During Hamas’ military takeover of Gaza in recent weeks, one of their biggest Fatah targets lay just behind a Greek Orthodox school in Gaza City. A friend of mine who lives near the school, himself a Christian and a Fatah security member, told me that Fatah security forces stationed themselves on the roof of the school building during attacks on their headquarters. Like many buildings that were used as strongholds during the fighting, the doors were blown open with a rocket-propelled grenade to ensure no resistance from inside. As widely reported in Western media, the chapel and the nun’s living quarters were vandalized, crosses were broken, and equipment was stolen. Looters were likely the perpetrators of this vandalism; Hamas was fighting a war, after all. Sadly, during the course of the chaotic fighting in Gaza this month many shops and homes were similarly looted.
I cannot excuse it, but I am reminded of a World Bank report, which stated that since 2000 the economic losses in Gaza have been more severe than those suffered during the Great Depression in the U.S. By 2002 the decline in real per capita GDP was almost 40 percent. In Gaza people are desperate. The world’s response to Hamas’ military takeover is even stricter closure. It is not just the Christians who are living in fear but rather the whole population; not just Christians in Gaza would leave here if they were given the opportunity.
Within days of the attack on the school, Hamas had identified some of the thieves and returned six stolen computers. Gaza’s Catholic priest, Emanuel Mussalam, was interviewed on Hamas radio, calling for the man who had ordered the forced entry into the chapel to be put on trial.
In light of the constantly deteriorating situation in Gaza, extremism has been on the rise and many unheard-of groups have formed, often in the name of Islam and with a fundamentalist agenda. These groups have carried out attacks against Internet cafes, cultural centers, and at times Christian entities, all in the name of religion.
Religious extremism is bound to rise up under conditions like those in Gaza. A number of times people I have visited who have lost multiple family members or their homes have told me that they have no where to turn but to God. I hope I could say the same if I ever find myself in a similar situation. Were these conditions to take place in the West, I think many suicides would be reported. Suicide is unacceptable in Arab society, and yet people are looking for a savior. The temptation of violence in the name of religion is one such idol.
None of these actions can be excused. But as outsiders we must look at the broader context. What is the root of the problem? Is it only the perpetrators that need to be condemned?
What Hamas carried out in Gaza practically took the shape of a coup, but one may ask: How does an elected government perpetrate a coup d’etat? Despite their election victory in 2006—an election that was largely forced by the U.S. policy of “democratization” of the region—Fatah, with the backing of the West and Israel, did not accept or consent to the outcome. Lawlessness peaked during the past year and a half for two reasons: First, the desperation in light of the economic siege placed on the Gaza Strip because of the Hamas government. Second, the existence of two governments and thus two security forces competing with each other, leading to chaos. The U.S. started funding Fatah to counter Hamas’ strength—a policy that for many Americans should bring to mind the Banana Republics of Latin America. This month Hamas responded with force, seeking to disable those security bodies that were receiving outside funds. What followed was four days of heavy fighting, over 100 deaths, and a Gaza Strip governed by just one political entity, Hamas.
One taxi driver explained life in Gaza this way: “Security is more important than bread, because what does one do with all the money in the world if you don’t have security to keep you alive to enjoy it?” Another driver told me a man can’t get married and say to his wife, “Good morning, habibti, my love,” and then disappear for the rest of the day without providing for her and their home. The first man is pointing out the positive—since their military takeover, Hamas has brought security. The second is speaking of the deteriorating economic conditions that were furthered by Hamas’ actions, a fear that has gripped much of the population because of the uncertainty of the future.
Philip Rizk is an Egyptian-German Christian who has lived in Gaza since August 2004, where he works and writes. He blogs at: tabulagaza.com