June 25, 2007 issue - Sana Dahman only dared peek out her window at night. The men with guns in the street looked like shadows. In the glow of the flames from the burning city, she could see grenade tubes on shoulders and ski masks on faces. Her neighborhood, like the rest of Gaza City, smelled like smoke. She was trapped in her house and food was running low. A friend tossed a loaf of bread through her window and then dashed away. Before the power failed for the night, she typed Hotmail instant messages to her husband: THEY'RE ASSASSINATING PEOPLE. THEY'RE BURNING HOUSES. WE CAN'T SLEEP.
Her husband, Mohammad Dahman, moved to Norway six months ago. He says he's never coming back to Gaza. Both Dahmans had been raised in Gaza's refugee camps, alongside roughly 1 million other Palestinians. After college, where Mohammad studied business management, he took a job as a trade-union leader and human-rights activist. His $700-per-month salary let the couple and their five children eventually move to a red-roofed condo with a balcony overlooking the sea. But after the Islamists in Hamas won power 18 months ago, Mohammad decided he couldn't stay. "He started feeling like a stranger," says Sana. "I'm glad he's out." She and the kids are still waiting for their Norwegian visas. In the meantime, she says, "I'm losing my mind."
All Gaza seemed to be losing its mind last week, as legions of Hamas fighters fanned out across the 25-mile strip of sand along the Mediterranean coast. By Friday the Islamists had seized control over almost the entire territory, storming the police and intelligence complexes that were once the most powerful symbols of Yasir Arafat's secular Fatah party. Masked gunmen threw one another off high-rises, executed rivals at close range and torched party compounds. More than 90 Gazans died and dozens more were wounded. For the Islamists, the conquest seemed a natural denouement to their surprise election victory last year. "The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived," crowed Islam Shahawan, a Hamas military-wing official. Fatah leaders were despondent. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the fighting "madness" before disbanding the government and declaring a state of emergency.
The rapid reversal of fortunes for Abbas's forces in Gaza poses tough new dilemmas for U.S. policymakers. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to cast events in a positive light, noting that the United States could now openly support the Fatah-led government based in the West Bank. Abbas smartly appointed former Finance minister Salam Fayyad, a technocrat well liked in Washington, as interim prime minister. (Reached the day before his appointment, Fayyad sounded harried and emotional. "I'm really disoriented right now," he said.)
But picking sides hasn't worked so well thus far. After Hamas's electoral wins, the United States and other Western countries cut aid money to the Palestinian government, instead funneling resources directly to Abbas's office. Some observers accuse Washington of baldly encouraging rivalry between the two camps. In a confidential report leaked last week, United Nations envoy Alvaro de Soto wrote that "the U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas." De Soto recounts listening to a U.S. official declare "I like this violence" twice at an envoys' meeting in Washington recently. "The U.S. fanned the flames of this internal Palestinian conflict," says Haim Malka of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed de Soto's remarks as "the views of an individual."
What seems certain is that Hamas-run Gaza is doomed to greater isolation and misery. With the Islamists in control, Israel may intensify its campaign of airstrikes on Hamas rocket teams and other militants. Some Israeli analysts point out that a strong Hamas leadership in Gaza could have its advantages; at least someone would be in control there. But that is a minority view. "There's no common ground [with Hamas]," says Ephraim Sneh, Israel's deputy Defense minister. Dialogue, he says, is almost certainly a nonstarter. "Listen to them, for God's sake!" he says. "Gaza will be worse than Mogadishu. Our Apache [helicopter gunships] will talk to them."
It is no wonder, then, that so many Palestinians like the Dahmans are trying to get out. Over the past year, thousands of Gazans have fled to Europe, Canada and Arab capitals like Cairo and Amman. In the past 12 months, 88,320 people have left Gaza for Egypt through the Rafah crossing, and only 76,176 have come in—a net loss of some 12,000 people. Many more would leave if they could. Ahmad Hanun, the director of the Shaml research center in Ramallah, says roughly 45,000 Palestinians applied to emigrate from Gaza and the West Bank in 2006. A travel agent in Gaza City, who didn't want to be identified for safety reasons, says he takes 50 calls each day from Gazans trying to wangle fake visa papers.Anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of those who manage to escape are the young, wealthy and well educated. Many of those who are leaving are technocrat types who work for organizations like the United Nations and foreign NGOs with global reach. Khaled Abdel Shafi, the director of the United Nations Development Program's Gaza office, says he recently lost 10 percent of his employees, including many of the best. He says another 10 percent are trying to go, but can't get visas. "The big brains are leaving Gaza," says Sana Dahman. "We're going back to the Stone Age."
