NYTM: A Life of Unrest
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- Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2007 17:00:21 -0000
New York Times Magazine
July 15, 2007
A Life of Unrest
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Palestinians never used to do these things to one another. Putting
bullets in the back of the heads of men on their knees. Shooting up
hospitals. Killing patients. Knee-capping doctors. Executing clerics.
Throwing handcuffed prisoners to their deaths from Gaza's highest (and
most expensive) apartment buildings. There is a madness in Gaza now.
Hamas -- a religious political-military organization that dominated
the last Palestinian elections -- claimed it was fighting infidels,
with a holy sanction to kill. Fatah -- the largest group in the
Palestine Liberation Organization -- was nearly as brutal as Hamas and
claimed it was fighting the Nazis. Poor young men from the squalid,
stinking refugee camps of Gaza, their heads filled with religious
slogans and revolutionary cant, took off their knitted black masks to
pose in front of the gilded bathrooms of the once-powerful and rich
men of Fatah. Then they stole the sinks, toilets, tiles and pipes,
leaving the wiring and the metal scraps for the ordinary, unarmed
Gaza today is so far from the hopes of people like James Wolfensohn --
the former World Bank president who tried to coordinate economic
redevelopment in the 140-square-mile territory between Israel and
Egypt after the Israelis withdrew nearly two years ago -- as to seem
like the other side of the earth. Rather than a model for a future
Palestinian state, Gaza looks like Somalia: broken and ravenous. The
civil war that Palestinians insisted could never happen just has, a
civil war abetted by Israel and the United States in the name of
antiterrorism and stability -- another policy that has failed, at
least here, where a burning smell still fills the nostrils and where a
masked Hamas gunman with an AK-47 recently sat at the abandoned desk
of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, lifted up the phone and
said: "Hello, Condoleezza Rice? You have me to deal with now." But the
military victory of Hamas may also bring a welcome measure of quiet
and security to the 1.5 million people of Gaza, nearly 70 percent of
them refugees, who have been living a nightmare of criminal gangs,
street-corner vendettas, clan warfare, absent police, corrupt
officials, religious incitement and unremitting poverty.
Khaled Abu Hilal, a thin, grizzled chain-smoker who sucks in tobacco
smoke the way an emphysema patient sucks in oxygen, is at the center
of the revolution. He is a hated figure among many in the secular,
nationalist Fatah; they think he is a heretic who helped set off the
Gaza implosion. But his journey is Gaza's journey, from Fatah fighter
and Israeli prisoner to disgusted ex-Fatah man, now associated with
Hamas. His anger with Mahmoud Abbas -- Yasir Arafat's successor as
chairman of the P.L.O. and now president of the Palestinian Authority
-- and with what he considers the endless, futile and demeaning effort
of a corrupt Fatah to please the Israelis, is shared among an
increasing number of Palestinians.
Standing early last month amid the Israeli-bombed ruins of the
buildings of the Executive Force, which he helped Hamas build as a
parallel police and protection force, Hilal, now 39, was quietly
triumphant. He had been serving as a close aide to, and spokesman for,
the tough Hamas interior minister, Said Siam, who left office in
opposition to the national-unity government with Fatah. Both he and
Siam were central to the campaign by the Executive Force and by
Hamas's military wing, the Qassam Brigades, that pulled Fatah down in
six days in early June. "I feel proud, no question," he said as aides
urgently shoved cellphones into his hand. "I feel I did my national
duty, and that makes me very comfortable, psychologically speaking."
Two weeks later, at a packed and sweaty rally in Gaza City, Hilal
announced that he would lead a new Fatah movement and military force
in Gaza, allied with Hamas, called Fatah al-Yasir/Higher Military
Command, named after Yasir Arafat.
