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Jun 21, 2011


Gaza City - “The day that Hamas and Fatah announced their reconciliation, we had a bigger celebration than the Egyptians did when Mubarak stepped down,” says Nidal Abu Kirsha.

That is unlikely, considering Gaza’s population of about 1.5 million compared to Egypt’s estimated 80 million. But it illustrates Abu Kirsha’s point. Like many Gazans, the 48-year-old butcher claims no allegiance to either the local Islamist Hamas government, or the nationalist Fatah party primarily operating out of the West Bank. Even so, he received last month’s announcement of reconciliation between the two with “open arms.”

Those open arms have now been reduced to a shrug of indifference.

“What have we seen since this news?” Abu Kirsha asks. “What actual proof of a genuine reconciliation have they given us?”

“Everyone in Gaza celebrated the announcement,” he explains. “But it’s been over a month now. We’re not going to continue celebrating what is, so far, an empty promise.”

Long-standing tensions between the two factions erupted in 2006, shortly after Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the legislative elections, leading Hamas to gain control of Gaza. Israel and the Middle East Quartet, who label Hamas a terrorist organization, subsequently imposed harsh economic sanctions on the narrow coastal strip.

Members of the former ruling Fatah party and supporters of the group remained resistant to the shift in power, and after a period of escalating internal conflict, violence broke out, spilling into Gaza’s streets as well as the government institutions shared by the two parties.

By outnumbering its opposition, Hamas quickly seized Gaza and set up its own government while Fatah restored its one-party domination of the West Bank. The division continues to this day.

Should the reconciliation announced in May come to fruition, Hamas and Fatah would create an interim government to oversee general elections, held one year after the signing of the deal. Since the announced reconciliation, however, the two parties have displayed pettiness - such as refusing to sit next to each other during a press conference - that has cast a shadow on the elation initially felt in Gaza.

“In theory, they can tear each other apart and I wouldn’t really care,” Abu Kirsha says. “The problem is we are the ones who get caught in the middle. These parties disagree on paper, and manipulate our children into dying for their own power-hungry cause. Our families have been torn apart, and our lives completely overshadowed by the ambitions of these monstrous politicians,” he says of an almost six-year long conflict between the two factions commonly referred to as the “War of Brothers.”

Following the reconciliation announcement, the Fatah flag - a coat of arms depicting two fists clenching semi-automatic rifles over a single grenade - resurged on the streets of Gaza. It could be seen fluttering alongside that of Hamas, on which twin swords safeguard the Dome of the Rock. One establishment showcases both flags hanging above those belonging to another pair of rivaling factions - Ahly and Zamalek. T-shirts, pins, and stickers bearing the factions’ emblems are now being sold by clothing stores and sidewalk vendors alike.

Nevertheless, much appears to have changed in the national mood since the reconciliation was announced. “It’s all just ink on paper,” Maher Boudein claims, emphasizing his lack of faith with a wave of his hand. “Even if the intention was genuine, which it isn’t,” Boudein says, “it still wouldn’t happen. We are incapable of the negotiating and diplomacy required to sustain a reconciliation.”

Frustrated at being stuck in traffic, Boudein curses and honks his horn repeatedly at the steamroller and construction crew paving the intersection ahead. For the cab driver, Hamas’ ongoing efforts at improving Gaza City’s infrastructure - including using the rubble from bombed sites, such as former leader Yasser Arafat’s residential compound, to pave new roads - are not worth commending.

“The only reason Hamas does things like this is to justify the ‘donations’ they forcibly take from us,” Boudein believes. “Projects like these are just a front.”

Boudein - who adamantly reiterates that he is not a Fatah supporter - insists that Hamas represents “everything that is wrong” with the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Do a background check on the members of Hamas. They are the sons of criminals – drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps. They have dragged us back 50 years with their barbaric ways,” Boudein rants, pounding on his steering wheel in rage.