The irony is that the bulk of Gaza's 1.4 million residents are already from refugee families, mostly from Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Israeli historian Benny Morris, author of the seminal "Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," says that a similar brain drain preceded that conflict. "The well educated fled first," says Morris. "It left the vast majority of the population leaderless." When fighting broke out, Palestinians "didn't have anyone to say 'Stay'," he says. "They were like chickens without heads." Some 700,000 Palestinians ended up fleeing or being driven from their homes, a quarter million of them to neighboring countries..
Now, with Gaza exploding into violence, even the United Nations-operated refugee camps have become unsafe. Militants have stormed several of the food-distribution centers run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), searching for high ground as the fighting raged. Two UNRWA workers were shot to death during gun battles, and two more were wounded. As a result, the agency announced it would temporarily suspend service at most of its Gaza health clinics and food-distribution centers. Refugees contacted by NEWSWEEK said they expected to run out of food within days. "If they don't get our food, they don't have food," says John Ging, UNRWA's director of Gaza operations. "We are their last resort."
Gaza was already on the verge of a humanitarian crisis even before the latest round of fighting. Unemployment runs at about 50 percent in good times, and has shot up since Hamas took power. Top "industries," according to the CIA World Factbook, include "olive-wood carvings" and "mother-of-pearl souvenirs." Once Israel began withholding roughly $55 million each month in Palestinian customs receipts, leaders were forced to stop paying government salaries altogether. According to a March IMF-World Bank report, real GDP fell between 5 and 10 percent in 2006—almost 40 percent below its 1999 level. The result: "a hollowing out of the Palestinian economy," according to the study.Nearby countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which already host 1.8 million and 400,000 Palestinian refugees respectively, are not eager to take in more. Both have had to deal with their own recent problems with Islamist extremists. "Jordan certainly doesn't want to see Palestinian politics spilling over into its terrain," says Nicholas Pelham, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Both [Egypt and Jordan] will put their own survival ahead of the humanitarian crisis.
The Gazans most likely to escape, then, will be those with means and connections—the ones Gaza can least afford to lose. One black-market dealer of fake visa papers in Gaza City, who didn't want to be identified in order to stay out of jail, told NEWSWEEK that he could procure a phony borderless Europe "Schengen" visa for $2,000—roughly twice Gaza's per capita income. He says most of his clients are students who manage to raise the money from their extended families. "They know it's an investment," he explains. He says his business has almost doubled in the past three months.
Middle-class businessmen have other ways out. Mahmoud Ismail, a 46-year-old entrepreneur originally from the village of Deir al-Balah, left Gaza three months ago and moved to Cairo. He closed his Gaza potato-chip factory, which he says lost $12,000 in 2006, after it was repeatedly robbed and burned. Then he managed to get an Egyptian work visa by promising to invest $240,000 in a new factory in the Egyptian capital. For now his wife and four children are still stuck in Gaza; the Rafah crossing is closed, as it was for 271 days in the past year. He plans to get them out as soon as the border opens. "If you have money, you move out," he says. "If not, you're stuck. That country doesn't deserve me."
Most of the new refugees are fully aware that by leaving Gaza they are almost certainly doing harm to the territory's prospects, as well as the cause of Palestinian nationalism. "We're fighting for the right-of-return," says 34-year-old Khalil Safadi, another asylum seeker now in Norway. "Imagine this—and now look what we're doing! I feel so ashamed. I cheated my country." Still, he has no plans to go back to Gaza. "I will learn Norwegian very easily," he says.
Sana Dahman hopes she'll get that chance, too. As she waits in the dark of her house in Gaza she can hear the crackle of gunfire outside. She says she often bursts into tears. She has stopped combing her hair. "Gaza is in a hellish mood," she says quietly. "It's an extreme form of sickness. We have lost our brains." In a Gaza gone mad, the only sane thing now, she believes, is to get the hell out.
With Joanna Chen in Jerusalem, Nuha Musleh in the West Bank and Dan Ephron in Washington © 2007 Newsweek, Inc.