Kamal Awaja lost his son in the recent Gaza war. He claims that Israeli soldiers murdered his child in front of his eyes before shooting his wife and himself in the leg, chest and arm. Today he lives with his large family in a tent in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, trying to provide a sense of normality for his children by tending a vegetable patch and constructing a small, plastic swimming pool.
Despite his hardships and antipathy towards the state of Israel, he told me in July that he still believed in a two-state solution and expressed no hatred for Jews in our hour-long conversation. “I don’t like speeches [by Muslim clerics] about killing Jews.”
Life in Gaza remains a daily ordeal for its 1.5 million citizens. The massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure remains largely untouched since the end of the war. Neighbourhoods lie flattened with families sleeping in the rubble of their former homes. I saw babies and young children lying on mattresses under crushed roofs. Engineers are now building clay structures due to the lack of cheap cement because Israel bans the material from being imported.
The western-backed siege had forced virtually every person I met to utilise and support the tunnels on the border with Egypt. Hamas controls this lifeline and imports everything from cars and shampoo to fish and underwear.
Unemployment is close to 80 per cent; I lost count of the number of men who told me their wives begged them to leave home every day. “Fifteen hundred people were killed during the war,” one resident, Nafez al Dabba, said. “But more babies than that have been born since because there is nothing to do.”
People like Mr al Dabba and his son Mohammed confounded my expectations about attitudes in Gaza and indicated a deep desire for some kind of normalised relations with Israel. Mohammed al Dabba, a militant who fires rockets into Israel and treats all Israeli civilians as legitimate targets, said he still supported a two-state solution, the right of return and enforcement of 1967 borders. He said he rejected the “extremism” of Hamas. But, like his father, he had no faith that Israel would stop building settlements. “Now [Israel] is even telling America to get lost.”
Bleak prospects are certainly breeding extremism in the Strip. Mid-August’s showdown in Rafah between Hamas and the al Qa’eda-affiliated group Jund Ansar Allah was only the beginning. I heard from various sources in Gaza, including the BBC Arabic reporter Shahdi al Kashif, that extremist organisations were thriving under the siege imposed by Israel and Egypt. These groups are not yet powerful enough to mount an effective challenge, but they remain frustrated with Hamas’s increasing willingness to engage with the international community.
Hamas has been conducting a vigorous public relations campaign to foster relations with the outside world emphasising pragmatism over militancy, according to a recent New York Times report.
Dr Ahmed Yousef, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, said his group had made recent gains and now desired a viable two-state solution. He also warned that “resistance” would continue if progress was not made in the near future.
“Hamas is now showing ideological flexibility as a political player”, he said. “The way we speak about our vision of a Palestinian state in 1967 borders is that we’re in power and have to look at the international community, not just the street’s opinion as when we were only a movement.”
This shift in strategy has barely been acknowledged by Israel, the United States or the members of the Quartet.
Hamas’s own growing Islamisation programme runs parallel with its crackdown on extremist groups. Although there in not an official policy, there is a creeping move towards a stricter interpretation of Sharia, as shop-owners are urged to remove female mannequins from windows and women instructed to wear the hijab and loose fitting clothing in public. During my visit, I saw people told not to wear T-shirts with “inflammatory” English words and phrases, including the name of the singer Madonna. When Imad Aqel, an action-packed ideological film that marked Hamas’s debut in the “cinema of resistance”, premiered in Gaza in early August, men and women sat in separate sections of the theatre.
Not everybody appears to be listening however. Hamas recently told Gaza’s most popular hip-hop group, Darg Team, that they couldn’t perform in public, but they were unfazed. They continue to rap about the occupation, politics, religion and right of return.
Darg Team’s manager Fadi Srour said the group would perform in Israel if they had the chance. “Every society has good and bad and we want to reach people directly,” he said. “We’d love to perform in the Knesset.”
Certainly devastation, psychological trauma and anger in Gaza are still very real. The Hamas and Fatah split looms over political discussions, with ideologues on both sides appearing to hold back a national unity government.
It was refreshing, though, to find so many besieged voices still seeking peace after the recent war and shocking hardship. But it remains up to Israel whether that peace will have a chance.
Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution