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My Hope for a Better Future in Gaza

My Hope for a Better Future in Gaza

On July 1, 2005, as I was getting into a taxi leaving my family’s home in Gaza City and heading to the United States as a 15-year-old exchange student, I poked my head out of the car’s window and told my dad to keep my room nice for when I came back. He replied, “Inshallah, it’ll be better than when you left it.”

I’ve never been back to Gaza. My dad, a former United Nations physician in the Jabalia refugee camp, died in 2020; the medical care that might have saved his life was not available in Gaza. In October, an Israeli air strike destroyed my family’s home. Last month, a different air strike destroyed the building in Rafah that housed much of my mother’s family, killing dozens, and wiping out what was effectively my second home.

The Israeli military operation launched in response to Hamas’s horrific October 7 attacks has done far more than degrade the group’s fighting capability. It has killed thousands of people, leveled entire neighborhoods, destroyed cities, decimated civilian infrastructure, and rendered large parts of Gaza uninhabitable. Innocent civilians in the Strip, including the surviving members of my own family, are suffering cruelly. A man-made famine is now unfolding, as hunger and lack of drinking water drive the desperate pursuit of survival. The conduct of the operation has repeatedly been criticized by leading experts in counterinsurgency, who argue that the well-being of the civilian population should always be front and center when fighting an asymmetric adversary. Instead, the ferocity of the Israeli bombardment and the killing of numerous civilians by Israel Defense Forces ground troops is convincing more Palestinians to view vengeance and violence as legitimate responses to Israel’s atrocities.

It pains me greatly that Gaza is exponentially worse off now than it was when I said goodbye to my father in 2005. Instead of coming back to a prosperous territory that is part of a Palestinian state, I live with the knowledge that my childhood homes are gone, half my family is dead, my people are displaced, and a just peace seems more elusive than ever. Yet it is precisely out of this desperate reality that my hope emerges for Palestinians and Israelis to embrace a fundamentally different path forward.

I left Gaza one month before the withdrawal of Israeli settlers, which many believed would usher in a new era of stability and peace. While I was an exchange student in the U.S., Hamas embarked on a massive campaign to convince Palestinian voters that its religious piety and armed resistance agenda were the perfect antidotes to the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The group claimed that its rocket and mortar attacks, infiltrations, use of tunnels, and deployment of IEDs against Israeli targets were responsible for pushing Israel out of Gaza. Hamas’s political rivals and opponents warned that if the group came to power, it would deliver only endless violence, wars, the delegitimization of the Palestinian national project, and the weakening of the Palestinian cause internationally and diplomatically. Figures within the PA warned the Bush administration against pushing for quick elections, predicting a Hamas victory.

I attempted to return to Gaza in June of 2006 but got stuck in Egypt when Hamas’s abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit led to the closure of the Rafah crossing. Then Hezbollah’s summer attack resulted in a 33-day war between Lebanon and Israel. Months later, and with support from American friends, I returned to the U.S., where I applied for political asylum. My participation in the exchange program, which was sponsored by the U.S. State Department, made me a target for Hamas, amid its escalating civil war with the PA’s forces. My asylum interview took place on June 14, 2007, the very day that Hamas violently ejected the PA from Gaza and seized full control of the coastal enclave. Hamas swiftly set up a network of patrons, affiliates, beneficiaries, and unlikely allies to cement its control of Gaza and sever the Strip’s political ties to the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the chief beneficiaries of Hamas’s control over Gaza. He has found the group useful in his project of undermining Palestinian aspirations for statehood and dividing Palestinian leadership. Israel imposed a choking blockade on Gaza, at times calculating the minimum daily calories for civilians while, at others, using moderately less stringent controls. Permitting Hamas to dominate the society, economy, and politics of Gaza served the Machiavellian objectives of dark forces in Israeli politics. The Netanyahu government sought to contain and manage Gaza rather than pursue lasting solutions, allowing Qatar to send cash to the Hamas government, while failing to act on clear indications of Hamas’s growing military capabilities. Netanyahu thought he could make peace with many Arab nations, which share Israel’s fear of Iran, while entirely bypassing the Palestinian issue. October 7 demonstrated the folly of that approach.

The PA also grossly mismanaged its conflict with Hamas. It failed to outmaneuver the Islamist group, opting for maximalist positions that unnecessarily prolonged and entrenched Hamas’s rule. I received a vivid illustration of the failures of its approach in 2015, when I launched an advocacy organization to back the creation of a UN-administered airfield in the Gaza Strip. The plan would have prevented Hamas from having any control over the airfield, and would have fulfilled Israel’s legitimate security needs. The airfield offered the PA a golden opportunity to reestablish itself in Gaza through an infrastructure project that would have addressed a crucial issue facing Gazans: the lack of freedom of movement.

Officials within the Israeli government and military, the UN, NGOs, the U.S. government, and even Hamas all expressed their interest in the plan through intermediaries. Surprisingly, the primary opposition I encountered was from PA officials. They regularly displayed a lack of interest in Gaza, describing Gazans as unsophisticated and backward. The PA was so entrenched in its dislike for Hamas and its dismissal of the interests of Gazans that it wasn’t willing to consider any practical steps toward reestablishing itself and sidelining the group in Gaza.