"This is pure Fatah, Fatah before Oslo," Hilal shouted hoarsely,
referring to the 1993 peace accords with Israel that created the
Palestinian Authority. Hilal sees Oslo as a betrayal of the
Palestinian struggle for real statehood, and he called his new
movement "a true Palestinian national liberation movement." Surrounded
by large, bearded gunmen in black uniforms, Hilal wore a loose,
untucked shirt and looked as tiny as Arafat. "The good and honorable
people of the Fatah movement have rejected the collaborators!" he
shouted. At the end, he was mobbed by hundreds of young men, both
acolytes and job seekers.
Whether or not he succeeds with the new movement, Hilal (if he lives)
presents the first major internal challenge to the Fatah
establishment, represented by Abbas, calling Fatah back to its roots
as a resistance movement of revolutionary fighters. Establishment
Fatah has excommunicated Hilal, and some would surely like to see him
dead. But if Palestine is now divided between the West Bank and Gaza,
Fatah in Gaza is divided, too.
In a conversation after the Hamas victory, Hilal, speaking through an
interpreter, said he felt "bitterness about the spilling of
Palestinian blood," but the spilling of blood for the cause of
Palestinian independence and dignity, as he sees it, is an inevitable,
even necessary sacrifice. At least 160 Palestinians, most of them
Fatah, died in that week of war last month, including 45 civilians,
and some 800 were wounded, according to the Mezan Center for Human
Rights in Gaza. Another 50 were killed in an earlier round of
fighting, in May. No matter what happens now, Hilal said, "it will not
be worse than the previous period of chaos, nothing worse can come.
And maybe now we have the chance to move very seriously to encourage
the local economy, small business, agriculture. The most important
thing is that we have got rid of the mafia that exists in the security
apparatuses and that paralyzed our daily life."
By "mafia" he means Fatah -- or at least the leadership of Fatah that
he believes betrayed its duty to its own people. For Hilal, the recent
battle was for the purity of Fatah, which he maintains he represents
against what he calls "the polluted stream" of Fatah, "the diverted
ones," who betrayed Palestinian aspirations for independence at Oslo
and became entranced by Israeli and American approval and gold. The
major mistake of Arafat and Fatah was to accept the Oslo accords,
Hilal says, and those who opposed the accords then -- Hamas and
Islamic Jihad -- were correct. "I am pro-peace and anti-Oslo," Hilal
told me. "Oslo is a project for treason, not for peace."
The Palestinian Authority, an outgrowth of the accords, was not a
government, in Hilal's view, but a welfare agency that has served
Israeli interests. By keeping Palestinians focused on getting their
monthly checks, it has enslaved them and prolonged the Israeli
occupation of Palestine, instead of enabling Palestinians to build a
real economy and nation. "Negotiations have become a good in
themselves after Oslo, and that's a complete failure," he said. "The
Palestinians only talk, and the Israelis are happy. They can negotiate
forever and seduce these collaborators with money, V.I.P. treatment,
exit visas, cars, businesses and monopolies.
"It's a form of control, of colonialism," Hilal went on. "When the
Palestinian Authority employs 180,000 people, you drive them away from
the real issue, you hold them by their neck and you make them
dependent on the system. If you agree with Oslo, you get benefits and
jobs. For those who resist, nothing; the price is sometimes to be
killed." There is no real economy in the Palestinian territories, he
said, noting that the authority has to rely on foreign aid even to pay
its swollen wage bill for employees who do little work. "Instead of
decent jobs, we have these colonial handouts, and the corrupted ones
take their cut of everything," he said. He paused a moment, then
added, "You can control an animal by feeding it, but a human being
will start to think."
Born in southern Gaza a year after the 1967 war, Hilal came of age in
the refugee camps of Khan Yunis. His family fled from Bashit, a
village in what is now central Israel, during the 1948 war. The
village was destroyed, he notes coldly, replaced by what he calls "the
Jewish settlements" of Benaya and Aseret.
He grew up under Israeli occupation in the twisting, fetid alleys of
Khan Yunis, only a few yards from the home of Muhammad Dahlan. Dahlan,
seven years older than Hilal, would become Fatah's security chief in
Gaza. Hilal once worked for him, then came to despise him.
