West Bank Palestinians Agree: Don’t Let Gaza Chaos in My Backyard

As violence between Hamas and Fatah engulfs the Gaza Strip, Palestinians in the West Bank are watching the chaos unfold with a combination of concern, disgust and resignation.

Alternately blaming Israel, the Palestinian leadership, Arab autocrats and Western governments for the violence, Palestinians in the West Bank at least seem to agree on one thing: They do not want the turmoil or Gaza s Palestinians to spill over into their backyard.

“I want all the people in Gaza to stay in Gaza,” Maher Abu-Gaidh, a Palestinian from Ramallah, told JTA. “If Israel allowed people in Gaza to come here to the West Bank, this would bring more violence, less job opportunities and I think more crimes to the West Bank.”

This sentiment betrays the deep gulf that separates Gaza s 1.4 million Palestinians from the West Bank s 2.5 million Palestinians. Gazans tend to be more impoverished, more violent and more religiously fanatical than their West Bank counterparts.

Six decades after Palestine s Arabs were split apart by the war that followed Israel s founding in 1948, the divisions among geographically disparate Palestinians have grown deeper.

Palestinians from the West Bank interviewed by JTA said they viewed Gaza’s Palestinians as undesirable refugees, virtually indistinct from the violent, impoverished Palestinians in refugee camps elsewhere in the Middle East, such as those currently embroiled in internecine fighting in the camps of Lebanon.

“There are too many Palestinian refugees all over the world,” said Yaser Barakat, an antiques dealer from eastern Jerusalem. “If they come to the West Bank, where are they going to stay? It s better to leave them there.”

For all their distress with how things are turning out in Gaza, there is little expectation that a similar civil war between Fatah and Hamas will spread to the West Bank.

For one thing, Israel’s military presence in the West Bank prevents the anarchy tha! t has ov ertaken Gaza from taking root in the West Bank. Ongoing military operations, myriad checkpoints and collaboration with Palestinian informants and authorities help Israel keep any violence between Fatah and Hamas in the West Bank from spiraling out of control.

“In the West Bank there won’t be a war because they know the Israelis can go in and out anytime,” Barakat said.

For another thing, Palestinians say, the violence in Gaza has more to do with economic desperation than ideology.

“I don’t think it will happen in the West Bank,” said Nazeeh Al-Shalabi, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Mascha, not far from Kalkilya.

“Gaza is one of the most overcrowded places on earth. It’s a small place, with 1.5 million people, closed in from all sides, with no money and no place to go. It’s a pressure cooker,” Al-Shalabi said, and a breeding ground for violence.

“If I lived in Gaza and had eight kids and no job and nowhere to go, it puts me under pressure,” he said. “It s possible that I d easily get into a fight with my neighbor. This is what is happening in Gaza.”

In the West Bank, he said, Fatah and Hamas have enough space to keep their distance from each other.

Palestinians trace the chasm separating West Bank Arabs from those of Gaza back to the 1948 war. After the war, the Gaza Strip fell under Egyptian control and Egypt resisted integrating the local population into Egyptian society. Mired in poverty, many of Gaza’s Palestinians turned to Islam and, later, radical Islam.

By contrast, Jordan annexed the West Bank. Strong ties developed between Arabs in the West Bank and those in largely secular Jordan, and there were Palestinians on both banks of the Jordan River who were able to grow relatively prosperous.

While Gaza’s Palestinians languished in refugee camps, boxed in by Egypt to the South and Israel to the North and East, Palestinians in the West Bank built commercial, political and social ties with th! eir neig hbors in Jordan and Israel.

Today, Palestinians on the West Bank do not want to see their gains spoiled by refugees from Gaza.

As they watch the chaos unfold on their TV screens, Palestinians in the West Bank find no shortage of parties to blame including their fellow Arabs, whose support for the Palestinians they lament as paltry.

“What did the Arab world do for us in the last 60 years?” asked Barakat, the antiques dealer. “Let s face it; they put us in misery. The Arab world put us in this position especially the Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians, by fighting wars with the Israelis rather than aiding the Palestinian cause.

Bader Rashid, from eastern Jerusalem, blamed the Israelis both for encouraging Palestinian infighting and for supporting the corrupt Yasser Arafat, whose Fatah faction pocketed much of the Western aid money intended for the Palestinians.

“The rich enrich themselves and the little people get screwed,” Rashid said. “Now we are all suffering.”

Abu-Gaidh said he was hopeful that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ new emergency government which Israel and the United States announced they would support as soon as it was sworn in this week will succeed.

“This moment is different from a year ago when Hamas won the election,” Abu-Gaidh said. “Now, after a year of Hamas rule, people are very tired and need money and jobs and to pass freely through Israeli checkpoints, and I think this is going to be better with a new government led by Salam Fayyad,” the new Palestinian Authority prime minister.

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