I hadn’t been to Gaza since January. The kidnapping of theBBC’s Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston on March 12 had madethe strip a no-go zone, and during the vicious rounds offactional fighting between Hamas and Fatah it was virtuallyimpossible to report from Gaza in a meaningful way.
But Hamas’ stunning victory in the final round of fightingon June 15, had changed everything. Fatah had been roundlydefeated, and my sources in Gaza told me we could return.
At the border, the scene, once we passed through the finalgate remotely controlled by Israeli border security, wassurreal. Around a hundred people — mostly young men with asmattering of women and children — were huddled by the sidesof the concrete corridor. There was a strong stench ofsweat, urine, human excrement and rotting garbage. Thepeople were mostly members of the defeated Fatah securityservices and their families, desperate to get out of Gaza. Afew spoke to us, and let us film them, and told us Hamas wasrounding up Fatah members and executing them.
Eventually, we passed through the first checkpoint manned byHamas gunmen, and the atmosphere changed. There was order.And the deeper we went into Gaza City, I was struck by howcalm the place was. There weren’t as many cars and peopleabout as usual, but I could hear no gunfire, and some storeswere open.
We drove by the villa of Muhammad Dahlan, once Fatah’s Gazastrongman, now residing in Ramallah on the West Bank. Dahlanwas Hamas’ arch-enemy, a man who, when he headed PalestinianPreventative Security, had mercilessly cracked down on Hamasduring the 1990s, and was believed to be the point man inFatah’s attempt to scuttle the Hamas-led Palestiniangovernment.
The villa was a shambles. Doors and windows had beenstripped, wiring yanked out from the walls. Everything thatcould be carried away was long gone. Three teenage boys werebusy loading up a donkey cart with the marble flooring.Nothing better symbolized the utter humiliation of the menwho were once the ruthless masters of Gaza.
What happened here is a revolution. For the first time in modern Arab history, a militant, revolutionary, Islamic movement has successfully and decisively overthrown the established Arab order. It was made possible by a variety of factors, including direct and indirect assistance from Syria and Iran, and by a single-minded determination to crush Fatah.
But the victory wouldn’t have been possible if Fatah hadn’tdone such a miserable job of managing the affairs of Gaza inparticular, and the Palestinians in general, over the years.When the leadership of Fatah returned to Gaza and the WestBank after decades in exile following the Oslo Accords in1993, they seemed more determined to profit from the new erathan create a viable Palestinian entity.
Their rule was characterized by blatant corruption,mismanagement, heavy-handed oppression and nepotism — allthe ills that have plagued the modern Arab world. They’rethe same ills which the Islamic movement — whether it be theMuslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front inJordan or Hezbollah in Lebanon — has been able to capitalizeon. Hamas proved its political power and popularity when ittrounced Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections inJanuary 2006. And it has matched its political prowess withmilitary might by crushing Fatah last month, even thoughthey were outmanned and outgunned.
Most of Fatah’s leadership in Gaza had long ago fled to therelative safety of the West Bank. Not surprisingly, almostevery regime in the Arab world is terrified by what happenedin Gaza, and is scrambling to do whatever they can to shoreup the bruised and battered leadership of Mahmoud Abbas inthe West Bank. They see themselves in Mahmud Abbas, and knowthat the forces that bolster them could, if faced by adetermined, focused, well-organized, and well-armed Islamicopposition, crumble just as easily.
That’s the big picture. For many Gazans, the return of orderis a positive change, or at least a relief after more than ayear of sporadic and intensifying factional fighting.
“It’s better now,” Ahmed, an old friend, told me. “Thefighting has stopped. We feel much safer. The problem is noone knows what will happen next. We don’t know if Israelwill allow food in. We don’t know if Israel will continue toprovide petrol or electricity. Today things are fine. Buttomorrow? We just don’t know.”
And that seems to be the worry of most people in Gaza. Thefuture only gets foggier. It’s a tiny, overcrowded patch ofland that always seems to be going somewhere, but neverarriving. One period of uncertainty is followed by another,and another and another.
Ben Wedeman is CNN’s Jerusalem Correspondent