As Hamas takes over, uncertainty takes hold

Western donors tell Palestinians to end violence or lose aid

February 02, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- On the top floor of a Gaza City office tower, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the militant Islamic group Hamas, was having another busy day in front of the television cameras.

In a crisp sport coat and green tie, Abu Zuhri rushed from one live interview to the next, defiant as Western donors threatened to sever millions in funding unless Hamas recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

No, he told the interviewers, Hamas would not recognize Israel.

No, the movement will not disarm.

No, he added, Hamas is not worried about losing millions in aid.

"We are confident," said Abu Zuhri, 39, straightening his tie and brushing off his suit before his next appearance in the rooftop studio with a commanding view of Gaza City and the Mediterranean Sea. "We are moving on. We know what we are going to do. ... For us everything is clear."

But 10 stories below in the streets of Gaza City, nothing remains clear, many Palestinians say. In the days since Hamas claimed a stunning victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, the surprise and jubilation have been displaced by growing concern about jobs, international aid and the direction in which Palestinian society might be headed under Hamas leadership.

"I don't know where the boat is taking us," said Adeeb Yousef, 45, an unemployed metal worker, sitting in his crowded, rented apartment in Gaza City that he and his wife share with their seven children.

Yesterday, the course Hamas is charting for the Palestinians became riskier when Egypt said Hamas needed to renounce violence and recognize Israel, if it were to form the next Palestinian government.

"There is a peace process aimed at the creation of a situation with two states living side-by-side, Israel and Palestine, and this requires mutual recognition," Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, said at a news conference in Cairo.

Separately, Israel announced that it has suspended the transfer of $45 million in tax rebates and customs payments to the Palestinian Authority.

"The transfers will be on hold" while the issue is being reviewed, Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman told the Associated Press. "The expectation is that automatic transfers will not continue."

"There is a concern on our side that the monies transferred will come back to haunt us in the form of suicide bombings," he said.

Palestinian officials say they may not be able to pay the salaries of the 137,000 employees on its payroll if Israel does not send the money. One of those employees is Yousef's son, who is a police officer in Gaza City. He is the family's sole source of income.

"The uncertainty is making things worse. People don't know what is going to happen or if they are going to get paid," said the father, chain smoking cigarettes.

"If I have 100 shekels in my pocket, I don't go out and spend it. I keep it because I don't know what it is going to be like in one month."

Yousef didn't vote for Hamas; he voted for Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, which suffered a humiliating defeat. Still, Yousef is willing to give Hamas a chance. And for everybody's sake, he hopes the new government succeeds.

"They've been elected. We have to implement the results of the elections," he said. "We have to give them a chance."

In Beach refugee camp, a warren of narrow, litter strewn streets and ugly concrete apartment blocks, Mohammed Khaled said he too has plenty of worries, but he voted for Hamas in hopes of ending them. Even if the future looks bleak now, it can't be worse than the present, he said.

"Look for five years we have been unemployed. Nothing has changed. Now I have more hopes that it might change," said Khaled, 31, an unemployed textile worker with four children, sitting on a plastic chair on the sidewalk.

His friend, Mahmoud Ayat, also voted for Hamas.

"We don't regret we voted for them," said Ayat, 45, an unemployed construction worker with eight children. "We have been through worse things than this before."

But he, too, is counting on Hamas to somehow pull them out of the disorder and chaos of life in Gaza, home to 1.3 million people, most of them living in deep poverty.

"The government will have to create jobs," he said. "If they don't succeed, I will vote them out."

Maher Banat, 30, a perfume salesman settled heavily on his chair on the sidewalk and encouraged his friends to place their trust in Hamas, even if the West stops the flow of aid.

"We are not worried. There are going to be alternatives. You have to know that if they cut our funding we are not going to be completely isolated. We have our Muslim brothers who will help us move and continue."

But Suleiman Hassanin, who voted for Fatah in the election, predicted that Hamas would stumble in its new role.

There are simply too many problems, from the looming loss of aid to a sour economy and now a world that seems against Hamas, he said.

"How can we survive without aid?" he asked. "There's no work here."

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