Hilal was radicalized early. "I was no observer," he says now. "I was
arrested two days before I turned 16, because I threw a hand-made bomb
toward an Israeli military jeep in Khan Yunis." He spent the next 11
years, from 1984 to 1995, in six different Israeli prisons, from the
most secure, in Ashkelon, to the most difficult, in the Negev tent
prison of Ketziot, which was shut down for a time after international
protests. "I paid the price," Hilal says flatly. "Many like me paid
the price. Though our economic situation then was better than in any
Arab country, we cared more about fighting the occupation than about
bread or school. The occupation arrested us to put an end to all these
emotions in us. But it backfired. "
Like Maxim Gorky, he said that "prison was my university," and then he
laughed. A year in Israeli prison, he says, "is like 10 years outside
in terms of educational consciousness and commitment to your country,
transferring it to a faith inside yourself. That's the most powerful
incentive, to sacrifice for your country with consciousness. It's not
about passion." Every Palestinian entering prison chose a faction; he
chose Fatah, he says, because of Arafat. Most prisoners belonged to
Fatah, and they met three times a day, for 90 minutes a session, to
learn about the history of Palestine, the Arab world and the Fatah
program. They also studied what Hilal calls "political science and
military science." They studied languages; he chose to learn Hebrew,
which he speaks and reads easily.
After the Oslo accords, which brought Arafat and the P.L.O. back from
exile in Tunis, thousands of Palestinian prisoners were released, but
not Hilal. "I opposed Oslo from the beginning," he says. "I was the
representative of all the factions in Ketziot then, and the Israelis
knew I opposed Oslo. Not because I oppose peace, but because I didn't
trust the Israelis and military occupation."
Fatah split bitterly over Oslo, with Farouk Kaddoumi, Arafat's No. 2
in the faction, remaining in exile. When Hilal was finally released in
1995, Arafat persuaded him to "give Oslo a try" and work in the
Palestinian Authority. He served in the presidential-security detail
from 1996 until 2002, the second year of the second intifada. He then
became a leader of Fatah's Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades -- set up by
Arafat to compete with Hamas's military wing, and using many of the
same tactics, including killing Israeli civilians -- and was a close
aide to Samir al-Masharawi, who was Muhammad Dahlan's right-hand man.
Then, following Hamas's victory in January 2006, Hilal left Fatah,
soon becoming spokesman for the minister of the interior in the new
Hamas government. Why? "I discovered there were traitors in conspiracy
against our Palestinian cause," Hilal told me. "Even Arafat understood
by 2002 that Israel and America were looking for collaborators, not
partners for peace." For Hilal, the symbol of the rot in Fatah was the
dapper Dahlan, the boy who grew up near him in Khan Yunis and who
became a favorite of the Israelis and the Americans. "Dahlan is an
American employee," Hilal said. "I heard Arafat say that myself."
Ahmed Hillis, a critic of Dahlan who nonetheless remained in Gaza as a
leader of Fatah after last month's fighting, dismisses Hilal's claim
to hold true to the ideals of the organization. "He's Hamas now,"
Hillis says. "He was kicked out of Fatah a long time ago."
Ziad Abu Ein, a Fatah leader in Ramallah, knew Hilal in Ashkelon
prison and respected him. He says he believes that Hilal left Fatah
over a difference about money and sponsorship. "For the sake of
dollars he left the official channels and went to Hamas seeking
funding," Ein said. "He doesn't represent Fatah anymore; he was fired
when he joined the Hamas government. Fatah doesn't need mercenaries.
He sold himself to Hamas, even though he claims he is Fatah."
Hilal scoffs at the charge. And in fact he seems sincere in his anger
with Fatah and in his belief that those who supported Oslo and
negotiations with Israel, led by Abbas, have lost their way and lost
touch with the real life of Gaza's people.
