New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been travelling around Palestine (here’s his recent strong piece from the West Bank).
My Sunday column is from Gaza, where I argue that Israel should not just ease the trade restrictions but lift them. The problem with closing off Gaza, quite aside from the injustice of collective punishment, is that it tends to foster just the extremism that most threatens Israel and the entire Middle East. The constituencies for moderation and peace — civil society and the business sector — have been nearly destroyed and silenced, while Hamas appears to have been strengthened.
A couple of further thoughts. It’s very hard to gauge how popular Hamas is, but my vague sense is that Hamas may have lost popularity since the election in 2006 and since my last visit (2008). This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Israeli policies, but rather with weariness with Hamas’s Islamism, nuttiness and intolerance. Antics like Hamas’s attacks on summer camps for kids are emblematic of how the group antagonizes ordinary people. People are just tired of Hamas, and if Israel would stay out of the picture there’s some hope Hamas could eventually be displaced. Israel’s efforts to punish Gazans for Hamas may have the perverse effect of making Hamas more popular than it would otherwise be, and of keeping Gilad Shalit a prisoner longer than he would otherwise be. But that’s conjectural: it’s very difficult to understand public opinion in Gaza.
I’m sure some readers will dispute my suggestion that life in Gaza is better than it was a couple of years ago, and that there isn’t a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. But there seems to me to be no doubt about that. The most striking difference from my last visit is that then there was very little gasoline available in Gaza, so cars were running on vegetable oil — and the smell was terrible. There were also huge numbers of horse carts. Now gasoline is readily available by tunnel from Egypt (I’m told it’s cheaper in Gaza than in either Israel or the West Bank), and cars are humming along nicely. Gaza still has huge numbers of jobless people and it is poor, but it is materially better off than Arab countries like Sudan or Mauritania. Indeed, it’s probably… better off than Egypt.
Traveling into Gaza remains a kick, although it’s slightly more normal than it used to be. Leaving from Israel, you pass through a series of empty corridors, with steel doors opening magically before you (they’re remote-controlled by Israeli guards far behind you). There’s nobody around, because very few people are allowed to use the crossing. Finally you walk out and follow a path for about 3/4 of a mile through a no-man’s-land into Gaza (it’s fenced off now, which is better than it used to be), and finally you reach a drink stand and a few taxi drivers. A bit beyond that is a new Hamas checkpoint. Returning is even stranger: After leaving the last Gaza checkpoint, you reach steel doors that are magically opened for you by Israelis, who then instruct you through speakers to go through a series of gates and put all your possessions on trays to be inspected. Then you pass through X-ray machines, and gates in front of you are automatically opened until you finally reach some people.
One of the tragedies of the Middle East is that Hamas was actually nurtured in its early years by Israel. The thinking was that Israel’s real threat came from secular Palestinian nationalists, and a religious group would distract Palestinians by keeping them praying in mosques. For those who want to learn more about Hamas and its history, I strongly recommend a new book by Beverly Milton-Edwards and my Times colleague Stephen Farrell, “Hamas.”