A PLUME OF smoke, its scent redolent of roasted apples, wafts out the paneless window into the autumn air. A rhythmic bubbling can be heard as 47-year-old Abu Khaled inhales from the ornate hookah set beside him. As he exhales deeply, his heavy eyes watch the latest snakelike plume follow its predecessor. Once a man of action, today he simply sits, sentenced by political maneuvering to a sedentary existence and lamenting the life he until recently led.
Prior to June of this year, Abu Khaled worked as a security officer at Gazaâ€™s border crossings. Walkie-talkie in hand, he bustled between the operations room, gates and terminals, shouting orders, checking identifications and maintaining order. Today he idles his day away channel surfing his TV and keeping up with current events on the Internet. He would rather work, yet today civil servants in Gaza receive wages from the U.S.-backed Palestinian government in Ramallah on one condition: that they not work.
A few weeks after Hamas came to power in January 2006 elections, Israel and Washington imposed an international boycott on the new, democratically elected government. Eighteen months later, having failed to topple Hamas, U.S.- and Israeli-funded and trained Fatah militia attempted a coup. While Fatah gained control of the West Bank, Gaza remained under the control of Hamas.
The American and Israeli governments began funneling cash and support to Fatah, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and declared the elected Hamas government illegitimate. Declaring Gaza a â€œhostile entity,â€ Israel proceeded to increase its pressure. Tactics have included sealing Gazaâ€™s borders, Israeli military incursions and regular bombings, the cutting off of water and electricity, bank closures, and cutting off aid.
Ramallahâ€™s latest anti-Hamas tactic is to pay government employees not to work, while providing them a small stipend to compensate for 18 months of unpaid wages. Those who continue to work at hospitals, schools, police stations and other public institutions have their wages withheld.
The result of this strategy was quickly apparent. Commerce skidded to a halt, inflation soared, and the most basic necessities of life virtually disappeared from this 23-mile strip of land, home to 1.5 million people, of whom 68 percent are under the age of 18. An atmosphere of fear enveloped Gaza.
â€œWhy should I work?â€ asked Abu Khaled in a hushed voice, looking around to ensure no one could hear him. â€œI support our leader, President Abbas. If I work under Hamas, my salary will be cut off by the Ramallah-based government.â€
Abu Khaled, who declined to reveal his full name, personifies the anxiety shared by most Fatah loyalists in Gaza. By not working, the idle security guard could get in trouble with Hamas. On the other hand, he at least receives compensation. Officials estimate that 55,000 Gazans currently are being paid not to work. Some do it out of loyalty to Fatah, others out of fear or necessity.
A Life-or-Death Decision
Healthcare providers face a unique dilemma. Their choice whether or not to work can literally be a matter of life or death.
At Al Nasser Hospitalâ€™s Intensive Care Unit, 30-year-old staff nurse Hamam Nasman remained on duty, assisting in operations. The Ministry of Health in Gaza falls under the control of Hamas.
â€œRamallahâ€™s government deprived me of my salary,â€ he explained in frustration. â€œHow can I sit at home and just leave children to die? This is a crime!â€
In enforcing the salary rules laid down by the U.S. and Israel, the Fatah government in Ramallah has created a severe crisis for public employees in Gaza, forcing them to choose between feeding their own families and serving or saving the lives of others.
â€œThis is my human duty,â€ Nurse Nasman insisted. â€œI took an oath to treat patients, not to be a tool used for political purposes.â€
Speaking on behalf of Hamas, Palestinian Legislative Councilman Dr. Salah Al Bardawil summarized the purpose of the latest directive from Ramallah.
â€œThe objective in cutting off employee salaries is political,â€ he stated. â€œIt is designed to cause a failure of democracy in Gazaâ€”the same democracy which is not honored by the American or Israeli administrations.â€
Though strapped for cash, the Hamas government manages to sporadically pay approximately 10,000 public sector workers as funds become available. According to Dr. Al Bardawil, however, 33,000 civil employees currently work without pay, and that number is increasing. Gaps in services are filled by Hamas supporters who volunteer by stepping into critical positions in the various municipal agencies, schools and hospitals.
But not all gaps can be filled in Gaza, where today only emergency humanitarian aid is occasionally allowed to enter.
The worsening shortage of necessities resulting from this latest tightening of the screws on Gaza increasingly is pitting friends and families against one another. Abu Khaled knows this pain only too well. Trepidation coupled with discretion has prevented him from spending time with a friend in the Hamas security force.
â€œIâ€™m afraid that if Fatah agents see me hosting him, the Ramallah-based government will assume I am not loyal and cut off my salary,â€ he explained nervously.
Even those in positions of authority feel pressured to comply. Abu Waled, a Fatah loyalist and supervisor at the local police station, admitted that he now spends his days like a retiree, visiting friends and sitting at home.
â€œIâ€™m not going to risk losing my salary by going to work,â€ he said sharply. â€œLet Hamas manage Gaza by themselves.â€
Mohammed Omer, winner of New America Mediaâ€™s Best Youth Voice award, reports from the Gaza Strip.