Hamas won the January 2006 elections for many reasons, but prime among
them was a general disgust that had built among Palestinians, and
among many members of Fatah like Hilal, at the corruption of Fatah's
men at the top. They may have begun as revolutionaries, but they ended
up as padded bureaucrats, benefiting from the privileges that their
supposed adversary, Israel, was eager to provide them. One Israeli
negotiator in the days of Camp David, Gidi Grinstein, recently
described how Fatah's leaders would travel only first class, with
junior staff traveling in business. Only Israeli cabinet ministers
could travel business class, Grinstein noted. "We used to joke that
they were the 'full-belly revolutionaries,' " he said. "Dahlan was a
kid from a refugee camp who lived in a palace."
Dahlan, who has always denied corruption charges, used to control
monopolies on oil supplies into Gaza and on exit permits. Fatah took a
big cut of the import and export business at the Karni crossing on the
Israeli border. But there was also Ahmed Qurei, the former prime
minister known as Abu Ala, who was famous for his factory in Abu Dis,
which was widely reported to supply cement for the building of some
Israeli settlements and even for the separation wall.
Fatah lost touch not only with the grass roots but also with its soul,
and when it largely traded armed resistance against Israel for
negotiations that failed to produce either peace or a better life for
Palestinians, it seemed to lose a certain amount of self-respect. When
Arafat died, it lost its defining symbol, the one charismatic man who
combined the idea of war and politics in his tiny, uniformed self, his
kaffiyeh carefully tied in the shape of British Mandate Palestine, and
who could gather together the many strands of Palestinian politics.
Even the gunmen of Fatah's Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades began to lose
faith in their leaders, especially in Abbas. He had trouble paying
them, but more important, his sincere, open and brave commitment to
nonviolence seemed to them a surrender to Israeli occupation.
Hamas, working to Islamicize Palestinians and recruit them, combined
religious fervor, well-financed charitable and social work and an
effective strategy of military confrontation and terrorism. It is
classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the
European Union, and both try to disrupt its financing through
charitable contributions and bank transfers. Its choice to enter
electoral politics was much discussed inside the movement and
presented a profound change. It also meant that Fatah had a competitor
for the first time, and one as well-financed as itself.
Hamas has a religious foundation, but it is also an intensely
nationalist movement, with Palestine as its focus. Hamas continues to
refuse to recognize the existence of Israel. But it has none of the
grand ambitions of Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda to drive the "U.S.
crusaders" out of the Middle East, nor does it aim at Americans;
instead, Hamas sees Washington as a reality and wants the Americans to
push Israel to leave lands it occupied after the 1967 war, although
Hamas refuses to endorse a permanent two-state solution. Hamas is
secretive and severe but also, in its way, pragmatic. (For example, it
stopped carrying out suicide bombings inside pre-1967 Israel as of
September 2004, judging them to be counterproductive.)
It was Muhammad Dahlan who organized the Gaza crackdown on Hamas in
1996, when on Arafat's orders, Hamas men were arrested and their
beards shaved. Many were taken to the headquarters of the Preventive
Security, which Dahlan headed, where, it was reported at the time,
they were tortured. Sometimes, according to Hamas officials, men were
made to sit on bottles and thus sodomize themselves. Ten years later,
during one postelection round of fighting between Hamas and Fatah, men
of the Preventive Security marched through the streets, chanting a
slogan referencing that time, with particular messages for Ismail
Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, and Mahmoud Zahar, then the Hamas
foreign minister. "Zahar!" they chanted. "Tell Haniya! The time of the
bottle is returning!"
When Hamas took over Gaza, its fighters wept as they raised their
green flag over the Preventive Security building, then turned to Mecca
and prayed. Then they looted the building and Dahlan's luxurious
villa. Dahlan, who was in Cairo, did not return to Gaza but fled to
the West Bank.
The fight between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza has been brutal ever since
last year's elections brought Hamas to power. Fatah refused Hamas's
invitation to join in a coalition government. And, together with the
security forces it had controlled since the Palestinian Authority was
established after the 1993 Oslo accords, Fatah simply refused to
recognize the legitimacy of Hamas, elected or not.
