As the United Nations debates Arab-Israeli peace prospects yet again, consider Gaza's zoo. The pint-size "Amusement Land" contains several generic "fish" in dusty aquariums, a cage filled with "house cats" and another with "dogs," (two Wheaten terrier mixtures and a mangy desert stray) a pair of falcons and ostriches, a peacock, which shares a cage with a rooster, parakeets and other assorted "birds," monkeys, a gazelle, and one sad-looking lioness. The zoo's centerpiece is a cage containing two bedraggled zebras. Only, it turns out, they are not zebras.
Ahmed Barghut, the zoo's owner, said that the real zebra (and the lion) died during Israel's 22-day bombing campaign this year when he and his son could not travel to the outskirts of Gaza City to feed the animals. Unable to afford a new zebra, which the owner said would cost $4,000, his son painted stripes on two local donkeys and placed them in the zebra cage.
Over time, other cheaper replacement animals were brought to Gaza through the maze of more than 1500 underground tunnels to and from Egypt that also supply Gazans with much of their food and daily necessities, at a hefty price.
Israeli officials assert and local polls agree that militant Hamas is losing ground each day that Israel continues its siege of Gaza, an enclave 25 miles long and 6 miles wide -- the size of greater Detroit -- where some 1.4 million people have been imprisoned for nearly three years. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency says that 80 percent of Gaza's refugee population, or about 800,000 people, now depend on its daily food rations to survive. Unemployment has soared and one-third of the population lives in abject poverty, says John Ging, the UNRWA office director.
The zoo, however, is but one example of Palestinian resilience that undermines Israel's three-year old blockade and complicates its effort to persuade Gazans to reject Hamas in favor of its rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which unlike Hamas, is willing to make peace with the Jewish state. Thanks largely to cooperation with Israel and the U.S., the West Bank's economy is booming – projected to grow at a rate of over 7 percent this year. Tourism is up; so are agricultural exports and per capita income. A four-year-old U.S.-sponsored training program headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has helped Fatah, the P.A.'s core group, reform its police and security services, resulting in enhanced security on the West Bank and devastating pinpoint attacks against Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militants determined to strike Israel and foment discord among Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Gazans are being collectively punished – in violation of international law, says UNWRA director Ging -- for their decision following Israel's unilateral withdrawal in 2005 to elect Hamas over Fatah in the 2006 legislative elections. After Hamas violently expelled Fatah forces a year later, splitting Gaza administratively from the West Bank, Hamas used Gaza as a launching pad to attack Israel. Between 2001 and the end of 2008, Hamas and armed militants it once tolerated fired more than 8,000 rockets and mortar shells on Israeli cities from Gaza, killing14 Israelis, wounding over 400, and making life in southern Israel intolerable. The inevitable outcome was the short, but devastating 22-day military offensive last December which resulted in war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by both sides – but especially by Israel -- according to the controversial report by a United Nations "fact-finding" task force headed by Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist and a Jew, whose conclusions both Israel and the U.S. have criticized.
While Israel claimed to have targeted Hamas' "infrastructure of terror," said Ging, it had actually destroyed Gaza's economic mainstays – schools, a biscuit factory, a juice producer, a cement plant – along with Gaza's parliament, or what he called "the infrastructure of democracy."
Eyad Sarraj, a Western-trained psychiatrist who runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Centers, politically independent, Western-funded clinics, calls the "suffocation" among Gazans "overwhelming."
"We are trapped in a prison where stress is normal," he says. The 9,000 commodities that Gaza used to import daily have been reduced to about 37, he said. Over 15 percent of the population, he estimates, suffers from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the syndrome now seen in so many U.S. military veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. Palestinians children, he says, are the primary victims – and one half of the population is under 18 -- registering unprecedented levels of bed-wetting, sleeplessness, phobias, depression, flashbacks, loss of concentration and impulsive behavioral disorders.
Today, ten months after Israel's targeted bombing campaign which finally halted most of the rocket attacks, almost nothing destroyed has been rebuilt. Israel, aided by Egypt, which fears the fundamentalist Hamas, refuses to permit most Gazans to import cement and other materials for reconstruction.
But, like the zoo, (and more about the zoo later) signs of what Dr. Sarraj calls "escapism" – or resourceful defiance -- abound. A huge poster adjacent to the half-pulverized Palestine parliament depicts the ancient Jewish tale of David firing a sling-shot at Goliath, only in this version, David the giant-slayer is a Palestinian. Gaza's markets are filled with Israeli goods imported directly from Israel and some that enter from Egypt via the black-market tunnels.
For middle class Gazans, business is brisk, for instance, at Mazaj, a coffee bar that sells cappuccino and latte for nine shekels a cup, (roughly $2.40), appetizers for 24 shekels ($6.50), Middle Eastern Quesadillas, and Texas Chili and fries ($4.30). Although virtually all Muslim women in Gaza wear head scarves, women mix freely with men at this chic hangout for students at one of Gaza's four still functioning universities. Other aficionados include Palestine Authority employees in Gaza, among its largest employers, whose salaries are still paid by their bosses on the West Bank, but who, now jobless, have ample time to sip espresso and debate the politics their party no longer controls.
"Rosy's," a combination women's gym and beauty parlor with 16 employees, has opened a dress shop featuring the heavily sequined and bejeweled gowns that Gazan women wear to an endless series of birthday and wedding parties. Purchased by catalogue from Arab-Israeli shops, the dresses are hand-carried into Gaza, one-by-one, in visitors' suitcases. At the salon, among the most popular items offered is the "cooling and calming" mask, despite the stiff, 150-shekel ($40) fee.
