Deir el-Balah, Gaza (CNSNews.com) - The Israeli-Palestinian peace process that began more than 10 years ago did more to damage personal relations between Israelis and Palestinians than it did to bring peace, said a Gaza resident this week.
Until Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip earlier this week, Israeli farmers and business owners there had employed thousands of Palestinians for decades. Israeli settlers spoke of the good relations between themselves and their Palestinian neighbors and workers.
But while that may have been the case on the surface, there was another reality at work underneath, said Omar Shaaban
"I used to work with the settlers. On a certain level we had good relations but as a worker to an employer, not as equals," said Shaaban, an economist who lives in Deir el- Balah in the central Gaza Strip.
Deir el-Balah, a city of some 60,000 residents, is next to what once was the isolated settlement of Kfar Darom. Deir el-Balah is full of tall palm trees and groves, which at this season are heavily laden with ripening dates.
"For the Israelis, the relations were good because they came to Gaza and settled there and they were able to eat with Palestinians. So they thought everything was normal. But it was not normal. We pretended that relations were normal," said Shaaban, a Palestinian economist.
"Many settlers came to our home. I have eaten with them, but as a worker with an employer. There was no personal fight [between us]. I remember some of the good faces of the settlers. They were nice. They are human beings. They dealt with us with respect. But [all the time] we [realized] that it's our land," he said.
Those relations, such as they were, began to break down when the PLO entered the territories following the signing of the first PLO-Israeli agreement in the early 1990s, Shaaban said.
The Palestinians like himself who lived in the Gaza Strip and West Bank could understand the Israelis and the Israelis could understand the Palestinians and they built personal relationships between them, he said.
But when PLO leaders, headed by Chairman Yasser Arafat, came to the territories after signing the first agreement with Israel, things began to change.
The PLO leaders could not understand why the local Palestinians would work with the Israelis, speak Hebrew with them, and get to know Israeli cities, he said.
"They did not realize that we needed to interact with the Israelis," Shaaban said. "We needed to deal with the Israelis for work. The Israelis had to work with us and supply [our] electricity...It was a conflict but we needed to survive, to live."
When PLO officials came to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they influenced the local population. They also brought in weapons and instructions on how to make rockets locally, he said.
During the first intifadah (uprising), which began at the end of 1987 and lasted for several years, Palestinians mostly threw stones at Israeli motorists rather than using weapons.
"[The PLO] intensified the situation...The intifadah became much more militant...Sometimes we [told] the Israelis, don't [keep] killing the Palestinians because you'll destroy the good memories. For this reason, peace now is much more difficult than in the past," he said.
"Before there was no [Palestinian Authority]; there was no killing; there was no destruction like this time. So there was no bad memory [of the Israelis]," Shaaban added.
Sitting on the balcony of the family home in Deir el-Balah, Shaaban's nieces and nephews spoke about their dreams for the future.
Issa, 12, said he was very happy about the disengagement. "It's a start for peace," he said. Now there will be reconstruction and no more destruction of homes. He is glad that Israel is gone, he said, because now there won't be any need for masked men among his people.
(Palestinians donned masks during the first intifadah to hide their identities from Israeli agents. The custom stuck for various reasons. Armed groups roaming Palestinian streets usually are masked, and that includes the Palestinian Authority.)
"These masked people send rockets to Israel then Israel doesn't know who they are, so Israel bombs everybody," he said.
Issa said he understands that Israelis are like any other people, with good and bad among them.
Issa wants to be an engineer when he grows up and work in a country where there is no war. He also said he would like to meet Israeli children. "I would tell them that we need to build peace together, not war."
Shaima, 17, said she wants to be a French teacher and dreams of speaking many languages, even Hebrew, she said.
Shaima, who is newly religious in the last few years, said she would not want a Palestinian state to be an Islamic state but rather an Arab, liberal country. Nevertheless, she said, she does not believe that there will be a Palestinian state soon.
"Allah has written that the problems of the Palestinians won't come to an end. In this area [of the world] there will be problems forever," she said. "It will take forever to establish a Palestinian state."
Does she think the Jews will one day return to Gaza? "Maybe," she said.
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