After Agreement, Palestinians Feel Stirrings Of Hope

The reconciliation agreement between Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas is already having an impact in the beleaguered Gaza Strip. After a childhood dominated by misery and war, Yusef Ali is finally daring to hope. The winds of change that came with the Arab spring have swept into the benighted pocket of coastal desert in which he's been trapped for his whole life. Ali's only 27, yet he's spent the last four years living like a pensioner. He's been paid — but he's banned from working, because he's a soldier in the Palestinian Presidential Guard. That security unit is part of the Palestinian Authority; he lives on land ruled by the Palestinian Authority's erstwhile rival Hamas. So he's spent his days getting depressed — and watching TV. Now the factions are reconciled, he hopes to be back in uniform soon. Residents of Gaza are delighted with the reconciliation agreement, believing it deepens Israel's isolation and strengthens their hand — particularly because of Egypt support. Yet, there's also a recognition too in this war-wearing place that setting up a government of national unity will not be at all easy after all the years of division and bloodshed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, plan to meet again Monday in Cairo. Just over a week ago in that city, they ended a four-year feud and agreed to set up a government of national unity.

Their next meeting is meant to work out just how to push on with that reconciliation. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the Gaza Strip that this new effort has some Palestinians feeling the first stirrings of hope in a very long time.

PHILIP REEVES: Haider Abu Oudah is one of the lucky ones. Unlike many in Gaza, he actually has a paid job. The problem is he's not allowed to do it. He's a young man living like an old man, and he hates it.

Mr. HAIDER ABU OUDAH: Almost every day I sleep half of the day because I have nothing to do. I keep awake most of the night until early morning watching TV or doing anything else. My life is running useless.

REEVES: Abu Oudeh belongs to the Palestinian Authority's security forces. He spends every afternoon in this Gaza cafe. He hasn't put on his uniform since 2007.

That was the year a bloody feud broke out between Fatah, the party that runs the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. Street battles between the two left many dead before Hamas emerged as the rulers of Gaza.

Abu Oudeh and his fellow soldiers were ordered to go home and not to take any other job. Abu Oudeh's 30. He believes that ban on work is costing him his best years and his health.

Mr. ABU OUDEH: I have problems even with sleeping because I am always thinking about my situation, that when I wake up, I have a terrible headache, I have a terrible pain because of this restless sleep.

REEVES: Years of conflict here have destroyed many dreams and opportunities. Abu Oudeh has no options. He can't leave: Israel is blockading Gaza.

He says he really hopes the Palestinian unity agreement will survive and that he'll finally be allowed to don his uniform again. Yet he's not at all sure.

(Soundbite of political protest)

REEVES: Some young Gazans are more optimistic. Laila Daoor's an accountant, though today she's in the thick of a demonstration.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: The crowd's come to express support for the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Daoor thinks that agreement is one of the fruits of the Arab Spring.

Ms. LAILA DAOOR (Accountant): It's now about the whole changes in the Arab world. A whole region changes, the whole region, from the north to the south, from the ocean to the earth to the sea. It's not the same as it was.

REEVES: Daoor is with a colleague, Hannan Rashad. Some believe the unity agreement means the Palestinians have concluded there is no hope of ever negotiating peace with Israel. These two women disagree.

Ms. HANNAN RASHAD: I don't think it is finished. I don't think that they will stop talking with Israel. This can only be done by a united government, not a government from Fatah which is separate from Gaza, or a government from Hamas which is separate from West Bank.

REEVES: Israel's government is not in the mood for talking. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has described the Palestinian reconciliation as a death blow to peace-making. He won't negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas, as it refuses to recognize Israel, and Israel regards it as a terrorist organization.

Yet Palestinian political analyst Ayman Shaheen sees signs Hamas is becoming more moderate.

Mr. AYMAN SHAHEEN: Actually they changed. They recognize very clearly that we are looking for an Palestinian independent state over West Bank, Gaza Strip including east Jerusalem as a capital. I do believe this is a big progress.

REEVES: Others says there's new factor in play.

Professor WALEED EL MODALLAL (Political Science): There is a change. There is a big shift in the stance of the Egyptians.

REEVES: Waleed el Modallal, professor of political science, believes the emergence of a new government in Egypt is highly significant.

Prof. MODALLAL: Right from the beginning they declared that the fate of Palestinian in Gaza and everywhere is our matter. It's part of our security.

REEVES: Egypt's controls the Gaza Strip's southern border at Rafah. It's talking about opening this to all Palestinians.

Back in his cafe, Abu Oudeh, the weary and bored soldier, is looking forward to that day.

Mr. ABU OUDEH: I hope I would have the freedom of traveling everywhere because this what reduce the pressure we are facing, not only for me, for everyone here suffering like me.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza.

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