A little travel has gone a long way toward changing perceptions in Gaza.This theme has been reinforced by former Reuters reporter Mona Eltahawy, hardly a fan of Israel. From Indian Muslims:
After excursions to Egypt across a border breached by Hamas militants, some Palestinians pepper their local Arabic dialect with Egyptian expressions while others say they are shocked by the poverty there.
Jihad Jaradeh, 24, a Gazan whose family owns a furniture shop, reached the Egyptian town of El Arish, some 25 miles from the border. Although shop owners doubled and tripled prices, Jaradeh paid up, saying he even gave extra "because they looked so poor."Many Gazans who visited Egypt remarked on the discrepancy between their more glamorous image of urban Egypt - derived mostly from movies - and the run-down border region of unpaved streets and small houses they encountered.
A trickle of Egyptians also made it into Gaza. Mohammed, an Egyptian truck driver who rented his truck to Palestinians to ferry goods into Gaza, pointed to cars crowding a nearby street and said: "I thought conditions here would be harder than this. I thought people would be starving."
I must confess that when Hamas militants blasted holes into Egypt's border to end an Israeli blockade on Gaza, my first thought was how lucky those Gazans were. Landlocked and living on less than $2 a day—their plight rarely elicits envy, I know. But there are Egyptian slums that swim in more sewage and are submerged in even greater poverty. In those slums, chronic diseases go unchecked and uncured, and children grow up next to the dead in tombs turned into makeshift-housing.It is still the rare Arab voice that points out the obvious - Palestinian Arabs in "refugee" camps have been given decades of free food, shelter and education, not to mention attention, that Arab countries do not provide for their own citizens.
Yet nobody rushes to blast holes into the imaginary border of poverty that suffocates those slums, nor are they sporting t-shirts urging us to sympathise. Why?
Because Israel cannot be blamed.
For decades, successive dictators in the Arab world have sacrificed their respective national concerns on the altar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling us it must be resolved before any kind of progress can be made, whether it's stopping terrorism, embracing democracy or ending poverty. Unsurprisingly, despite peace with Israel for the past 29 years, Egypt still suffers with the same problems.
As a Jerusalem-based Reuters correspondent in 1998, I visited several Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and was astonished to see living conditions better than in the slums of Cairo, my hometown. (Frustration and not mean-spiritedness compels me to make that comparison.)
Despite its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptian regime discourages its citizens from visiting Israel or the Palestinian areas, so few can even make the comparison.
Arab media, particularly the state-owned kind, are equally discouraged from focusing on national issues – such as the desperate state of our slums – and instead devote most newsprint and airtime to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iraq. The latter never got much attention when Saddam Hussein was filling mass graves with Shi'ites and Kurds, but catapulted to the top of the news bulletins when the Arab world's other bete noire – the United States – invaded Iraq in 2003.
Recently the baton of Palestine passed into the firm and dangerous grip of Islamists. Years of corrupt Fatah leadership handed Hamas a 2006 electoral victory, which unfortunately paved the way for civil war between the rival factions, shattering illusions that Palestinian leaders cared more for their people than their jostle for power.
The masked gunmen of Hamas – who lob rockets into Israel with little regard for the consequences for their own people – are now the heroes of the day for bombing the Egyptian border. Egypt, to the west and Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction to the east are seen as Israel's surrogate jailers of Gaza, and the more Israel tightens its grip, the more that scenario is magnified.
Some Egyptians struggled to square their fears over seeing armed Islamists bomb their country's borders with their desire to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The popular social networking site Facebook became home to some heated arguments in groups titled "Save Gaza for Humans Not Hamas" and "Get the Palestinians Away from Arish—We Want Our Borders Back."
A young Egyptian woman told me she considered Hamas' action at the Egyptian border an 'invasion': "They did blow up the border. Putting women and children first does not make it ok," she said. "They attacked the Egyptian forces. They acted like thugs. It was a political move, and they had no respect for Egypt. That's why I want them out really."
Most Palestinian Arabs left the area for much more lucrative jobs in the Gulf and would have happily settled elsewhere had the Arab countries allowed them to become repatriated as refugees rather than purposefully keeping them stateless.
The ones that stayed in these "camps" for generations are the lazy ones who feel that free medical care, housing and food are their right long after their status of "refugees" is long gone by any sane definition. And this mindset that Palestinian Arabs deserve this exalted status at the expense of all poor Arabs has penetrated Arab society to keep a self-perpetuating problem alive for purely political reasons.