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Keep Gaza Free of Zealotry - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Watching Israeli soldiers dragging Jewish settlers from Gaza was a reminder of just how much Palestinians and Israelis need each other.

Without the “enemy”, Israelis and Palestinians would divide along the many fault lines that are barely concealed beneath the face of unity put up to confront that “enemy”.

And there is no bigger fault line than the secular/religious crack that exists in both Israeli and Palestinian societies.

When I lived in Jerusalem in 1998, many of my Israeli friends were clear in their contempt for the settlers. They could not understand them, least of all their religious zeal.

That head-on collision between religious and secular was there for the world to see as the soldiers, representing the secular side of Israel, dragged out settlers – from synagogues even. When push came to shove and Israel ’s interests were at stake – as they were during the withdrawal from Gaza – Jewish soldiers did not hesitate to evacuate Jewish settlers.

The complaints of settlers that “Jews do not expel Jews” fell on deaf ears. The settlers are used to Jewish soldiers expelling Palestinians and never imagined the power of the state would be used against them, especially by the grandfather of the settlements himself – Ariel Sharon.

The religious/secular confrontation in Israeli society does not always take such dramatic turns as it did during the Gaza withdrawal but it’s there. The ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem for example is often the scene of confrontations between residents who observe a strict Sabbath (which includes a ban on driving) and secular Jews who do not observe the Sabbath. The Mea Shearim residents often throw stones at anyone who tries to drive through their neighborhood during Sabbath and sometimes will berate women whom they consider immodestly dressed.

There were several ultra-orthodox synagogues in my West Jerusalem neighborhood and so I would often see families in the area coming and going, on their way to prayer services. They reminded me of strict Muslims in many respects. The men had beards and the women wore long skirts, long-sleeved blouses and covered their hair either with wigs or with bonnets.

It was no surprise because religious fundamentalists are the same everywhere and there is a lot in common between fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims.

Which takes me to the question that everyone in Palestinian society should be asking as Israel completes its withdrawal from Gaza: when push comes to shove will the Palestinian Authority confront its fundamentalists in the same way that Israel confronted the religious zealots in the settlements? When the greater good of Palestinians is at stake, is the Palestinian Authority willing to curb the activities of Hamas?

Once the settlers and soldiers have left Gaza, the “enemy” that Palestinians in Gaza faced everyday will be gone. How will they fare?

Hamas is trying to portray Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for its campaign of violence and terror. Any such victory for Hamas would be a defeat for the Palestinian people who have been caught between the brutality of the Israeli occupation and the often-nihilistic violence of Hamas that brought nothing but more Israeli violence against the Palestinians.

The second intifada – propelled and inspired by Hamas’ tactics – was a failure and a disaster for Palestinians. Unlike the first intifada, which galvanized world opinion for the “children of the rocks”, the second intifada was an exercise in nihilism that hurt the Palestinians more than it helped them.

The Palestinian Authority, under the late Yasser Arafat, must bear its responsibility too. Its corruption and lack of democracy and transparency left a vacuum that Hamas was all too willing and ready to fill.

And so a Gaza free of settlers and soldiers is Mahmoud Abbas’ chance to show Palestinians how far he is willing to go to assert his authority.

On Friday, as Abbas was promising Palestinians jobs, houses and freedom in his first speech since the start of the Gaza withdrawal, two Hamas militants were wounded when an explosive device they were carrying accidentally blew up before they could plant it near the evacuated Kfar Darom settlement, Palestinian officials told the Associated Press.

The extent of their injuries was unknown. According to the AP, the militants apparently wanted to target Israeli troops still guarding the emptied settlement to bolster Hamas claims of having driven the Israelis from Gaza.

If Abbas doubts for a second how important it is to curb the religious zealotry of Hamas, he need only remember Yusra Azzami, the 20-year-old woman shot dead earlier this year by Hamas gunmen for “immoral behavious” as she sat in a car with her fiancé Ziad Zaranda, his brother Rami and Yusra’s sister Magdalen (who was engaged to Rami).

Masked Hamas gunmen forced their car to stop in Beit Lahia, shot Yusra dead and beat up Ziad and Rami and then escaped in Ziad’s car. Magdalen managed to run away before they beat her up too.

When the settlers and soldiers were still in Gaza, these kinds of tragedies were easier to conceal. Palestinian families who have suffered at the hands of Hamas have long been intimidated into silence for the sake of Palestine.

With the settlers and soldiers gone from Gaza, Hamas’ zealotry must be curbed for the sake of Palestine and its people.

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