Homeless in Gaza

Ali Hassan/Anadolu/Getty Images
Mohamed Shuman playing music near the wreckage of his family’s house, Gaza City, June 2015

On November 11, 2017, the gray streets of Gaza suddenly turned yellow as tens of thousands of people came out to wave the flag of Fatah, the party of their former leader Yasser Arafat. This was the thirteenth anniversary of Arafat’s death, and, for the first time since 2007, when the Islamic resistance movement Hamas defeated Fatah in the bloody civil war that followed Hamas’s electoral victory the previous year, it had permitted a public commemoration of Arafat Day.

By allowing the celebration, Hamas had given the first substantial sign that it was serious about a new reconciliation deal, signed with Fatah in October. According to the agreement, the more moderate Palestinian faction, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which rules in the West Bank, would also assume local administrative control inside Gaza. With such a prospect, the people of Gaza hoped that Israel might be persuaded to lift the siege of the territory, which was meant to isolate Hamas and had the effect of punishing all Gazans for having voted for the party, which Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Some Gazans have dared to hope the deal might even pave the way for tentative new discussions about wider peace.

A carnival atmosphere took hold across the besieged strip during the commemoration, with children selling sweets and cakes. As the crowds packed into a central square, leaders of Hamas and Fatah promised to end their division and find unity. The people cheered but seemed fearful, too: after such a long time they were once again putting battered trust in their leadership to try to bring a resolution to the conflict with Israel. An eighty-nine-year-old woman named Aisha waved her yellow flag, tears in her eyes: “I can’t breathe,” she declared, “but I can cry.”

The sudden joyous outpouring reminded some of the euphoria that erupted in 1993, after Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. But as Gazans know, Oslo failed to address what many of them believe was the root cause of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: the dispossession of Palestinians during the Arab–Israeli war of 1948, during which the Jewish state was created. Oslo proposed to reverse Israel’s illegal land seizures of 1967, offering a “two-state solution,” with the Palestinian state constructed out of Gaza and the West Bank, joined by a safe passage across Israel, and East Jerusalem as its capital. But the negotiators did not address the long-standing claim of Palestinian refugees that they have a right to return home. Nowhere is that right as deeply felt as it is in Gaza, which holds the highest concentration of Palestinian refugees, many living within a few miles of their pre-1948…

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