During the most promising years of the Oslo Peace Accords, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority courageously acknowledged the need for peaceful coexistence with Israel as a Jewish nation. Hamas, however, not only eroded Israeli support for the peace process with its suicide bombings and violence during the 1990s and the early years of the Second Intifada; it also made belief in the peace process seem toxic, unpopular, treacherous, and cowardly among Palestinians. Through its horrendous yet skillfully executed violence, Hamas instead injected new life into the resistance narrative, which promoted a perpetual armed struggle to liberate all of Palestine.

Hamas regularly pointed to the failure of the peace process to roll back the occupation or to stop the expansion of settlements in order to argue that peace would never succeed. In fact, the peace process was imperfect yet viable, and was gradually on its way to ending the occupation, reversing settlement activity, and ultimately providing Palestinians with a path toward statehood and sovereignty.

Hamas deliberately sought to sabotage the peace process, weaken the PA, and undermine the pro-peace camp within Israel. Hamas, and to a lesser extent Palestinian Islamic Jihad, acted at exactly the same time that right-wing forces within Israel, often incited by Netanyahu and Kahanist extremists, were seeking to prevent Israel from offering any meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. Through its destructive actions, Hamas not only destroyed hopes for peace, but cynically empowered anti-Palestinian factions within Israel, whose ascent to political power would further harm the Palestinian people.

The former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sought to contain Hamas’s influence, jailing the group’s leaders and sending Palestinian security forces to arrest its members. Hamas, however, was able to use its popular support to pressure Arafat into hardening his negotiating positions and rejecting otherwise pragmatic proposals, such as 2000 Camp David Accords and the 2001 Taba Summit. Hamas has repeatedly disregarded the well-being of its people, and provoked ferocious retaliatory actions from Israel. The group that trumpets its resistance has, in practice, produced the death of many of its people, the loss of more land to subjugation, and the dehumanization of Palestinians.

Through its control of Gaza and unwillingness to operate under unified Palestinian leadership, Hamas wasted nearly two decades in building up a resistance citadel in the Strip. This directly weakened the PA and allowed Israeli settlements and occupation in the West Bank to grow and fester. The Palestinian people were rightfully resentful and angry at Israel’s violence and disregard for their lives, their lands, and their dignity. Scenes of horrendous violence and provocations, including in Jerusalem and at the al-Aqsa Mosque, inflamed tensions and made people desperate for an option that would allow them to hit back at Israeli injustices.

To many Palestinians, Hamas became an appealing alternative to the incapable, lethargic, and, at times, corrupt PA that was unable to defend its people against Israeli aggression. Before October 7, Israeli troops seldom operated inside Gaza; many Palestinians believed that Hamas’s armed resistance had successfully deterred Israel’s military from staging a ground invasion. In the same years, IDF troops were regularly raiding the West Bank, encountering little opposition. That contrast is one reason Hamas, its resistance, and its October 7 attack are especially popular among Palestinians in the West Bank.

Although the West Bank suffers from the consequences of settler violence, checkpoints, and military occupation, its people enjoy a significantly better quality of life than the besieged residents of Gaza. The West Bank offers exponentially easier travel to the outside world, drastically broader economic opportunities, substantially more infrastructure, and social freedoms and liberty from Islamist rules. In other words, Palestinians in the West Bank have not yet had to experience the consequences of living under Hamas’s rule.

October 7 was the deadliest attack in Israel’s history, and the single deadliest day that Jews have experienced since the Holocaust. The shock of this event has pushed some Israelis to seek revenge, inflict violence, or vent their rage against Gazans. Many Palestinians feel their own rage against Israel and what the Zionist project has come to symbolize, after facing 75 years of violence, occupation, and displacement.

The only way forward for both peoples is to make the difficult yet courageous decision to acknowledge their traumas and mutual humanity while recognizing that their fates, safety, and well-being are inextricably interconnected.

That starts with a just and equitable framework for the Palestinians to obtain political rights and the freedom of self-determination. Additionally—and the recent horrors in Gaza will delay this—the Palestinian people must come to terms with the futility of the armed resistance that has been sold to them by bad-faith actors like Hamas and its regional backers, and reckon with the limits of what can be obtained.

Resistance to occupation is a legitimate right, but it does not offer a blank check to commit violence against innocent people. There is a difference between what is effective and moral, and what is misguided and suicidal.

The past few weeks have been some of the most challenging in my life. I’ve tried to publish and share Gazan perspectives in media outlets and on social media, but I’ve found it difficult to navigate the vitriol and hate that I often receive in response. Despite creating a successful life for myself in the U.S., I will always have an unbreakable connection to Gaza through my family and community, who are experiencing unimaginable suffering. People on both sides of the conflict use things they like about what I write to bolster their entrenched narratives. The minute I offer analyses that challenge their own assertions and perspectives, however, they turn dismissive, and many resort to personal attacks in attempts to delegitimize and silence me.

Nevertheless, I’ve promised myself to stay true to my commitment to peace, coexistence, and the rejection of violence and hatred. In the face of dehumanization, this is, in fact, the only agency that I retain, and my only chance to make a difference.

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