From the archives: Mahmoud Al-Zahar's big, new house in Gaza

Jonathon Gatehouse travelled to Gaza in 2005, where he met with Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar

Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar speaks during a news conference after an official meeting with his Iranian counterpart Manoucherh Mottaki in Tehran June 10, 2006. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAN) - RTR1E9OU

Palestinian Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar speaks during a news conference in Tehran on June 10, 2006. (Reuters)

In the summer of 2005, Maclean’s correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse travelled to Gaza and met with Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The home Gatehouse visited, which Al-Zahar was just finishing at the time of his visit, was one of several Hamas targets demolished in Israeli air strikes yesterday.

This story was first published on Aug. 15, 2005.

Mahmoud Al-Zahar’s big new house in Gaza city is almost finished. The workers are busy on rickety scaffolding, four storeys in the air, attaching stone facing. Its polished surface is tinted an unusual shade of green — an exact match for the flags of Hamas flying proudly atop his front gate. Al-Zahar is keen for visitors to know what happened to his previous home. In the first-floor reception room, he sits cross-legged on an upholstered chair and passes around snapshots of the devastation wrought by the missiles Israeli F-16s fired in September 2003. One shows a lifeless body being carried from the rubble. A bodyguard, he says, rather than the other fatality, his 24-year-old son, Khalid. Some images, it seems, are not appropriate for polite company.

Al-Zahar, an articulate, 60-year-old surgeon with a graying comb-over and a slight indentation in his brow — the mark of a Muslim who prays devoutly — is the militant group’s senior member in Gaza. According to many observers, he is the organization’s leader, though that’s not a title he’s willing to claim after Israel Defense Forces assassinated his two predecessors — Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a pediatrician — in quick succession in the spring of 2004. What al-Zahar is eager for the world to believe is that Hamas, with its murderous tactics, is the main reason Israel is dismantling 21 settlements and pulling out of the Gaza strip. “We are playing inside Israel. We are destroying their economy; we have destroyed the dignity of the IDF. Sharon said he would crush the intifada within 100 days. Now, five years later, he is leaving.” The Palestinian Authority negotiated. Hamas, and the other militant groups, fought. It’s clear who succeeded, he says.

The various Palestinian factions take pains to explain that there is no hudna — truce — with Israel. There isn’t even a ceasefire, etlaq annat. The current lessening of tensions is tahdya, calmness. And sometimes not even that. The Israeli government says July saw a 50-per-cent increase in mortar attacks on the settlements, and there were several deaths on both sides of the divide. Al-Zahar vows that someday, perhaps someday soon, the full-fledged fighting will resume. The Koran prophesies the Jewish state’s defeat and the Zionists’ departure, he says, whether it’s next year or 150 years from now. Meanwhile, he and his organization have more local goals in mind. They want political power — preferably all of it, but a share will suffice for now — in Gaza. They will end corruption, improve the economy, build the pre-conditions for ultimate victory. The surgeon will cut the “cancer” of American and European power from the body of the Middle East. “We are calling for democracy,” says al-Zahar, “because democracy will bring Islam.”

The Square in front of the Palestinian legislature is festooned with flags and banners. The police band is on hand, huffing out a military march with its brass and bagpipes. Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, takes the stage and tries to add some excitement to the proceedings. Today would have been Yasser Arafat’s birthday, he reminds the crowd, a couple of thousand loyalists to his ruling Fatah party, bused in for the occasion. There is a cheer and a brief round of chanting. The pullout from Gaza is only the first step, Qurei vows. “The national struggle will continue until we reach Jerusalem and celebrate there, and in the West Bank!” A little more applause and chanting, some obligatory firing of AK-47s into the air. Maybe it’s the life-sapping effects of Gaza’s hellish midday sun, but the party never gets off the ground. It feels like a high school pep rally, forced and desultory.

The Palestinian Authority is mounting an aggressive PR campaign (funded by the UN and the World Bank), advertising on radio and television, and distributing T-shirts, bumper stickers and baseball caps. “Our land will return to us. Let us protect it,” says one slogan. “The people liberated the land. The people will build the land,” goes another. Workshops in the strip have been going flat out to fill the government’s order for 60,000 national flags to fly over the reclaimed settlements, along with 35,000 Fatah flags, and 20,000 banners depicting Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian president. But for all the rhetoric and jingoism, real public enthusiasm is in short supply. Residents know that Israeli tanks, helicopters and soldiers have always been able to come and go as they please. Their resistance — crude rockets, small-scale attacks on the settlements, suicide bombs at the border checkpoints — has often been deadly, but far less militarily effective than what is happening in Iraq. In preparation for departure, the IDF is busy constructing two additional security fences to hem in the territory. Many Palestinians worry they are inheriting a prison instead of a sovereign land.

“There is a sense of anxiety that anything could happen — by mistake, or design,” says Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Legislative Council, who has been active in brokering a deal between the PA and the militant factions. There needs to be a formal understanding on power-sharing, fixed dates for the next rounds of municipal and national elections, and a consensus on what is to be done with the reclaimed lands. But continued “calmness” doesn’t just depend on papering over internal divisions. There also must be substantive progress from the Israelis and the international community on the issues surrounding the West Bank, Jerusalem and the rights of displaced Palestinians. “If things falter, people will remember there is another method,” he says.

Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush’s willingness to go further, faster — as the Palestinians wish — is open to debate. The Israeli prime minister must face the electorate by the fall of 2006, and his Gaza disengagement plan has already enraged his pro-settlement Likud party base. Bush’s attentions are mostly focused elsewhere, and the Republicans are already looking ahead to the next U.S. election cycle. It all contributes to a deep-seated sense of pessimism in Gaza. It’s nothing like 1993, when the Oslo peace accord was struck, and people flooded the streets to celebrate,handing flowers to IDF soldiers. Eyad El Sarraj, a psychiatrist who runs an NGO focusing on the mental health of Palestinian civilians who have been caught up in the conflict, says keeping a moderate face on Gaza’s politics will be difficult. “Already people are skeptical,” he says. “This will provide ammunition for those who would rather fight.”

El Sarraj, who was a member of the Camp David negotiating team, says despite Hamas’s growing popularity, its supporters, like the vast majority of Gazans, are tired of the fighting and would be willing to settle for a “dignified peace.” But the PA has done little to show the population it’s capable of delivering the kind of massive political and social changes being promised. “We don’t trust the PA; we don’t trust Israel, or Hamas, or the Americans,” he says. “It’s a complete failure of leadership.”

The pullout is hardly a panacea for the strip’s massive problems. Raw sewage from the settlements and refugee camps — the only true mingling of Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza — spills into the Mediterranean next to white sand beaches that are somehow still popular. In the streets, carts and donkeys compete with luxury Mercedes. The empty blue plastic bag could well become a national symbol, as the entire landscape is littered with it. Almost 1.5 million people, half of them under the age of 15, are crammed into Gaza’s 365 sq. km. (By comparison, Prince Edward Island has just 137,900 residents in 5,660 sq. km.) It is one of the poorest places on Earth with an annual per- capita GDP of US$600 (Israel’s is US$20,800, Canada’s US$31,500). Unemployment hovers around 40 per cent.

The issue of what to do with the land from the 21 settlements and the military buffer zones around them — often two or three times as large as the communities themselves — is already a divisive one. The IDF is pulling down the 2,800 homes after the settlers are evacuated, something that will help the PA avoid the nightmare scenario of squatters or militant groups moving in. But there is little trust that the open spaces will be put to good use. In the past it’s been members of Fatah and the PA who’ve derived the greatest benefits from foreign aid windfalls and major construction projects.

The militant groups have very particular ideas about how new housing should be allocated. “The first chance should go to the families of the martyrs and detainees, and those who were harmed by occupation forces,” says Nafez Azzam, a senior leader of Islamic Jihad. His group will be watching to ensure that Abbas lives up to his promises of transparency and reform. Jihad doesn’t want to be an official part of the government, but it expects seats and significant input on the national committees that will decide policy. (The group is already busy at grassroots politicking, recently paying for a mass wedding of 222 couples in Gaza.) Azzam says he has no problem with the PA being the official face and voice of Palestinians. But like the other militants, Jihad isn’t planning to disarm anytime soon. “The weapons of resistance will remain as long as the Israeli danger is in place,” he says.

Although there’s no shortage of weapons in Gaza, the PA complains it doesn’t have enough guns or bullets to outfit its troops, much less crack down on militant activity, as the world demands. Israel, fearing that there are no degrees of separation between the security and militant forces, refuses to open the border with Egypt to new arms shipments. The mutual mistrust has made negotiations on a whole range of border issues difficult, and it appears that little will be resolved before the settlements are fully handed over sometime this fall. Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian from Toronto who acts as a senior legal and media advisor to the PA, says she has been deeply frustrated by the process. She cites the example of the industrial park at the Erez crossing. The 200-business facility is being handed over, but no provision has been made to physically get its goods into Israel. The IDF wants every item to be put on a pallet and forklifted over a high barrier wall. If something is too big or heavy, it just won’t get to market.

Buttu argues that it’s ridiculous Palestinians are being told they must earn control of the building blocks of their own economy — the airport, sea port and border crossings — through good behaviour. “It’s become really disgusting to me that the international community talks about this as a model. As if the Palestinians have to beg for their freedom or prove that they are worthy.”

The nexus of humiliation in Gaza is a farmer’s field belonging to Abdul Kader Abu Holy, the 80-year-old patriarch of the Abu Holy clan. The main road — the only road — linking the north and south of the 50-km-long strip runs through it. So does the east-west highway into Gush Katif, the largest Israeli settlement block. At the beginning of the current intifada, what used to be a simple crossroad morphed into a heavily fortified checkpoint that bears the farmer’s family name, bristling with tanks, pillboxes and machine-gun towers. When there is trouble — like the July killing of a Jerusalem couple on the highway as they drove back from seeing relatives in Gush Katif — it is shut for days. Even when things are quiet, it can take hours to get through.

Disengagement should bring an end to the endless waits. For most Gazans, that will be the single biggest change in their lives, at least initially. At his farm house, Abu Holy is impatiently waiting for his day to come. He has been farming the fields for 40 years, and in conflict with his Israeli neighbours for almost as long. The IDF has bulldozed his palms, almond trees and orange and guava groves to create buffer zones as the conflict dragged on. Abu Holy says he and his clan have always prevented the militants from using their land to launch attacks. But two of his sons, both Fatah members, are in Israeli jails, one sentenced to 22 years. In 2001, a nephew was shot and killed near the checkpoint. Two teenage members of the clan were arrested in late July and are being held for interrogation. One of Abu Holy’s many sons talks about how his young daughters can now distinguish between the sounds of gunfire from an AK-47 and an Israeli M-16. Despite a recent stroke, the patriarch is determine to return to the fields once the Israelis leave. “Getting rid of the occupation is worth more to me than all my lands,” he says. “They killed young children, they bulldozed our lands.” On his part, at least, there will be no forgiveness. Israel’s bet that a few extra kilometres of distance will improve things seems like a long shot.