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Hamdullah Hassouneh longed for a better life. Instead he and his wife Wasfiyeh (right) have mounting debts.

Lost hopes in Gaza

A family's dreams collapse amid the fighting

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / June 17, 2007
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SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- One warm, humid evening in the summer of 2005, Wasfiyeh Hassouneh and her husband, Hamdullah, dragged white plastic chairs onto the beach near their dilapidated cinder-block house. They gazed out at the Mediterranean surf, chewed on roasted ears of corn, and allowed themselves to hope that changes on the Palestinian horizon would soon make life better for their family of 10.

Hamdullah, 50, wanted to support his family again, and win back the respect of his wife. For years, he had fixed machinery in a factory just inside the wall that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. The business closed in 2002, during the Palestinian uprising. But if things went as well as Israeli and Palestinian politicians suggested, maybe it would reopen, and he could get his job back.

Wasfiyeh, 45, was jaded enough not to expect much. Politics had disappointed her before, so she kept her wishes small and private. Maybe her family would regain some of the comforts of an earlier time, when they lived in a dry, cozy house and owned a blue Peugeot.

In the end, none of it would come to pass.

Instead, within a year, Wasfiyeh and Hamdullah were veering close to divorce. As Palestinian society collapsed around them, the couple's mounting debts and anxieties blew ordinary family power struggles into full-blown battles.

Wasfiyeh wasn't speaking to their oldest daughter, Dareen, a clever beauty who had married for love when she was 22, with her father's consent but against her mother's wishes.

And Wasfiyeh didn't know whether to hope or fear that her teenage sons would land the only jobs around: carrying guns for one Palestinian security force or another, nominally serving the public but in her view nothing but foot soldiers in a fratricidal gang war.

Now, almost two years after Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza and 17 months after Palestinians voted Hamas into power, the Hassounehs' struggles show how the hopes and disappointments of those events have shaken a single family.

As last week's takeover of Gaza by Hamas drags Palestinians closer to civil war, the family's story -- as recounted and witnessed during two years of regular visits by a Globe reporter -- helps explain how economic crisis, a political stalemate, and violence, have exploded into the lives of the 3.4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

"There are fights in all the houses," Wasfiyeh said one morning last fall. The day before, Hamdullah had smacked their youngest daughter, Aya, because she asked for a shwarma sandwich that cost a dollar he couldn't spare. "Kids fight, families fight. No one has control over himself. For any little thing, people immediately lose their temper."

From golden age to a camp in Gaza
The iron door of the Hassounehs' house is corroded and pockmarked from the sea air, like an undersea wreck.

Inside, the family sleeps on thin foam mattresses they pull out at night. Wind and damp seep between the mottled cinder-block walls and the corrugated-metal roof. The only decorations are worn carpets and a single red plastic rose pinned to the wall.

But the door opens onto what the family, ready to make the best of a bad situation, considers its greatest asset: a concrete stoop that looks out at the sea. An upturned shopping cart serves as porch furniture; a camouflage net scavenged from an abandoned Israeli guard post keeps off the sun.

Wasfiyeh and Hamdullah were born in Gaza under Egyptian rule. In 1948, during the war between the newly founded Israel and its Arab neighbors, their parents fled to Gaza from what is now Israel. The couple were children during the 1967 war that ended with Israel occupying Gaza.

The golden age that lingers in their memory is their 15-year stay in Libya, where Hamdullah fixed cars for an American oil-drilling company, ILI Corp. Their first five children were born there: Iyad, 25, Dareen, 23, Mahmoud, 21, Mohammed, 18 , and Hadeel, 15. Hamdullah keeps an album stuffed with the trappings of a now-unimaginable life -- his young family in front of their sturdy bungalow, a glamour shot of his beloved Peugeot , a yellowing recommendation letter from his favorite boss, Neil D. Thompson.

