Osamah Khalil: Crossing into Gaza (3 of 3)
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: I think that’s one of the things the Bush administration and the media in the West either are confused themselves or deliberately confused. Everything is lumped together under this rubric “terrorism,” and the relationship of Hamas to al-Qaeda is not really understood. So what are the relations between Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda?
OSAMAH KHALIL, JOURNALIST: None, actually. So I think it’s a big misnomer, a big misunderstanding on the part of most western, especially American, audiences that somehow these are all terrorist groups or that they’re all aligned in some big, nefarious coalition against the West. Hamas, Fatah, and Hezbollah are deeply opposed to groups like al-Qaeda, who they themselves see as terrorists. And what Hamas and Hezbollah and Fatah will tell you is that “We are opposed to occupation, and specifically Israeli occupation,” whether it be the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that Hezbollah fought against or the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that Fatah and Hamas are opposed to. There’s no support for those groups. And in fact, you know, there was actually some coordination between the Palestinian Authority when Fatah was in leadership in attempting to route out anybody who might be aligned with al-Qaeda in the West Bank or Gaza. But you see very little support, actually, for a group like al-Qaeda in places like Gaza and the West Bank. And the small support they get tends to be overblown by the western press.
JAY: Now that the wall is down, what is daily life in Gaza? What’s the economy? How do people live?
KHALIL: Well, unfortunately, daily life has become very difficult. And with the wall down, it’s tended to be a bit of a reprieve right now. So people are able to go out and get some of the much-needed supplies. But because it’s still a very fluid situation, they’re not sure how long the border’s going to be open, they’re mostly stocking up in preparation for another closure. But some of the things you’ve seen are this. The price of cigarettes has dropped dramatically. About a week ago, a single carton of cigarettes went for 20 shekels, 20 Israeli shekels. That’s about the equivalent of US$5. Right now you can get a carton of cigarettes for 70 shekels, so about $21. And that price is still dropping, okay? So that’s one place you see movement. Another great example is last month during the Eid ul-Adha holiday, which celebrates the end of the Ramadan. One of the things you’ve seen is the Ramadan’s celebration for Muslims when there is a ceremonial slaughtering of sheep in remembrance of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his son. Instead, he slaughtered sheep. And that’s the traditional dinner. Last month in Gaza it was very difficult or almost impossible to get a sheep. It was far too expensive. And those they had were underfed and too thin. One of the things you did see is lots of goats and sheep and cows coming into Gaza over the past month. That being said, the price of meat still hasn’t dropped.
JAY: Where do people get money to buy anything? Where’s the money coming from?
KHALIL: So you still have those who are getting salaries from Fatah. One of the things that’s going on is even though Fatah forces were routed, Fatah has still been paying salaries to their members. Okay. And these were members of the government who are no longer working in the government. Hamas still has a little bit of money to pay its salaries, and of course it’s a social welfare network. You also have Palestinians who have family abroad who have been sending money in. But, again, you’re looking at a very deep—somewhere anywhere between—the numbers vary—but 40 to 60 percent unemployment, even higher underemployment. So you have people who have been storing and saving money. They would have bought things in Gaza, but, quite frankly, there was nothing to buy because of the sanctions and siege regime. So you have monies coming in from the outside, you have those who are getting salaries, and that’s essentially where they’re getting money to buy this stuff. Some of it is, for those who do have jobs, money they’ve saved. For those who, you know, are from wealthy families, they’re storing up. And some are quite entrepreneurial. In fact, one of the stories I heard was people who would go out and buy a liter of gas for 20 shekels in Egypt will come back and sell it for 80 in Gaza. That being said, I think it’s also important for your viewers to understand the power situation is still quite critical. In the city of Rafah, which is in the southern Gaza Strip bordering Egypt, they get the majority of their power from Egypt, and yet they’re still subject to almost eight hours of no electricity a day. In the rest of Gaza, which is reliant, of course, on a single power plant operating at less than half capacity and reliant on fuel supplies from Israel and power supplies from Israel, it’s the almost reverse. They only get about eight hours of power a day, some mostly even less. So it is really quite a difficult situation that’s very dynamic and fluid and changing a bit. One of the most remarkable things that I noticed was, driving through Gaza yesterday, the major cities—Gaza City, Rafah, and Khan Yunis—were completely empty. Anybody who was around was either going to Egypt, in Egypt, or coming from Egypt. So right now it almost has the appearance of being this huge holiday, in a sense, where people are kind of going back and forth across the border. And you get a sense of relief, a sigh of relief, kind of a big, deep exhale. But they’re also very quite concerned that this is just the calm before the next storm.
