Thursday, January 26, 2006

And then they did...


I observed today from the streets of Bethlehem as supporters of Hamas caravanned through the city in a proud showing of support for what looks to be the newly elected majority of the Palestinian Authority. As I stood today in Hamas headquarters interviewing a local party official, who introduced himself to me as Ali Ali, I was struck by the degree to which a party once considered strictly militant has taken the whole democracy bit to heart. As Ali told me, "the American people must know that Hamas are a democratic people, we want the support of the American people - stand with us, and stand with democracy."

This is a drastically different tune from that sung by the militant Hamas the world has known. The political elixir has been distilled, but as to who is drinking it, thus far remains to be decided. Ali certainly cut a convincing monologue this afternoon during our conversation, he seemed to believe that Hamas was ready to lead Palestinians towards a more palatable peace. President Bush this morning reiterated that the United States refuses to negotiate with any political establishment that refuses to recognize the legitimacy of US ally Israel. I wonder what his buddies the Saudis would have to say about that one if he pressed them on it. The reality remains that if Hamas hopes to have any kind of a political tenure, they are going to have to develop some kind of relationship with the Israeli government, all bets are off. One thing is for certain, politically speaking the months ahead will be rocky.

Isam is my host brother. I stayed in his family home for two nights, and returned to Bethlehem today to see him. It is his likeness which graces today's photograph. That is his inked left index finger, proof of voting in the parliamentary elections. He stands outside the Hamas headquarters in Dheissha refugee camp, the only home he has known for the 23 years since he was born.

Dheissha was a camp created by the UN after the 1967 war. What began as a tented encampment has taken root on the hillsides of Bethlehem however, in the past thirty years Dheissha has become a permanent figment. The streets of Dheissha are littered with trash, there is no municipal authority capable of administering waste disposal. Even if there was, the streets are not big enough to allow the passage of garbage trucks. Not big enough to afford passage for the Israeli tanks that rumbled through these streets just a few years ago, crushing cars and scrubbing homes, leaving in their wake potholes, craters and convex walls falling in on themselves. Isam tells me of month long curfews where residents were forbidden from leaving their homes for any period of time, not even for food. He tells me that faced with the prospect of being shot for leaving his home, he and his neighbors found ways to elude the occupiers so that they did not starve. I have heard from him stories of Israeli military barging into the same home where I slept, at 2am sending German Shepherds in to terrorize sleeping children, and holding an entire family outside for hours of interrogation. Only to return to a house, furniture destroyed, a humble home turned upside-down by frustrated soldiers searching for non-existent terrorists. I have seen the pictures in his wallet of the children passed from lack of access to medical treatment, his friends.

Isam voted for Hamas yesterday. His own brother Husam, an accountant by trade, is angry with him for it. But Isam votes for Hamas not because he thinks they are capable of delivering the peace he has waited for all his life. He votes for Hamas because he wants change. He says that in 40 years Fatah has suffered nothing but losses for the Palestinian people. The Palestinians are tired of corrupt rulership and are ready for a new government, fresh ideas and accountability. Accountability is the single greatest asset Hamas has to offer the Palestinian Authority, by virtue of a major competing interest rivaling the previously dominant Fatah, perhaps this will be a government more capable of checking itself.

Husam has a different take. Husam describes, "It’s like a man who falls from a roof and lands on his feet, at first he stands, but soon he will collapse and die. When Israel kills someone, what will Hamas do?" This is an insightful inquiry. Hamas has long been the target of Israeli military strikes which have routinely taken out Hamas pundits. If Hamas responds with force, Israel will crack down tighter than ever before, and hail it as evidence of the dogmatic terrorist origins that riddle the electorate. Rami Bandak, a Christian Palestinian tour guide, claimed this to be exactly what Israel wants. This will certainly be something Israel will use to further delegitimize the Palestinian cause for self-rule.

As the Palestinian cause for a homeland hangs in the balance, the world gawks at the inconsolable Palestinians. Don’t they know better? If you speak to the Palestinian people though, there is no sense that anything will ever get better. They do not vote based on the naïve hope that things will miraculously change. The only change they know, is no matter how bad things seem, they have seen worse, and there is almost an underlying expectation that things are likely to get worse.

At the entrance to Dheissha refugee camp there is a metal gate that stands isolated, it connects to nothing anymore. Once upon a time though, not so long ago, this armored gate represented the controlled passageway between Dheissha and Bethlehem. It was the extreme limit of the communal prison that is Dheissha. It serves now only as a reminder of what the Palestinian people are up against.

Can you remember a time when internally displaced peoples were held as prisoners in artificially created ghettos? Neighborhoods developed in urban environments, families packed into sub-standard living conditions without heat, communities where the residents were forbidden from leaving? Can you remember asking how the whole world stood idly by and watched? Didn’t you wonder why no one wanted them?

I can, I do, I did, and I will not forget. We are all human. Try to understand.

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