“They encourage murder for their own cause regardless of social and family ties. They steal our money and keep us vulnerable so that we will be forced to fall back on them for support. And now, they’re acting out this reconciliation charade so that they can say, ‘We tried to achieve peace, but the Fatah infidels just want war.’”

Boudein’s views are similar to those of others on his side of the apparently unconquerable divide between the two factions.

“Fatah is subservient to the Jews,” says Mahmoud Heriez, an auto-mechanic who, unsurprisingly, vows that he is not a supporter of Hamas. “Their primary collaborator, and priority, is the Israeli government, and this is why they will never reconcile officially with Hamas.”

For proof, Heriez points to the salaries that Fatah gives its soldiers. “The lowliest soldier makes 3500 shekels (LE6020) a month, while lieutenants earn at least 6000 (LE10,321),” he claims. “If you think Fatah will give that up for peace with Hamas, then you don’t understand anything.”

Perhaps the only people willing to express any faith in the reconciliation are those directly involved.

“Of course, it’s very understandable that people are skeptical about this reconciliation and frustrated about the slow pace with which its progressing,” Ihab al-Ghusain, spokesperson for Hamas, acknowledges. “But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, or that nothing will happen. All it means is that this is a complicated situation, and it will take time to navigate it properly, and in a way to ensure that it does indeed work out.”

“Hamas is currently expressing more leniency, flexibility, and openness than ever before,” Ghusain claims, assuring that its members “are all committed to, and enthusiastic about, securing an unbiased reconciliation with Fatah.”

Three days following Ghusain’s staments to Al-Masry Al-Youm, a conference planned for Tuesday between leaders of Hamas and Fatah, which was to resolve fundamental issues such as naming a leader and officials for a unity government, was canceled due to ongoing disagreement between the two sides.

Disappointing as this latest derailment may be, it’s safe to say that had it gone through, most Gazans would have remained skeptical about the prospect of a lasting peace, with some even going so far as to blatantly refuse it.

“They might be able to reconcile between each other on paper,” says former Hamas militant Mohamed Souwan, “but we will never be able to reconcile in reality.”

The reason, Souwan explains, is simple: “Too much blood has already been shed.”

Souwan suggests that based on the lingering tension between both factions, violence could result from a failed reconciliation.

“The families who have lost fathers, brothers and sons, will never be able to forgive, or forget, nor should they. For those families to reconcile would be a disgrace, and a shame to the honor of their martyrs,” he says.

Souwan’s statement is unusual, if only because he is directly responsible for killing some of those martyrs whose honor he now insists on defending. As a Hamas militant, Souwan admits to having been “heavily involved” in the violence that raged between the two sides. “I wanted to be a martyr myself. I wanted to die for the cause Hamas was fighting for. But then they changed. They got greedy.”

“Hamas used to be for the people,” Souwan recalls. “That was their main concern - their people’s well-being. But, after they won the elections, their priorities shifted. Now they exist to extort.”

Souwan claims he forced himself accept the direction Hamas was taking post-elections, but soon could not do it any longer. Shortly after being promoted to a higher rank, he had a meeting with his seniors and told them he “wanted out.” In order to become a member of Hamas, one must vow to make a lifelong commitment, Souwan says, in an attempt to explain why the meeting went poorly. Nonetheless, he withdrew entirely from the group, and now lives in fear of retribution - a worry, he claims, that is minor compared to what he fears from the fallout of a failed reconciliation.

Today, public opinion in Gaza is largely divided between Hamas supporters, Fatah loyalists and a significant percentage of those who have nothing but bitterness and resentment for both. The five-year division has led to the creation of smaller factions, the members of which will undoubtedly be emboldened by yet another round of failed negotiations.

“When this reconciliation fails, it will only bring another civil war, worse than the one before,” he believes.

Souwan is prepared for the worst. “I handed in my Hamas guns,” he says. “But I still have weapons of my own.”

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