JAY: To what extent is Hamas getting financial support from other Arab countries? There’s talk that Iran gives a certain amount of support. Are any other countries chipping in?
KHALIL: My understanding is that they get it from several different areas. This includes Iran, Saudi Arabia, and wealthy Palestinians from abroad. So, you know, this is the general situation, the general levels of support, the main [inaudible] as well as, I mean, Syria doesn’t give them as much financial support. They don’t have a lot to give. But mostly political, diplomatic, and military support are generally what Hamas’ backing is.
JAY: I mean, if there was a question of trying to get cash into Gaza, I suppose with the wall down it’s going to be a little easier to do that.
KHALIL: Yeah. My guess is that a lot of cash came in over the past few days. I would venture that to be the case. I think that once that wall came down, that was one of the first things that came in was some much-needed cash, ’cause one of the things—at the end of the Haj, there was a large contingent of Palestinians who had gone from Gaza, who’d gone on the Haj. Israel was unwilling to let them back in, and it was about a week that they were sitting at the Rafah crossing, and Israel was unwilling to let them in. Egypt—.
JAY: This is the pilgrimage you’re talking about.
KHALIL: I’m sorry?
JAY: Essentially going on a pilgrimage.
KHALIL: Yeah, exactly, the Haj pilgrimage. Egypt actually let them in. It created a bit of a diplomatic furor with Israel, and one of Israel’s claims was that they didn’t want them bringing money back in for Hamas. And, of course, I mean, it’s a bit of a specious claim in any event. But this is one of the things that they’ve been attempting to do is tighten those controls of money coming back in.
JAY: And, finally, there’s a hearing taking place before the Israeli Supreme Court to decide whether to force the Israeli state to deliver diesel fuel for electrical generation at the same levels pre-siege. Do you know what’s happening with that?
KHALIL: My understanding is today that they voted in favor of increasing the power supplies. I believe that’s a political decision. Essentially, I think what the Israelis were hoping was that Mubarak would back down. Mubarak, under US pressure, he’s been unwilling to back down and doesn’t look like he’s going to back down. Quite frankly, he can’t. What they’re going to try and do is apply slow and steady pressure to reassert control over the border. They were doing that last night. Palestinians can no longer go to El-Arish. They can go everywhere south of El-Arish, which includes a few smaller towns in Rafah. But they can’t make it to El-Arish. And I’m sure that over the next week what we’ll see is a more tightening of control as long as Israel’s willing to start resupplying fuel. Egypt’s not about to let them starve and cut off Gaza completely. I have to tell you that here in the region and in Cairo in particular the coverage of this has been really quite dramatic, even before the wall. The coverage of the electricity cuts, Al-Jazeera in particular and El-Arabia, the two major satellite stations, devoted a lot of attention to it, Al-Jazeera even more than El-Arabia. And there’s really dramatic footage of there being no power, no lights in Gaza, and a very poignant candlelight march by Palestinian children chanting “We are the Arabs.” So the pressure on the Arab governments has been very high, and on Egypt in particular because it borders Gaza.
JAY: There’s a proposal by Abbas that the PA should actually take over all the border controls. I don’t quite understand the logistics of that, especially in the areas that are controlled by Hamas. How is the PA going to control the border between Gaza and Egypt?
KHALIL: Well, one of things Hamas has said is that we can control this jointly. So there’s a bit of a maneuvering going on here, and it’s kind of this four-way maneuvering going on between Fatah—Fatah being the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah—and Hamas in Gaza, as well as those two with Egypt and Egypt with Israel. So it’s really this game going back and forth between the four, and each one trying to reassert control over a situation that, quite frankly, the only ones who do have control over it are Hamas. It sounds like Israel, much against its will, and the PA, for that matter, are going to have to live with that. They were trying to starve and really starve and defeat Hamas that way, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to work. Hamas has actually, in a way, kind of flipped the game on them right now. I don’t know that they’re going to be able to get the joint controls that they want, but it looks like there’s going to have to be concessions on all sides, and that includes Hamas for that matter. My guess is we’ll see a very different situation in the next two weeks than we had, quite frankly, at the beginning of last week.
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