Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Calculus of Chaos

Hamas leaders make their anti-civil-disorder position clear at a campaign rally.

Mohammed's latest article was published in Morgenbladet (in Norwegian) yesterday. Here is the original English:

A masked gunman was setting up a roadblock along Salah Al Deen Street, Gaza's main north-south highway. One of his comrades, voice muffled by his mask, leaned close to whisper: "Why here? Why make problems for ordinary people? Shouldn't we be blockading some Ministry in Gaza City?"

"We've done that," said the other. "Now we have to get the citizens to understand we've been begging for jobs and been ignored over and over."

To the motorists trapped far back in the growing traffic jam, it must have seemed like a time-warp back to the bad old days when the Israeli Army closed roads for any, or no, apparent reason. But now their adversaries were fellow Palestinians.

ASSESSING THE DAMAGE after masked gunmen bombed UNRWA's Gaza City Beach Club, a long-established gathering-place for UNRWA staff and foreign visitors. The Beach Club contained a cafeteria, restaurant, and a bar where alcohol was sold, which may have been why the building was attacked.

Road blocks, abductions, taking over government offices and public buildings, even private wars that descend into public chaos—this has become everyday life in the Gaza Strip. To the distress of Palestine's friends, and very likely to the delight of her enemies, a relative handful of the armed, desperate, and frustrated have created a public-relations nightmare for Gaza. The high officials of the Palestinian Authority, while issuing predictable condemnations, have been woefully short on any useful action. While the armed demonstrations and building takeovers sound dramatic, and always have the potential to turn tragic, the Palestinian security services have no more interest in starting a shooting war with fellow Palestinians than do the armed militants. When all goes well, the militants fire in the air. The police arrive and fire in the air. Demands are stated. Promises are more or less made. Everyone fires in the air some more. Then, honor satisfied on both sides, everyone goes home—and nothing has changed for anyone. But at least no one has been hurt.

In some ways, the inter-family vendettas are more disturbing, with two especially bad ones growing into major violence in the last month. In Beit Hanoun in North Gaza, a feud between the Al Kafarneh and Al Masri families escalated into a full-scale shooting war, with the fighting families imposing curfews on their neighbors, setting up checkpoints and free-fire zones. One wonders, of course, what terrible crime, or alleged crime, started this conflict that to date has killed and injured scores—surely they're fighting over an alleged murder, rape, or massive theft?

In fact, all this bloodshed began when a donkey-cart driver of one-family scratched a car belonging to someone from the other clan. In Khan Younis in southern Gaza, two other families have gone to war for equally murky reasons—the only thing clear is the amount of collateral damage to uninvolved citizens, as bystanders get caught in the cross-fire. It is, however, a sign of the huge frustrations Gazans are living with—the powerful armed families have seen no action whatsoever from the Palestinian Authority in restoring the lands they lost to the now-empty Israeli settlements. One has to wonder if they would be so eager to wage war over a dented car, if they could actually reclaim and start rebuilding their ruined farms and groves.

Kidnappings of foreigners, mainly journalists and NGO workers, have mushroomed in the last few months, with 18 incidents to date. Without exception, the foreign victims have been released unharmed, and told the press they had been treated well by their captors. In almost every instance, the masked militants were asking for jobs within the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps the most dramatic case was the New Year's Eve kidnapping of 24 year old Kate Burton and her parents, all citizens of the UK. Burton had been living in the Gaza Strip for a year as a volunteer with the Al Mazen Center for Human Rights. Her parents came to Palestine for the Christmas holidays and toured Bethlehem and other pilgrimage sites in the West Bank. Wanting to show her parents her home in Gaza, Burton and her parents flew to Egypt and entered Gaza through the Rafah Crossing—and were abducted by armed militants soon afterward and held for two days. The irony, of course, is that those victimized by the abductions—NGO workers and international journalists—are the very people working to help the Palestinians, or at least report the truth of daily life in Gaza to the international community. Worse, in the heat of each kidnapping crisis, the Palestinian Authority usually promises jobs to the militants and never, ever keeps those promises.

One of the 20 militants from the Al Aqsa Brigade who invaded a government building in Khan Younis agreed to speak only if he could remain anonymous. Asked what he was protesting, or against whom, he replied, "We're protesting against every government official throwing up roadblocks to our getting employment. We spent years sacrificing and risking our lives for a better future for Palestine. Now we want jobs and the Palestine Authority ignores us."

Asked if there wasn't some better way to state grievances and stage protests, he replied, "Some get their demands through pure favoritism and good connections. We don't have any special connections, so power and pressure seem the only means open to us," he explained.

Abu Nabil Abdel Razeq, a social reformer who heard this exchange, commented, "It's dangerous that the chaos is so out of control, and it's shameful because it harms not only the government targets but normal citizens. We cannot accept this, even though there is justice in the militants' demands."

The Burton kidnapping, plus border clashes between rogue militants and Egyptian police, brought new protests from Gaza's citizens and other militant factions. A coalition of six militant groups, including Fateh, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Popular Front, issued a statement condemning the kidnappings, building seizures and other violence as "not serving the Palestinian national interest."

Some international media have, quite simplistically and incorrectly, stated that the Israeli occupying army imposed civil law and its withdrawal is the cause of the present internal problems. To the contrary, the Israeli Army did all in its power to destroy Gaza's civil institutions, especially the Gaza police and the Palestinian Authority, and since the withdrawal have maintained their stranglehold on the Gaza economy.

Of course, the Palestinian Authority has committed non-violent "crimes of omission" by promising jobs to the militants time and again, and failing, time and again, to keep those promises. The militants, with their dangerous, if rarely lethal theatrics, seem the obvious villains, while the high government officials do little more than watch. But the incontrovertible fact is that many in the Palestinian Authority are collecting high salaries and living extremely comfortable lives while many other Gaza citizens cannot find food to feed their children. But when the militants fire in the air and occupy a public building, they are of course, in the eyes of the world, the "terrorists" while the Palestinian Authority is blameless—all of which, sad to say, makes it that much easier for the Sharon government to solemnly declare "they have no partner for peace."


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