A Life of Unrest: Khaled Abu Hilal's Journey is Gaza's Journey: Bleak, Violent and Headed Nowhere Hopeful
By STEVEN ERLANGER New York Times Magazine, July 15, 2007
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 poor.
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 of Whatever.”
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 jobs.”
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 its shortcomings.”
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 his hands.
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 peace.”
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 future here.”
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 it.”
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 said.
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 liberation army.”
Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. Taghreed El-Khodary contributed additional reporting from Gaza.
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