Hamdullah, a puckish man with round wire-rimmed glasses, looks young for his age and says his happy years working with Americans are the reason. "That was my real life," he says in the simple English he learned from them.

In 1994, when the Oslo Accords had ignited hope for a Palestinian state, the family came back for a visit. Hamdullah, often hapless with money and paperwork, made a mistake with his Libyan working papers that left the family stuck in Gaza. But they were optimistic and excited to be home.

"We thought it would be the Singapore of the Middle East," Hamdullah says. He hoped to save money and buy a plot of land.

Instead they stayed on in Shati, or Beach Camp, a refugee camp that has grown over four decades into an urban tangle of concrete. They had three more children, Ahmed, 11, and twins Aya and Musab, 9.

When the last Israeli soldiers left Gaza in September 2005, the family joined the exuberant crowds that rushed across the momentarily unguarded border with Egypt. Wasfiyeh's brother drove them to El Arish, on the Sinai coast, to eat fish. Back in Gaza, they explored the abandoned settlement land. "It's ours," Wasfiyeh remembers thinking, "and now it's free."

But Israel didn't reopen its gates to more Gazan goods. Gazan militants didn't stop firing rockets at Israel. And there was still no job for Hamdullah.

Parliamentary election debacle
Wasfiyeh, the take-charge personality in the family, pinned her hopes on the parliamentary elections in January 2006. The Fatah party, which she had worked for over the years, had failed to deliver peace or independence. She gave it another chance and trained 300 young women as Fatah campaign workers.

But the election was a debacle. Fatah lost to Hamas, the militant Islamist group, and its reformist platform. Wasfiyeh was disgusted. Fatah had broken its promise, she said, to choose respected candidates and root out corruption. Worse, the party never paid the salaries of the women she recruited.

"We worked so hard for Fatah, and they lied to us," she said. "In the eyes of the girls, I'm the one who lied."

Around the same time, the grocer showed up at the house demanding that Wasfiyeh pay the family's mounting bill. Conflict-averse Hamdullah had sent him her way. But it was the man's responsibility to feed the family, she insisted.

"You know our society, our traditions," she said. "How can it be that a man would bring strangers to the house to ask his wife for money?"

Furious, Wasfiyeh spent a few weeks at her parents' house. When she came back, something even worse had happened. Hamdullah had agreed to let their daughter Dareen get married.

Wasfiyeh, who got her high school diploma at 44, had dreamed -- indeed, planned -- that Dareen would finish her degree, build a career, and marry the doctor who had asked several times for her hand. A doctor would make money no matter how bad things got.

Instead, Dareen fell in love with Massoud al-Dremleh, her university classmate and a professional singer. The match was a rarity in a society in which most marriages are arranged. But Hamdullah consented. He prided himself on the modern attitudes he had learned abroad. And, he figured, his daughter would never find a job. She might as well be happy.

"Let her go and find her life," he said.

Mounting debts and divisions
But a Palestinian financial crisis sharpened the family conflict. The Hamas government took office, refusing to renounce violence or recognize Israel. A standoff that continues today crippled the Palestinian Authority: Israel withheld tax revenues it collected for the Palestinians, and the international community halted aid to the Authority.

Wasfiyeh and Hamdullah sat on the stoop one morning in April 2006. It was dawning on them that the political drama would have a direct impact on their lives.

Their oldest son Iyad, a military intelligence officer, hadn't been paid since February. His parents had counted on the $100 he gave them each month. Wasfiyeh had worked for an aid group, but its funding dried up amid the uncertainty.

Israel was shelling Gaza daily, saying it targeted militants. The twins wet their beds; Wasfiyeh blamed the thudding impacts that knocked asbestos from the ceiling.

Every few minutes, the couple hitched their chairs over to stay out of a growing patch of sun. A donkey cart clopped by, loaded with sacks of cucumbers. A small boy called out the price: Less than a dollar for 12 kilos -- a fifth of the usual cost. The crossing points into Israel were closed, causing a vegetable glut.

