Split bodes ill for Palestinians

Rift threatens hope for a united state and united people

June 21, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Suggestions that Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip has effectively divorced the Palestinians into two separate states - Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, dominated by Fatah - worry Raed Abu Rouk and his new wife, Hind Whaby.

The newlyweds insist that whatever the political divisions, the two halves of the state that Palestinians yearn to create must remain united. If not, it might spell disaster for the Palestinian people as a whole.

They should know: He is from Gaza. She is from the West Bank.

"For me, Gaza and the West Bank are one unit. I don't accept the division. All of Palestine is Palestine," said Abu Rouk, a slim 27-year-old relaxing in his living room beside Whaby, 26.

For sure, the couple says, the West Bank and Gaza are geographically separate, isolated from each other by Israel's travel restrictions, and have drifted apart politically, economically and culturally during the past seven years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But they point to their own marriage as evidence of how the two territories are intertwined by so many familial and historical ties that talk of dividing them is unthinkable.

Last week, however, Hamas gunmen defeated Fatah fighters in the Islamic militant group's bid to conquer the Gaza Strip. In response, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Hamas-Fatah unity government and created a new Fatah-led administration in the West Bank. Refusing to step down, Hamas leaders continue to govern Gaza.

This week, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threw their support behind Abbas' new government in the West Bank, which seeks peace talks with Israel, while isolating the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which refuses to recognize Israel.

This strategy, which analysts have dubbed the "West Bank first" policy, seeks to bolster Abbas with aid, prisoner releases, easing of travel restrictions and other incentives that will turn the West Bank into a showcase to win the support of ordinary Palestinians. But Abu Rouk and Whaby - as well as many Middle East observers - caution that the strategy might drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank.

Speaking this week at a human rights conference in Ireland, former President Jimmy Carter said the embrace by the United States, Israel and the European Union of Abbas in the West Bank represented an "effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples."

"All efforts of the international community should be to reconcile the two, but there's no effort from the outside to bring the two together," Carter said, according to the Associated Press.

The story of Abu Rouk and Whaby's marriage is a tale of what ties the West Bank and Gaza together and what pulls them apart.

Abu Rouk grew up in Khan Yunis, in Gaza. A bright student, he was accepted at the West Bank's prestigious Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in 1998. At the time, it was relatively easy for Palestinians to get permission from Israel to go back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank.

In 2000, the Palestinian uprising broke out, and Abu Rouk faced a difficult decision as Israel tightened travel restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank. He could either go back to Gaza and likely never be allowed to return to the West Bank or stay in Ramallah.

"My family encouraged me to stay in school," he said.

So he did. During the past seven years, he never returned to Gaza or saw his family - though they live about an hour's drive away. He finished a degree in economics and found a job at the Palestinian Interior Ministry, working up to a management position.

He met Whaby, a shy office worker on his staff, and they fell in love. But his Gazan background was an immediate obstacle to their budding relationship. Whaby's parents balked at the idea of their daughter marrying a Gazan.

But it didn't come as a complete surprise. Palestinians in the West Bank historically have viewed themselves as better educated, wealthier and generally superior when compared with their neighbors in Gaza. The 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, who were under Jordanian control before Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967, have a more secular outlook and better access to education. It remains a stronghold of the Fatah movement.

By contrast, Gaza's nearly 1.5 million Palestinians - the majority of them refugees from what is now Israel - fell under Egyptian control until Israel seized the tiny coastal strip in 1967. They have a reputation for being poorer, less educated and more religious. The Islamic militant group Hamas, founded in Gaza in 1987, flourished in the poor alleyways of Gaza by opening schools and charitable organizations serving the coastal strip's poor.

When Abu Rouk, a Fatah loyalist, arrived at his university, he discovered that many Palestinians there had an image of Gazans as poor people in threadbare clothes with bad teeth because of their seaside territory's brackish water, he said.

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