Palestine Statehood Bid: Where Is Gaza?
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the Palestinians' high-profile bid to seek statehood at the United Nations, half the future nation they envision has been all but forgotten. Residents of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip are watching frustrated from the sidelines as the West Bank-based leadership pushes for the long-held dream.
The move for U.N. recognition has created a quandary for the Islamic militant Hamas, which violently overran Gaza three years ago and set up a rival government there. They can't publicly oppose the idea of statehood, but they are wary of giving a boost to their West Bank rival, internationally backed President Mahmoud Abbas. They also don't want to appear to recognize Israel, as the move implicitly does by calling for a state only on territories captured in 1967.
Palestinian leaders in the West Bank "forget the missing part, which is Gaza," said Taher Khalil, a 45-year-old retired civil servant and father of seven.
"We only know about this move from TV, we don't know what is right and what is wrong ... no one came out and told us what the future will look like after we submit the bid at the U.N.," he said.
Abbas' Palestinian Authority is seeking recognition of an independent state on territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, including the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but still controls its crossings, blockades its coast and occupies the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Abbas' government has wielded no authority in Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, since Hamas pushed out Abbas loyalists in 2007 and set up an Islamic-oriented mini-state complete with government ministries, a military force and a postal service.
Hamas, allied with Iran and openly committed to Israel's destruction, does not support the U.N. move, but has largely kept a low profile, not openly condemning it. Instead, Hamas officials have chided Abbas – also known by his nickname Abu Mazen – for going it alone.
"Abu Mazen's decision to go to the U.N. without consulting with Palestinian factions about the negative and positive impact of such a move and with only partial Arab, Islamic and international support is something very risky," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
"We are talking about issues related to the fate of the Palestinian people," he said. "Such a move must be studied by experts and decisions should be taken by all the parties concerned, not individually."
Further complicating matters, the last time Palestinians held parliamentary elections, in 2006, Hamas won, and the group claims that it is thus the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, not the Palestinian Authority. Abbas' government is internationally recognized and bankrolled by foreign aid, but his term has expired and he currently governs by decree, with Israel holding overall security control in the West Bank.
In Gaza, souvenir cups are on sale commemorating the statehood initiative, and the U.N. bid appears to have become the talk of the town among average Gazans. But opinions vary.
Awny Ouda, a 23-year-old student at Gaza's Islamic University, said he would not be satisfied with a state based on the lines Israel held before the 1967 war and wants one that replaces Israel.
"Abbas wants to give the remains of our lands and rights on a silver tray to the occupation," he said. "Recognizing the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders would deprive us of returning to our lands of 1948."
Rawan Hassan, a 42-year-old teacher, called the bid a "cosmetic step."
"The conflict with Israel is not over and it will never be over unless the Palestinian state is established on the ground and not on paper," she said.
But Zuhair Hamdan, a 25-year-old waiter at a seaside coffee shop, said the Palestinians had nothing to lose and were getting some positive attention for a change.
"The past weeks the world has been busy finding out what's happening and this is something rare when you see the name of Palestine on TV without a link to violence and blood," he said.
Abbas's U.N. bid has put him in a showdown with Israel and the United States, both of whom object to the U.N. initiative and say Palestinian independence should come only as a result of peace negotiations.
A successful U.N. vote will not change the situation on the ground, either in Gaza or the West Bank. Abbas and his colleagues say they are turning to the U.N. in frustration after years of failed peace talks with Israel, and they believe recognition will improve their position if talks resume. International bodies like the U.N. and the World Bank say that after years of foreign investments and aid, the institutions necessary for statehood are in place in the West Bank.
Gaza, meanwhile, has been mired in poverty, worsened by years of Israeli blockade since Hamas's takeover. Although Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005, it still controls crossings and has a naval blockade on the tiny Mediterranean strip. Armed militants from Hamas and smaller factions regularly launch rockets from Gaza at towns inside Israel, drawing Israeli retaliation.
Because of the dramatically different world views of Hamas and Abbas' Fatah faction that heads the Palestinian Authority, several rounds of reconciliation attempts between them have failed in recent years. A framework deal signed earlier this year has not been implemented and the sides remain as divided as ever.
Hanan Ashrawi, a West Bank legislator, said a successful U.N. bid could bring the rival factions closer together.
"If we do get a recognition at whatever level, it means it will also help in the process of reconciliation because it will send a message to all Palestinians that the issue is one of justice and legality and not of one of power politics," she said.