Conflicted Gazans send mixed messages

JABALIYA REFUGEE CAMP — Khalil Madhouni, a balding, middle-aged baker in this particularly squalid patch of the Gaza Strip, goes from fighter to peacemaker in the time it takes him to scratch his round belly with flour-caked fingernails.

“War forever,” the angry-eyed bread maker growls when asked if the ruling Hamas movement should recognise the Jewish state it has sworn to destroy. “No peace with the Jews ever. There is no peace.

Only surrender.” He sighs. He reconsiders. He softens his scowl.

“No. OK. I want peace, but I want a just peace.” The opposing worldviews of Madhouni and other Palestinians in the Jabaliya refugee camp offer a glimpse into the difficult choices that confront their leaders and that have left people here facing an uncertain future.

A six-month-old international aid boycott aimed at weakening the Hamas government has made life for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as desperate and hopeless as it has ever been and made governing nearly impossible.

Now, amid efforts to form a unity government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas must decide whether to accede to Western demands and back off its long-held vow to throw Israel into the sea or stay true to its founding principles.

If Hamas is looking for guidance from the Palestinian masses, who in January voted the group into power, it should look elsewhere.

In this tangled maze of narrow pedestrian alleyways, among the most densely populated places on earth, teenagers hurled the first stones of the Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Today, residents of the Jabaliya refugee camp, a Hamas stronghold that has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel activity, Palestinians are openly conflicted.

A short walk from Madhouni’s bakery, Hossam Surour slumps over the sales desk of a deserted satellite TV shop. Last month, the 22-year-old got engaged. He waves a silver band on his ring finger as proof.

He says he needs $3,000  to marry, but adds, plangently, that he hasn’t a penny. With his future wedded bliss at stake, Surour is closely following Palestinians’ declining fortunes and is eager to share his thoughts on what needs to be done.

“Hamas must compromise because things are very difficult for us now,” he says adamantly. “They should join a unity government.” But when asked if that includes recognising Israel, abiding by past peace deals, and renouncing violence — the three conditions Hamas must meet for the West to resume direct aid to the government and for Abbas to sign on to a Hamas-led unity government — the young storekeeper changes his tune.

“No way,” he says. “I’m totally against that. These compromises are impossible for me to accept. This is our right.” When pressed on what exactly it is he wants his elected leaders to do, Surour throws up his hands.

“I don’t know. Allah will help us.” Recent public opinion surveys have reflected the Palestinians’ conflicting views.

According to a September poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research and another one by Najah University, two-thirds of Palestinians think Hamas should not bow to the demands of the donor community.

Yet 85 per cent of Palestinians also want Hamas to enter a unity government that would almost certainly entail bending to those very demands, the polls found.

“The problem is the Palestinians are confused,” says Abdel Majed Sweilem, a political science professor at Al Quds University. “On the one hand, they want compromise and a political solution. On the other hand, they haven’t seen any results from 10 years of negotiations.” Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian think tank that conducted one of the polls, disagrees. There is no inconsistency in the Palestinians’ stance of being pro-peace and opposed to compromise at this time, he says.

“Three quarters of the Palestinians would be happy to recognise Israel but only as part of a final settlement,” says Shikaki. “For most Palestinians, recognition of Israel is a negotiating asset.

They are saying to Hamas don’t do it, because they think it is wrong to do it now. 

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