Even more, there were organized campaigns of crime and disruption from
Fatah-run security forces, intended to make Hamas's government
untenable. Many Palestinians spoke of recognizing Fatah men as they
hijacked cars or forced their way to the head of lines in hospitals
and ministries. One family I met spoke of Fatah officers, called to
stop a riot in Khan Yunis over a new delivery of cooking gas, forcing
their way to the front of the line and taking the remaining gas
canisters for themselves. Then there were the criminal gangs that, as
Hilal put it, "hid under the umbrella of resistance and invented a
slogan and bought the T-shirt and pretended to belong to the Brigades
Hilal, like the leaders of Hamas, says that Fatah security forces
deliberately set out to undermine the new Hamas government. But in any
case, the Fatah-dominated police were doing little to enforce the law
or to confront armed gangs, some of whom also contained policemen. Nor
were the courts in Gaza providing any form of justice, meaning Gazans
who wanted retribution or protection found their own armed men,
usually from their own clan, or hamulla.
To defend Hamas and to try to provide security on the streets, in
April 2006, the Palestinian Authority's new interior minister, Hamas's
Said Siam, created the Executive Force, the parallel police force of
volunteers, which President Abbas soon banned. No one in Gaza paid any
attention to the ban. Hilal went to work for Siam and Hamas, agreeing
with their attempt to bring security to Gazans, as Hamas had promised
during its campaign. Hilal brought with him, he told me, 1,000 members
of the Fatah-affiliated Aksa and Abu Rish Brigades, as well as
representatives from other factional militias who were committed to
fighting Israel, like the Popular Resistance Committees, the Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the
Liberation of Palestine. (The Israeli security agency, Shin Bet,
confirmed this information to me.)
"We can do more to provide security with 3,500 volunteers than the
Palestinian security forces with their 70,000," Hilal said at the
time, in one of a series of conversations we've had since Hamas took
over. "We hold the gun out of faith and commitment to the national
project, not for a salary. The main reason for the chaos is not the
society, but the paralysis, weakness and corruption of the Palestinian
Authority and its security forces, who just incite and do not do their
Hilal, who lives modestly with his wife and five children in the
center of Gaza, is revered by many in the Executive Force, who regard
him as clean, committed and logical. Akhaim al-Khalidi is one of them,
a 23-year-old Fatah member from a Fatah family. He joined the Al Aksa
Martyrs Brigades in 2001 to fight the Israeli occupation, he told me
recently. "But instead, many of them became corrupted, trying to find
money," he said, especially as Arafat was being squeezed by Washington
and Israel to stop paying so many gunmen. "Abu Hilal is an honorable
man, and he is doing important work." Another Gazan fighter who
supports Hilal, Muhammad Saqqa, is also Fatah but told me he admires
Hamas. "Though we in Fatah were the fathers, I feel jealous of Hamas
and their inspiration," he said. "They respect the young and the old,
they're very secretive and disciplined, unlike Fatah. Don't consider
them a stupid terrorist group. They're educated, organized, and they
were elected. They distinguish between military and political and
social work, and they are very honest with themselves."
Saqqa said that his father and one brother worked for Abbas's
Presidential Guard; another brother worked for Fatah General
Intelligence. But another brother joined Hamas's military, the Qassam
Brigades, while Saqqa himself joined the Executive Force. "My family
criticizes me for dealing with Hamas, but Hamas are our brothers," he
said, adding later, "Abu Hilal knows Fatah very well and understands
By the time the fighting in Gaza began last month, the Executive Force
had grown to nearly 6,000 well-trained men and had been made a part of
the Palestinian Authority's security forces, and they were being paid.
The Shin Bet says the force shared a military headquarters with the
Qassam Brigades, and while retaliating for rocket fire into Israel,
Israeli forces aimed at and destroyed nearly every facility of the
Executive Force. Shin Bet officials refused to discuss Hilal, despite
his prominence and his years in Israeli prisons, but Israel clearly
regards him as a danger. On May 17, an Israeli missile was fired at
the bodyguards around Hilal's house. One of them, Talat Abed Haniya,
30, was killed, and four others were wounded.
