Trade has dwindled; government unable to fulfill its functions
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Monday, October 9, 2006
Page A - 1
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Bethlehem, West Bank -- Mohammed Fathi looked hopefully at the trickle of pedestrians coming through the Israeli checkpoint at the main entrance to Bethlehem and let out a sigh. The assortment of necklaces hanging on his arm was growing heavy, and there seemed to be little chance of making any sales before he had to head home for the iftar, the meal marking the end of the day's Ramadan fast.
"A year ago, I would sell between 100 and 200 necklaces a week -- now I'm lucky if I sell 10," said Fathi, 23, who has been peddling trinkets to Bethlehem's tourists since he dropped out of school a decade ago.
Fathi watched in alarm as the tourist trade dwindled under the government led by Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority Presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. The city's struggling economy all but collapsed from the five-year Palestinian uprising known as the intifada, the frequent Israeli military incursions and, finally, the construction of the grim security barrier that has severed Bethlehem from nearby Jerusalem and the rest of Israel and the West Bank.
When the chance came to replace the incompetent and corrupt Fatah government in January, Fathi -- like many nonaffiliated Palestinians -- voted for Hamas. Nine months later, the economic and political crisis has reached the point where he pines for the days of Arafat's cronies.
"I voted for Hamas, but I wouldn't vote for them again," said Fathi. "Look how my situation is now. Of course, Fatah are corrupt people, but at least we see something from them. There is gasoline, there is some food. There is some help. We know they take 80 percent, but at least we see 20 percent. ... I don't think any of the people here would vote for Hamas again. There is no money, there is nothing."
Before it won parliamentary elections, Hamas earned its popularity among ordinary Palestinians because it ran schools, hospitals and other social services without the corruption that riddled Fatah. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, more than 140,000 government workers -- about one-third of the working population -- have not received salaries since March, the result of an economic boycott imposed on Hamas by Israel, the United States and most Western countries because of its refusal to recognize Israel, give up terrorism or honor past peace agreements.
The Hamas government thought it would be able to bypass the boycott with support from sympathetic governments led by Iran, but the cash has not lived up to the promises.
Government schools have been shut since the start of the new school year in early September, the result of a strike by teachers who have not been paid since before the summer. Unpaid police are eking out a living by moonlighting or running protection rackets and debt-collection services.
The price of diesel has almost doubled in the past year, and gasoline has gone up by 20 percent. Crime is rising. Armed, unemployed men -- some of them nurtured during the intifada -- have begun using their weapons to hold up gas stations and other easy prey.
In the smart Ararat neighborhood of Beit Sahour, Bethlehem's neighboring town, Dina Awwad's imposing house was burgled last month, and all the jewelry and cash were stolen.
"We are totally depressed," she said. "The gunmen are using the decline in the economic situation to rob people. It came as a complete surprise. We didn't even have an alarm."
For months, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas have been engaged in fruitless talks on a unity government, but Hamas refuses to recognize Israel -- a position Haniyeh emphasized in a fiery speech Friday in Gaza City.
"We will not change our position on the issue of recognizing Israel, and any member of Hamas who recognizes Israel will leave the movement," said Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister.
A poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center in late September suggested Hamas was losing the support it gained in January's election. The poll showed that 55.9 percent of Palestinians support the formation of a national unity government as the best way out of the current crisis. Moreover, 32 percent said they would vote for Fatah if elections were held today, while 21.9 percent said they would vote for Hamas. The sample size was 1,200 and the margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.
Last week, the simmering tensions boiled over into gunbattles on the streets of Gaza between warring Fatah and Hamas forces that left 12 Palestinians dead.
Bethlehem once bustled with Christian tourists. Figures kept by the Palestinian Tourist Police show that on an average day in September, only 239 foreigners visited, compared with more than 1,000 a day one year ago, and many thousands before the intifada.
Down Manger Street, the main road leading to the historic Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born, the businesses told their own story. Most were shuttered. A handwritten sign at the gas station said: "Closed -- No Gas -- No Diesel."
Last Monday, masked Fatah gunmen took to Bethlehem's streets, shooting in the air, to impose a general strike intended to increase the pressure on Hamas to capitulate or step down. The house of the Hamas mayor of the neighboring village of Doha was fire-bombed, and a devout Muslim who lives in Bethlehem discovered a bomb planted under the seat of his car, which had to be defused by police.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, warned that "the Palestinian people will go out to the streets to topple the government" if it did not resign. The growing strikes, demonstrations and now gunbattles appear to be bearing out his prediction.
"If Hamas would recognize Israel, everything would be OK, but the problem is that Hamas doesn't want to talk with Israel," said Fathi, the trinket seller. "I never went to school or university, I'm not an educated man, but I understand one thing: There is no way to reach an agreement or fix the problem between us and Israel without talking to each other.
"When I voted for Hamas, I didn't vote about the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. I voted for them to deal with the situation inside Palestine, between the people and the government," he said. "Everybody thought Hamas was good, not like Fatah. I thought we needed a change. I just need to make money, I just need to live. I just need something to make me feel I'm not like an animal. I don't want to feel like I'm a dog, or in a prison."