Hamdullah let them pass. "No money," he said.

Wasfiyeh, whose smooth, open face gave her a look of perennial optimism, had just embarked on the arduous bureaucratic process of launching a nonprofit to help working women. It was the only way she could think of to find an income. She had no idea how to find donors, but she hoped God would help her if she helped herself.

And against her better judgment, she put cautious hope in another politician. The family's longtime neighbor, Ismail Haniyeh, who seemed humble and open, was now the Hamas prime minister. Hamdullah had higher hopes: Haniyeh would push Hamas to make peace.

"They cannot change in one minute. They will change, but gradually," he said. "Nobody can deny the existence of Israel. Nobody will throw it into the sea. They exist and we exist."

By May 2006, the Hassounehs feared for their safety. Hamas guards patrolled outside Haniyeh's house and exchanged threats with the neighborhood's Fatah gunmen. When Fatah came to the door on a membership drive, Wasfiyeh refused to sign up. She was sick of them -- and it now felt dangerous to be known as a partisan.

Her son Mahmoud, a skinny computer aficionado, was so depressed he slept through the days in the front room, oblivious as guests came and went. He was on a waiting list for a Fatah security job. The Hamas force was recruiting his younger brother Mohammed.

"I want them to get the jobs because I want them to have money," Wasfiyeh said. "But I imagine my sons killing each other."

June wedding, and war erupts
A month later, Dareen had her June wedding. The bride wore a huge, floppy Scarlett O'Hara hat and matching white hoopskirt. Dry ice sent mist floating around her and Massoud. They smiled, flirted , and danced. Massoud grabbed the microphone and serenaded Dareen with a song he wrote himself.

"Magnificent," Dareen said later.

But Wasfiyeh sat alone. Hamdullah stayed outside with his brothers. The groom's side paid for the wedding, as tradition dictated. That just underscored Hamdullah's poverty.

"We are on the edge of divorce," he said. "She wants me to create money. I can't."

A month later, in early July 2006, Gaza was descending into war. Hamas had captured an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid. Israeli troops massed to re invade Gaza. Terrifying crackling claps -- sonic booms from Israeli jets -- ripped through the sky. Gunboats floated offshore. The children slept crowded in the hot inner room, where they felt safer.

Wasfiyeh sat at home alone, with the iron door half shut to keep out the sun. She had thrown Hamdullah out of the house. She had not spoken to Dareen since the wedding. "She burned my heart," Wasfiyeh said. "I won't visit her until she knows that she made a mistake."

Her cellphone rang. A friend was calling to congratulate her on the wedding.

"She had lots of chances to marry someone better," Wasfiyeh told her friend.

The phone died. There was no electricity. Israel had bombed Gaza's only power plant days before.

"My daughter is young and clever," Wasfiyeh said. "Our situation is less than zero. It would have been better if she'd stayed home and worked for a year."

Now, she said, even her twins were trying to make money, selling candy in the street. "These little children, they feel the situation, and they feel the responsibility," she said.

Wasfiyeh was so angry that her marriage seemed like a mistake. Her sister had married Hamdullah's older brother, a respected professor, but, the two brothers, she said, are like "night and day."

Her reading glasses were broken, so she tied them to her face with a piece of string. She was reading poems that a friend had composed, longhand, in a notebook. She took them with a grain of salt -- they were worshipful odes to Palestinian politicians -- but her mind needed something to do.

She was busy all the time -- working on her women's organization, which she now envisioned as a day care center.

"When my friends see me outside," she said, "they think I'm living in a castle. . . . I'm hiding my terrible situation."

Reconciliation and resignation
The Israeli incursion came and went. The shooting didn't reach Beach Camp. By October, the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, Wasfiyeh let Hamdullah move back in. Neither could explain why. They were just tired of fighting.

Wasfiyeh couldn't afford lavish food for the nightly breaking of the fast, so she served eggs and rice and sometimes chicken wings, the cheapest cut of meat.