Israel is now confronted with an excruciating if not quite existential
dilemma. There is a hostile entity on its southern border, run by an
armed group that is committed to fighting Israel and is opposed to its
existence. Gaza has become comparable to southern Lebanon, which is
run by Hezbollah. Israel let Hezbollah grow, feeling restrained by an
international border and its own nightmares about its 18-year
occupation of southern Lebanon. Many in Israel consider that policy of
restraint to have been a considerable mistake. Should Israel now let a
Gazan Hamastan grow, or try to take it out, hoping that Fatah can
restore some semblance of authority there? Even before last month's
rout of Fatah, there was already pressure from the Israeli Southern
Command for a major incursion into Gaza to try to whack back growing
Hamas power -- "to cut the grass," as the Israeli military chief of
staff, Dan Halutz, told me when he was still in office.
The problem of Gaza will be the first to confront Ehud Barak, the new
Israeli defense minister. Barak, who as prime minister tried and
failed, with Bill Clinton, to cut the clotted mess with the
Palestinians in one go, is also the most decorated soldier in Israel's
history. A former army commando, Barak is likely to favor operations
neater than massed-armor invasions of crowded refugee camps. But
ambitious to be prime minister again, he is also unlikely to sit on
Hamas is likely to try to ensure that it gives Israel no provocation
for such an incursion, needing the time to try to consolidate daily
life in Gaza, which means working functionally with Israel on imports
of fuel oil, electricity, milk, drugs and most everything else.
Fighting Israel now will do nothing for Hamas or for Gazans who want
Hamas to deliver on its promise of "change and reform," the slogan
under which it won power.
Hilal says that he still believes, like Abbas and unlike Hamas, in a
negotiated two-state solution. "But more and more," he explained,
"Palestinians understand that a real peace is built on struggle, and
it is made between enemies, not friends. The government that is an
enemy to Israel but chosen by the people is the one able to make
As you move around Gaza, along with the poverty and shoddy
construction of everything except public buildings, a few lavish
apartment houses and the mosques, what strikes you hardest is the
increasing religious conservatism. Most of the people in the streets
are men, and the women you see are almost invariably covered -- not
just with a head scarf that surrounds the face and hides the hair, but
with long, heavy dresses, usually black, that fall to the ankles. You
notice the radical fervor of the martyr posters and the fierceness of
the gunmen, but perhaps the biggest shock is how young everyone is.
According to official figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of
Statistics, 49 percent of the population of Gaza is 14 or younger; 60
percent are 19 or younger. Nearly 76 percent are under 30. So there is
a lot of testosterone, not much sexual mingling and very few jobs.
For Hilal, this pressure cooker of youth, anger and lack of
opportunity is necessary for the revolution in consciousness he
maintains is happening. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy
and Survey Research, 58 percent of those under 30 expect a more
violent struggle with Israel over the next 5 to 10 years, and only 22
percent say that there will be a peaceful negotiated solution between
Israel and the Palestinians. Forty-eight percent say they believe such
an agreement is impossible; 20 percent more say that it will come only
"in a few generations."
Nasreen al-Howh is a 26-year-old psychiatric social worker in Gaza,
and she says that the constituency for peace is shrinking, especially
among the young. "I'm very worried about this generation," she said
recently, pulling at her white head covering. "They are very
pessimistic and very vulnerable to appeals for mastery, for meaning."
What they want, she says, is a sense that they can control their
lives, and that their lives will have meaning. So they are susceptible
to appeals from religious groups and armed groups that claim to be
fighting Israel. She conceded that she, too, cannot imagine a final
peace with Israel or a two-state solution. "The resistance camp is
crowding out the peace camp," she told me. "So long as there's no
peace, there's resistance."
