How Hamas controls things in Gaza...
Here's a first-hand account from the Galloway convoy to Gaza...
On Monday evening, the demonstrators learned that, at the request of the president's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, 100 people would be allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. Many saw this as a way of breaking the demonstrators' solidarity and lessening the pressure on Egypt. In the end, on December 30, about 80 people set out on buses, including several journalists who were not affected by the dilemma.
At midnight, about 12 hours after leaving Cairo, we arrived at a hotel in Gaza. There the first surprise awaited us: A Hamas security official in civilian dress swooped down on a friend who had come to pick me up for a visit, announcing that guests could not stay in private homes.
The story gradually became clear. The international organizers of the march coordinated it with civil society, various non-governmental organizations, which were also supposed to involve the Popular Committee to Break the Siege, a semi-official organization affiliated with Hamas. Many European activists have long-standing connections with left-wing organizations in the Gaza Strip. Those organizations, especially the relatively large Popular Front, had organized lodging for several hundred guests in private homes. When the Hamas government heard this, it prohibited the move. "For security reasons." What else?
Also "for security reasons," apparently, on Thursday morning, the activists discovered a cordon of stern-faced, tough Hamas security men blocking them from leaving the hotel (which is owned by Hamas). The security officials accompanied the activists as they visited homes and organizations.
During the march itself, when Gazans watching from the sidelines tried to speak with the visitors, the stern-faced security men blocked them. "They didn't want us to speak to ordinary people," one woman concluded.
Hijacked or poorly organized?
The march was not what the organizers had dreamed of during the nine months of preparation. The day before the trip to Gaza, they already knew that the non-governmental organizations had backed out. Some people said that Hamas government representatives had found the NGOs did not have a clear, organized plan for the guests and therefore had taken the initiative. One Palestinian activist insisted: "When we heard there would only be 100, we canceled everything."
Another said, "From the outset, Hamas set conditions: No more than 5,000 marchers, no approaching the wall and the fence, how to make speeches, how long the speeches should be, who will make speeches. In short, Hamas hijacked the initiative from us and we gave in."
Hamas, or its Popular Committee, brought 200 or 300 marchers. The march turned into nothing more than a ritual, an opportunity for Hamas cabinet ministers to get decent media coverage in the company of Western demonstrators. Especially photogenic were four Americans from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish group Neturei Karta, who joined the trip only at Al Arish. There were no Palestinian women among the marchers - a slap to the many feminist organizers and participants, both women and men.
After the march, the guests voiced protests to some of the official Palestinian organizers. "We came to demonstrate against the siege, and we found that we ourselves were under siege," they said. Their variegation and the transparency of their behavior did not suit the military discipline the official hosts tried to impose. The officials listened, and after the reins were loosened a bit, I set out to visit the homes of friends.
There people described the lingering fear from the Israeli onslaught. Saturday afternoon, at 11:30 A.M. - the time of the first aerial bombardments - remains today a sensitive hour for many children. Just as thunderstorms, or electricity failures (an everyday occurrence) or a persistent drone flying above cause anxiety and evoke nightmarish memories.
Some of the marchers were now allowed to go out on their own, with Gazan acquaintances they had previously known only via telephone and e-mail. Some, especially the Arabic-speakers, complained that "a shadow in the shape of a security man" continued to accompany them. In quick "safari" tours of bombed neighborhoods, through bus windows, they saw ruins that had not yet been cleared, like the complex of bombed-out government buildings that are still standing - ugly concrete skeletons with empty rooms and no walls, like screaming mouths.
In meetings without the security men, several activists got the impression that non-Hamas residents live in fear, and are afraid to speak or identify themselves by name. "Now I understand that the call for 'Freedom for Gaza' has another meaning," one young man told me.