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Little Joy in Gaza as Ramadan Tapers Off

All Things Considered: October 19, 2006

Little Joy in Gaza as Ramadan Tapers Off

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The final days of the holy month of Ramadan are a festive time for most Muslims. But for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, there's little of anything to celebrate. Israel is continuing its military and economic squeeze on Gaza. It's an effort to pressure militants who fire rockets at the Jewish state. On top of that, continued fighting between Palestinian factions threatens to widen into all-out civil war. Add to that lawlessness, border closures and worsening economic conditions, all of which have left Gaza residents in a bleak mood.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The end of Ramadan is traditionally a time when families buy new clothes, jewelry, toys for kids, and special foods for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the holy month. The theme is compassion and giving.

Today, in Shikled One(ph), Gaza's largest outdoor market, the ash gray sky and puddles of brown muddy water from the overnight rain seem to match the mood of the shoppers. Government workers haven't been paid full salary since February, after Israel and the West cut off economic aide when Hamas, listed as a terrorist group, won parliamentary elections.

Violence with Israel and between Palestinians has left hundreds dead this year. Fifty-year-old Uno Samel Amostria(ph) walks through the crowded market with her two young granddaughters by her side. They're mostly just looking at the stacks of cheap clothes on wooden tables.

Ms. UNO SAMEL AMOSTRIA (Grandmother): (Through translator) It doesn't feel like Eve(ph) this year at all. My heart is of a mother's who've lost sons and women who've lost husbands. And we don't have any money anyway. There are no salaries, no income, so where is Eve this year.

WESTERVELT: Amostria says she mostly blames the government. We have no real leader, she says. Nearby, a clothes vendor says business is the worst he's seen it in years. Customers are either broke or too in debt to buy much of anything. The Israeli military this month intensified a four-month-old military operation in Gaza, launched after one its soldiers was taken captive by militants in a June attack inside Southern Israel. Militants continue to launch makeshift rockets at Israel, and the Israeli military continues air and ground attacks.

More than 250 Palestinians, a little more than half of them armed militants - the rest civilians - have been killed in the fighting. In that same time period, Israel lost one soldier to friendly fire.

On top of that ongoing violence, rival Palestinian gunmen go at each other on an almost daily basis here. Hamas leader and chief spokesman Ghazi Hamad says this factional bloodletting has grown into a disease in Palestinian society.

Mr. GHAZI HAMAD (Hamas): We are suffering from this disease, which is made by violence. We use violence in all our behavior. So I think this is shameful for the Palestinians.

WESTERVELT: In a rare display of Palestinian self-criticism, Ghazi Hamad in recent weeks has publicly questions militants' tactics and now a culture of violence that he says has, quote, "damaged our brains and paralyzed our hearts." He notes that more than 175 Palestinians have been killed this year by Palestinian bullets.

The Hamas official still blames a good deal of Palestinian woes on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and on what Hamad calls the de facto Israeli occupation of Gaza, with the ongoing incursions, border closures and control of Gaza's air and sea space. But, he says, too often Palestinians blame everything on Israel instead of being accountable for their own blunders.

Mr. HAMAD: We (unintelligible) the responsibility for many mistakes which are done inside the Palestinian society. So we tell people that we have to stop violence, we have to adopt the language of dialogue, of talks, discussion, negotiations (unintelligible) table. By this way we can solve all our problems, but by then I think we will destroy ourselves.

WESTERVELT: But while Hamad issues what he calls a cry for calm, armed men with Fatah and Hamas continue to speak the language of guns. The entrance to Razik al-Bayari's(ph) office reeks of smoke, its walls blackened by fire. Al-Bayari runs Labor Radio, one of the Arab world's only radio stations dedicated to workers issues. He was on the air the other night when some 50 heavily armed masked men attacked. The gunmen shot out the windows, bombed the first floor and set the building on fire. Al-Bayari says the gunmen were from Hamas. They were enraged, he says, at the station's outspoken criticism of the Hamas government and its Islamist leaders. He calls the attack part of an ongoing campaign of violence and intimidation against Gaza media that don't adhere to the Hamas line.

Mr. RAZIK al-BAYARI (Labor Radio): (Through translator) They are trying to force one vision of democracy and deny other opinions. And whoever says something different in public is considered by Hamas to be a traitor or a collaborator who should be destroyed.

WESTERVELT: Fatah gunmen, too, have used violence and intimidation to muzzle critics in Gaza. As al-Bayari says glumly, we are already in a kind of civil war. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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