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Gaza and West Bank: Growing divide

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Ramallah

In the West Bank, the death and suffering of people in Gaza has spurred demonstrations in almost every town, village and refugee camp. The Palestinian public seems united in its grief.

Protest in Ramallah - 15 January
Protests are a show of unity but divisions between Gaza and the West Bank are deep

"Whether we live in Gaza or anywhere else, we all suffer the same, we are united in our hearts," Ayman Abdullah, 43, tells me.

Nearby, 14-year-old Jalal Abu Khatib looks solemn. He is attending the demonstration with his mother. "What the Israeli forces are doing in Gaza is against the whole Palestinian people, not just against Hamas," he says.

In spite of the anger and emotion, a protest on Friday in Ramallah's main square began peacefully.

Chants condemn Israel for its attacks, and Arab governments for their inaction. Palestinian flags are waved, Israeli ones set alight.

But then a small group begins waving the green flags of Hamas in support of the militant Islamist faction. Their partisan chants are drowned out by calls for Palestinian unity, but it is too late.

The security forces of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), had been waiting for this. They force their way through the crowds and beat and arrest some of the Hamas supporters. Tear gas is fired.

Splits

Fearful of more violence, with so many police standing by with batons and guns, the entire demonstration breaks up.

"I didn't come here for this," says a disgusted 31-year-old woman, Buthena, as she moves away. "So what if they chant for Hamas? Why do the police stop us expressing our rage at the death of so many of our children?"

The PA is evidently sensitive to feelings that it is not doing enough to stop the Israeli offensive in Gaza. There are frequent accusations from Palestinians, and indeed Israeli officials, that the PA may even be supportive of any action to weaken its bitter rival, Hamas. These are strongly denied.

Azza Somiri
People in Gaza have suffered so much ... This has made something like a death culture, not because they don't want life, but because they have no choice
Azza Somiri

The political split between the West Bank and Gaza is well-documented. For many months, Gaza has been run by Hamas, which has done its best to stamp out the influence of Fatah there through arrests and violence.

The West Bank has been run by Fatah, which, in turn, has used force in an attempt to crush Hamas there.

But the split between Gaza and the West Bank is not just about politics.

The geographical divide between the West Bank and Gaza, between which it is very difficult for Palestinians to get Israeli permission to travel, may inevitably be leading to the evolution of quite different societies, in spite of all that they share (including family ties).

There may be some sense of unity now - among the public, if not the politicians. But when the killing stops, some fear Gaza's trauma could ultimately push the people of the two territories further apart.

'Upside down'

In her apartment in Ramallah, Azza Somiri, 37, cannot stop watching 24-hour news channels.

"We cannot act normally in anything. Everything in our lives has been turned upside down," she says.

Azza is originally from Gaza. She works for a charity and was able to relocate to Ramallah three years ago. But now, with so many members of her family left behind, she has stopped work through worry.

She says she has been heartened by West Bank support, but that over the years, the different, oppressive, experiences of people in Gaza has given them a very different outlook on life.

"People in Gaza don't have the options in life like people in the West Bank," she says. "They have suffered so much, they are poor, there is unemployment. This has made something like a death culture, not because they don't want life, but because they have no choice."

Isolation

Gaza's isolation from the outside world has increased year by year.

For the last 18 months, since Hamas seized control, things have got much worse. To put pressure on the faction, and to try to stop militants firing rockets across the border, Israel all but closed its land borders with Gaza.

Because of the Israeli aggression against the people in Gaza, I think we will get a lot of changes in their thinking about the future - maybe the Gazans will get more radical
Imad Freij
Palestinian pollster

Tens of thousands of Palestinians lost their jobs, were plunged into poverty, and became reliant on aid which is not always allowed to reach the territory.

On top of that, Israel's military operations, carried out in the name of the safety of civilians in the range of the Palestinian rocket fire, have killed hundreds of Gazans each year, well before the current offensive was launched.

Imad Freij belongs to a company that carries out monthly surveys across the Palestinian Territories. He says that these factors mean that, in many aspects of life, whether it be political, social, or religious, a definite split has emerged between those in the West Bank and those in Gaza.

"In general, Gazans are more religious than West Bankers," he says. "Also, from our research, we see there are differences between the two sides in their feelings about security, optimism, and their economic situation."

'Radicalisation'

The West Bank still has its problems, of course. There are frequent army raids to kill or arrest those viewed as a threat to Israeli security.

Over 600 Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks make it difficult for Palestinians to move within the territory.

The presence of the settlement, considered illegal under international law, is the cause of much resentment and tension. The restrictions on movement have had a huge impact on economic growth.

Basim Khoury, a businessman in the West Bank, who is leading an effort to raise money for Gaza, insists the commonality of life under occupation means that any perceived division between the two territories is only superficial.

"The West Bank and Gaza are one," he asserts. "We have so much shared history, so much shared struggle, so much shared loss of blood. We are both part of Palestine, we were both occupied on exactly the same day by the Israelis."

He speculates that it is a concerted Israeli strategy to encourage division among Palestinians, but insists it will not succeed.

But pollster, Imad Freij, feels that the current violence could well have a huge impact on the mentality of those living in Gaza.

"Because of the Israeli aggression against the people in Gaza, I think we will get a lot of changes in their thinking about the future," he says. "Maybe the Gazans will get more radical."

For Palestinians, the destruction and massive loss of life in Gaza in recent weeks may be the immediate disaster, but the long-term effects on their society and their aspirations for a single, free state of their own, might not be felt until well after the violence has ended.



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