Under pressure and without work, many young men "will try to avoid all
that responsibility and go to the tanzim," she went on to say,
referring to the militias. "The tanzim also gives them self-
confidence; it alleviates the fear inside of them." Mkhaimer Abusada,
who teaches at Al Azhar University, told me: "They can get $100
working for the tanzim. They've lost perspective. They've lost the
belief in peace. And they've lost faith in education -- in their
It's not hard to find young people at loose ends, jobless and bored,
admiring of the gunmen, ready to be inspired or recruited or
manipulated or brainwashed into fighting for -- or against --
something larger than their own lives. Some want a job, but many
believe that their only honorable future is in "struggle" or
"resistance" against an Israel that they, like Hilal, believe does not
keep its promises and is insincere about its willingness to leave
Palestinian lands in return for peace.
Fadel Bsiso, a skinny and jobless teenager, sat with two friends in
the smoky A-Shiraa coffee shop in Gaza City not long ago, nursing a
single coffee and sharing a water-pipe. (Each pipe costs $1.20 to rent
with one bowl of tobacco.) His father "confronted the Israelis many
times in the first intifada," he said proudly.
And Bsiso himself? "I've just got into one military faction," he said.
Why join? "I feel I'm looking for protection," he said. "This is how I
find it." Protection from whom? He looked stunned. "From Israel," he
said. "It's a war, an endless war with them, mentioned even in the
Koran. Our religion does not allow us to live with them."
But his father is Fatah, which recognizes a two-state solution, right?
Bsiso shrugged: "The Jews are imposed on us. They have no roots here.
They came and took our land and built a state, but we don't accept
One of the friends, Sakher Hillis, who is 19, broke in. "They chose a
weak country, but they were surprised to find out we're strong," he
Bsiso said his father wants him to be a teacher. "But then he jokes
and says, 'Even if you go as a martyr, I have seven others.' "
Hillis's own father is in Hamas. "I'm very pessimistic," he said. "But
I feel I can give my life to the cause. I'm very bored with this life,
honestly. This life has no meaning for me. If I can find a goal and
achieve it, I can be optimistic. But this depression is inside of us."
Is religion part of the answer? "Religion plays a role because it
encourages struggle," Hillis said. "It says fight in the name of God.
I'm not extreme, I promise you -- this is normal."
The Palestinian poet Ahmed Dahbour is troubled by the turn to Hamas
and religious and political extremism and has tried to understand it
as an expression of frustration, especially generational frustration.
Dahbour was 2 when his family fled Haifa into exile in 1948. "I'm the
generation of the nakba," he told me recently -- the "catastrophe," as
Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israel and their own flight
or expulsion. "We fled with nothing, and my mother used to create for
me an imaginary city, a paradise called 'Haifa.' The enemy was an
idea. But this generation is different. This generation saw the
Israeli soldier, and it is full of bitterness and envy."
He emphasized the patriarchal nature of Palestinian society, and the
deep humiliation suffered by a father who cannot protect his family
from invasion, incursion, poverty, unemployment and fear. "The fathers
feel shame, but so do the sons," Dahbour said. "The sons become
martyrs, not the fathers."
Then he added, "The revolution of the sons is to protect the dignity
of the fathers."
"This suffering and these deaths are the tax imposed on us by the
occupation," Hilal told me. "We suffer and burn, but what causes
revolution? Poverty, injustice and anger -- this is what leads to
revolution, even in free countries. This is what gives us fuel to
resist the occupation and create a revolution in our thinking."
Two phenomena are merging, he went on to say: "personal revenge and
the national project." Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank,
he's convinced, are stoking a third intifada, "more bloody and
violent." Hilal is stoking it too, in his own way. The young
generation now, with all its anger and hopelessness, is a necessary
part of the victory Hilal is sure will come -- when Israel, he
believes, will come to terms with Palestinian nationalism and
negotiate a future with an enemy it has been forced to respect.
"I think this generation will be the liberation generation," he said.
"If in the past, 1 percent of the people went into resistance, from
this generation, 20 percent or more will do it. This generation will
be the one most ready to resist. This generation will be our
Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
Taghreed El-Khodary contributed additional reporting from Gaza.
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