' At "Metro," a super-market, shelves are well-stocked with goods, most of them Israeli, at seemingly exorbitant prices for Gazans. But the manager says turnover is high and that he sells out of even such pricey items as Pringles, Nescafe, many brands of breakfast cereals, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and frozen raw peeled shrimp (also from Israel), not to mention such staples as Israeli canned chick peas, and plastic cartons of yogurt and milk. Shoppers seem undaunted by the frequency of torn or partly crushed containers, the usual wear-and-tear of having come through the tunnels that Israeli continues to bomb.
The nouveau-riche smuggling class and representatives of the much diminished NGO presence in Gaza sustain restaurants like "Roots," whose maitre d' learned his craft at a now defunct training school in Gaza. On its front door is a sign in Arabic – "We support reconciliation," a reference to the Egyptian-led effort to mend political fences between Fatah and Hamas. Another decal alongside it warns – "No weapons," a hold-over from the days of the P.A.'s rule when Hamas and Fatah fought in Gaza's streets, hospitals, and business establishments.
On Friday nights, Gazans with cash gather on the Deira Hotel's terrace overlooking the ocean. "It's a good night tonight," said Monther Shoblak, a water expert. "The ocean doesn't smell."
On the night I visited, the wind was blowing out to sea rather than towards Gaza City. So there was little stench from the 60,000 cubic meters of raw or partially treated sewage that is dumped each day into the sea where Gazans persist in swimming. Because the sewage has been drifting north to the Israeli city of Ashkelon, endangering tourism and water supplies there, Israel has agreed to let the World Bank build a new $58 million sewage treatment plant. But the project will take two years to complete. So for now, 90 percent of the water Gazans drink fails to meet minimal U.N. standards.
If any of this troubles Mahmoud Zahar, the 64-year old physician who co-founded and now heads Hamas in Gaza, he does not show it. Dr. Zahar was jaunty during an interview with a Palestinian woman who reports for The New York Times in Gaza, and me two weeks ago at his heavily guarded home. He seemed proud of the relative efficiency of his government – garbage is routinely collected and power outages are less frequent than before despite daunting obstacles – and cheered by the ostensible lack of progress on the peace process in New York, where President Obama had summoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Fatah West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas for what critics derided as a meaningless "photo op." The peace talks were "unimpressive," he asserted. Fatah was achieving nothing due to its notorious "corruption," whereas Hamas, had just won the release of 20 women prisoners of all Palestinian factions being held in Israeli jails in exchange for a short "proof of life" tape showing that Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier whom Hamas captured and has held for three years, was well. Soon, he told Taghreed and me, Hamas would score another victory when Shalit was exchanged for over a 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
Zahar's message was unmistakable: Hamas can deliver political benefits, while the Fatah cannot. He was willing, he said, to sign a reconciliation agreement with Fatah, despite his evident disdain for his rival. But there would be no elections in Gaza, he added, until Fatah released the nearly 1,000 Hamas prisoners being held in West Bank jails. Moreover, he said, although he "admired" President Obama's speech in Cairo last spring and welcomed America's "change of tone," Lt. Gen. Dayton would have to be withdrawn from the West Bank before new elections could even be contemplated. Dayton, he insisted, was to blame for the arrests of Hamas supporters on the West Bank. Hence, his advice was "damaging the Palestinian reconciliation effort."
"Hamas," he insisted, "is stronger today than ever before."
Some dismissed this as "bravado" aimed at hiding Hamas' declining popularity in the West Bank and especially Gaza, where people are tiring of Hamas' authoritarian Islamic rule and blame it for having provoked Israel's devastating attack, though most Gazans were too afraid to express that view openly, they said. A pro-Fatah university professor, who asked not to be identified, said he hoped that Israel would maintain its Gaza blockade for at least two more years. "By then, Hamas will be finished forever," he said.
But others, such as Dr. Sarraj, warn that Israel's punitive actions are spawning a new generation of extremists who make Hamas look moderate. In August, 28 Palestinians were killed and over a 120 were wounded when Hamas clashed with young rival militants of Jund Ansar Allah, (Soldiers of the Companions of God). Hamas blamed Jund for having bombed Gaza coffee shops, hair salons, and Internet outlets. Hamas, said its spokesman, would not allow "lawlessness and anarchy to return to the Gaza Strip." But the Jund is only one of several similar contenders for power that view Hamas as insufficiently Islamic and overly conciliatory towards Israel.
Taghreed, who refuses to wear a head scarf, told me she doesn't advise foreigners to visit certain parts of Gaza. During a recent trip, a young militant threatened to "sever her head from her body" if she returned to his neighborhood without covering her hair.
Israel's siege is not only illegal, but short-sighted, says Sarraj. "It is producing a generation that has never known an Israeli other than a solider and teenagers who believe not in the rule of law, but only in the Qassem rocket. In the long run," he warns, "this can only end badly."
But few players in this region devise strategies for the long-run. For Hamas, Fatah, and Netanyahu, the goal is survival. And a visit to Gaza reminds one that all sides are willing to do whatever that requires. The zoo, for instance, which Palestinians see as a symbol of defiance, is a case in point. While many of the animals undoubtedly were killed in Israel's military campaign, they might have met their fate even sooner had Hamas prevailed. An Israeli army video shows that Gaza militants had booby-trapped the zoo, and the school adjacent to it, with explosives. Had Israelis chosen to fight Hamas at either place, there would have been many more "martyrs" for the cause.