of the world lives in abject poverty. The majority of their populations are uneducated. These people are not stupid. They are simply lacking the critical thinking skills and of a well-educated individual.
Elizabeth City, NC
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a complex issue and should be treated as such by all parties involved. There is no one side that don't have blood staid hands, both Israel and the various Palestinian groups are all guilt of the targeting and killing of civilians. An argument of who has the most civilian blood on their "hands" could be argued, but that would lead to more of the same circle of violence that plagues the region today. There is no easy solution to the conflict, but both sides need to have a realistic outlook of situation at hand. The Palestinians should come to the realization that they will never be able destroy Israel and I think that most Palestinians have already realize that and are open to finding a peaceful means of coexistences with Israel. However, it is their leaders and the people in power on the Palestinian side that still hold on to the unrealistic dream of the reestablishment of Palestine as nation with the destruction of Israel. Israel needs to realize that they can not bomb the Palestinians into submission. History as shown that you can have the technological & military superiority, but still can not crush a group of people, unless you wipe out a significant number of the target population and/or increase your population (think U.S. vs. Native Americas). Just ask the French, Spain, and Britain how there attempts to take over Haiti failed even though the possessed military superiority over the Haitian forces. If Israel even attempted to commit genocide on the Palestinians not even the United States government, who turns a blind eye, no matter what political party is in the white house or has control of congress, to almost everything Israel does, could not pretend it is not happening, unlike Rwanda. Hamas won a democratic election and that should not have come to a surprise of anyone. In democracy when a party failed to deliver on promise after promise the people will kicked them out of office at some point and that what exactly happen. The United States has the right not to recognize or establish diplomatic ties with any government it sees fit, even if the government was elected democratically. Hamas knew what the U.S. would do if they won, so there is not point of crying over it. Hamas needs to concentrate on building up the Palestinian economy without the U.S., EU, Israel, all talk with no substance aid from Arab countries.
I was really impressed with this piece. That must be an advantage that even though you're American you can speak Arabic. However, do people in various countries that you visit approach you differently because you obviously don't look Arabic? Or do they talk to you more openly because you can speak their language? Have you done other reports on other Arabic-speaking nations--for example, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan?
I'm glad that Frontline features stories from the Middle East with real, ordinary people living there, saying how they feel, what they are going through. It gives a more accurate picture than a Western reporter collecting data from various sources and then filing a report of citations and credits to all those sources. Interviewing real people in real time brings the story alive.
I am pleased that someone went into Gaza to see the chaos, but I am appalled at the negative spin put on the Palestinian positions. As Israeli activists have noted, the international community, which has the responsibility of protecting those under occupation, have left the Palestinians few option to defend themselves. Under all laws, every human being has the right of self defense; why do people think Palestinians shouldn't have that right to fight for their freedom and for self-determination? Hamas has been demonized because it has demanded its rights under international law and has the integrity (as Arafat never did) not to be co-opted and not to betray Palestinians' "guaranteed" rights.
An interesting report by Ms.Seelye. It is difficult to report on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict because you are bound to offend one side. The comments on your website reflect that. The reporter was pretty fair, but I was disappointed that she did not refer to the wall as illegal ... nor did she once question why Western democracies were shunning Hamas despite its "democratic" election. Over all, well done!
This piece, and some of the preceding comments, reinforce the sad reality that the mindset of the Palestinians and their partisans is mostly a black/white, all or nothing construct. They see themselves as entirely without guilt or responsibility for their situation; it is totally Israel's fault; the only course of action is violence. And, beyond that, it is too simplistic. Getting anything to work, from a flashlight to a car to a computer to a society - getting a plant to grow and flower - is complex, requiring concentration and an open mind. So far the trend toward simple hatred and destruction, currently being encouraged by the likes of Hamas, Islamic jihad, al-Qaeda, and the foul-mouthed Iranian president, don't look good, for the Middle East or the rest of the world either.
Like the rest of the mainstream media, you perpetuate the lie created by Yasser Arafat that there is such a thing as "Palestinian" people. They are simply Arabs, most of whom come from either Egypt, Jordan or Syria and are the offspring of those who were urged to stay in 1948 as Israel was born. Instead, they listened to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who urged them to flee to avoid the bloodbath that would occur when the Arab armies came to slaughter the Jews and drive them out (which never happened). Those who did stay are citizens of Israel and enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East. When the surrounding Arab countries ethnically cleansed themselves of their Jewish populations, Israel took them all in. Their Arab neighbors didn't reciprocate and have kept these people in a perpetual state of refugee-hood who suckle at the teat of the UNRWA which is mostly funded by the U.S. However, you do the public a service by showing them just how evil and bloodthirsty Hamas is. Israel has learned that, unfortunately, when these people say they want to kill you, they mean it. Hamas are terrorists and Abbas is simply Arafat in a suit. Elections or not, nothing has changed.
How easy it is for anybody who has a big mouth and free access to a TV media reporter or the Internet to comment about the Hamas and the Palestinian refugees' situation. And then pose as both judge and jury, passing easy judgment on Israel, which happens to be the only Middle East country that consistently wanted to negotiate a peace agreement just for the right of having recognized its existence, the only country having a serious, constructive and positive attitude towards the situation, building rather that destroying, defending itself rather than aggressing. It is obvious that you people either don't understand in fact anything of the situation, or have never taken the time to study the true history of the region. Nor have you ever been exposed to being blown out in the street, have any children being thrown of their school's roof in Kiriat Shimone or being bombed out to pieces in the supermarket in Tel Aviv or in the cafes on Hayarkon Street. What gives you the right to speak like experts about a situation you don't even comprehend? Who do you think you are to judge Israel? If you are so smart indeed, why not take the time to check first the history books and learn the truth from there, not from media and talk shows. Then you can come forward, go in front of the TV cameras and express your honest, and documented opinion based on the true historical facts, not on trivia, rumors and innuendo.
Culver City, CA
I am truly saddened by the Palestinians' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every chance they get. They lived in Kuwait, supported Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and they get thrown out of Kuwait. They lived in Jordan, attempted to take over militarily, and were thrown out. Iraq is throwing them out. You would think from this experience they would get it. Make peace with Israel, become joint economic forces and build a good life for their people. They are psychologically unable to do this. They are stuck in stupid and their Western supporters, by creating untrue histories, are stuck with them. They need therapy as a people. They need leaders for their people. They need to take responsibility for their lives. But they can't.