Split bodes ill for Palestinians

The Baltimore Sun

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Suggestions that Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip has effectively divorced the Palestinians into two separate states - Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, dominated by Fatah - worry Raed Abu Rouk and his new wife, Hind Whaby.

The newlyweds insist that whatever the political divisions, the two halves of the state that Palestinians yearn to create must remain united. If not, it might spell disaster for the Palestinian people as a whole.

They should know: He is from Gaza. She is from the West Bank.

"For me, Gaza and the West Bank are one unit. I don't accept the division. All of Palestine is Palestine," said Abu Rouk, a slim 27-year-old relaxing in his living room beside Whaby, 26.

For sure, the couple says, the West Bank and Gaza are geographically separate, isolated from each other by Israel's travel restrictions, and have drifted apart politically, economically and culturally during the past seven years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But they point to their own marriage as evidence of how the two territories are intertwined by so many familial and historical ties that talk of dividing them is unthinkable.

Last week, however, Hamas gunmen defeated Fatah fighters in the Islamic militant group's bid to conquer the Gaza Strip. In response, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Hamas-Fatah unity government and created a new Fatah-led administration in the West Bank. Refusing to step down, Hamas leaders continue to govern Gaza.

This week, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threw their support behind Abbas' new government in the West Bank, which seeks peace talks with Israel, while isolating the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which refuses to recognize Israel.

This strategy, which analysts have dubbed the "West Bank first" policy, seeks to bolster Abbas with aid, prisoner releases, easing of travel restrictions and other incentives that will turn the West Bank into a showcase to win the support of ordinary Palestinians. But Abu Rouk and Whaby - as well as many Middle East observers - caution that the strategy might drive a wedge between Gaza and the West Bank.

Speaking this week at a human rights conference in Ireland, former President Jimmy Carter said the embrace by the United States, Israel and the European Union of Abbas in the West Bank represented an "effort to divide Palestinians into two peoples."

"All efforts of the international community should be to reconcile the two, but there's no effort from the outside to bring the two together," Carter said, according to the Associated Press.

The story of Abu Rouk and Whaby's marriage is a tale of what ties the West Bank and Gaza together and what pulls them apart.

Abu Rouk grew up in Khan Yunis, in Gaza. A bright student, he was accepted at the West Bank's prestigious Birzeit University, near Ramallah, in 1998. At the time, it was relatively easy for Palestinians to get permission from Israel to go back and forth between Gaza and the West Bank.

In 2000, the Palestinian uprising broke out, and Abu Rouk faced a difficult decision as Israel tightened travel restrictions between Gaza and the West Bank. He could either go back to Gaza and likely never be allowed to return to the West Bank or stay in Ramallah.

"My family encouraged me to stay in school," he said.

So he did. During the past seven years, he never returned to Gaza or saw his family - though they live about an hour's drive away. He finished a degree in economics and found a job at the Palestinian Interior Ministry, working up to a management position.

He met Whaby, a shy office worker on his staff, and they fell in love. But his Gazan background was an immediate obstacle to their budding relationship. Whaby's parents balked at the idea of their daughter marrying a Gazan.

But it didn't come as a complete surprise. Palestinians in the West Bank historically have viewed themselves as better educated, wealthier and generally superior when compared with their neighbors in Gaza. The 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, who were under Jordanian control before Israel's conquest of the West Bank in 1967, have a more secular outlook and better access to education. It remains a stronghold of the Fatah movement.

By contrast, Gaza's nearly 1.5 million Palestinians - the majority of them refugees from what is now Israel - fell under Egyptian control until Israel seized the tiny coastal strip in 1967. They have a reputation for being poorer, less educated and more religious. The Islamic militant group Hamas, founded in Gaza in 1987, flourished in the poor alleyways of Gaza by opening schools and charitable organizations serving the coastal strip's poor.

When Abu Rouk, a Fatah loyalist, arrived at his university, he discovered that many Palestinians there had an image of Gazans as poor people in threadbare clothes with bad teeth because of their seaside territory's brackish water, he said.

Abu Rouk worked on adopting a West Bank accent and always dressed impeccably. "People judged me by my behavior and were always shocked to learn that I was from Gaza," he said.

Madeh Salem, chairman of the "Sons of Gaza," a club of some 3,000 Gazans living in the West Bank, said many Gazans who came to the West Bank in the 1990s looking for work sometimes got involved in crime, creating a negative image among West Bank Palestinians.

"Gaza and the West Bank are two different worlds," Salem said, "Our goal is to try and enable our members to integrate into society in the West Bank."

Abu Rouk blames Israel - which has broken up the West Bank with checkpoints and roadblocks, as well as severe travel restrictions - for the division of Gaza and the West Bank. "The occupation prevents people from seeing each other and getting to know each other," he says.

That was the trouble between the Whaby and Abu Rouk families. "Our families didn't know each other. My family couldn't go to the Gaza Strip to meet" the Abu Rouks, Whaby said. "My family refused to allow us to marry."

Eventually, the Whabys granted permission, and the couple got married this month at a ceremony in Ramallah. The Israeli Army allowed Abu Rouk's mother, father and younger sister to attend from Gaza, but his two brothers and another sister, along with dozens of other relatives, were denied entry. They listened to the ceremony by telephone.

A honeymoon was out of the question. Abu Rouk refuses to set foot outside Ramallah, because he is afraid Israeli authorities might send him back to Gaza if he crosses a checkpoint. So the couple stayed at home, spending their first day of marriage in front of the TV, watching images of the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.

"You feel frustrated when you see your home is dying. But what can you do?" Abu Rouk asked. "I'm thinking about going back to Gaza some day, but not Gaza the way it looks today."


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