The Hamas security force had finally hired her son Mohammed. He still had not received his salary, or much training. But Hamas police officials gave him a Kalashnikov and sent him to guard hospitals -- just as violence between Palestinians struck a new, frightening pitch.

A Fatah intelligence officer was shot right outside the Hassounehs' house, scattering the twins' candy-and-cigarette stand. Twelve people died a few weeks earlier when Hamas forces opened fire on Fatah demonstrators.

Wasfiyeh scrambled to keep up with daily worries. Hamdullah beat Aya for asking for a sandwich; Wasfiyeh borrowed spare change from a neighbor to buy her one. She helped to organize a charity fast-breaking for even poorer people. And, in honor of the holy month, she decided to visit Dareen.

Dareen's apartment was an oasis of middle-class neatness that her parents could only dream of. Massoud was making money singing, and his family helped too. Three love seats crammed a small formal salon. There was a big bed with a headboard, a dressing table, a computer. Dareen, expecting a baby, painted cartoon mice and princesses on the wall of one room.

Mother and daughter greeted each other stiffly. But as Dareen brought out tray after tray of carefully prepared food -- juice, tea, coffee, fruit plates, gelatin, Ramadan pancakes stuffed with cheese -- Wasfiyeh betrayed a hint of pride. "She's a good housekeeper," Wasfiyeh said. "I trained her."

But her thoughts quickly turned to her sons, who could not find wives because they could not afford such a home.

"Only by a magical solution from God can this problem be solved," she said.

Shifting dreams to the children
The political stalemate dragged on through winter and spring, and faded from the family's attention except as one more reason for the stagnation in their lives. They no longer hoped for anything from Hamas.

Wasfiyeh kept on visiting Dareen. One day she asked Massoud, the son-in-law she had spurned, -- to sign on as a board member of her new women's organization.

Dareen tried to make peace between her mother and Hamdullah. "He's doing his best," she said. "It's not his fault -- it's destiny, it's the Israelis, it's the closure."

Hamdullah consoled himself with his private pride over Dareen's happiness. "She loves me so much, because I helped her to get married," he said when Wasfiyeh was out of earshot.

Dareen worried about her younger siblings, growing up without the comforts she had as a child in Libya. She vowed to give her child a decent life. "The only hope," she said, "is to find a job."

And she did. Her daughter, Lama, was born in February. By April, Dareen was making $600 a month as a gym teacher at a school run by the United Nations .

Wasfiyeh, never satisfied, harrumphed that the money was going toward a car for Dareen's husband and not to her family. "This is what happens when you raise girls," she said.

One morning last month, Wasfiyeh showed off the brand-new ink stamp for her organization -- officially registered, grandly, as Fajr al-Jadid (New Dawn) Association for Development. Its goals: to open a day care center, help women start businesses, and sponsor money-saving group weddings. That is, if it ever gets funding.

Deep down, Wasfiyeh seems to have given up on that. She is slowly shifting her hopes from her own prospects to her children's.

Mohammed, taller and stronger now, is finally collecting half of his $500 monthly salary from the Hamas force. But he has paid a high price. In another round of fighting last month, Fatah fighters kidnapped him. Lying bandaged and bruised on a floor mat, he told how they beat him and shot him in the knee before letting him go.

Mahmoud, his older brother, still sleeps all day. But now he spends his nights at an Internet café. At first, he chatted daily with Arabs in the West -- adopting a nocturnal schedule because of the time difference -- hoping they could help him immigrate.

But gradually, he learned Web design, bought a used computer, and made photo montages and videos. His younger siblings watch them again and again. One flashes photos of Mohammed brandishing his Hamas-issued weapons: an AK-47, a grenade launcher. He holds them inexpertly and wears a broad, goofy grin.

If the family is chilled by how easy it is to imagine them printed on the "martyr" posters that commemorate teenagers killed in battles with each other or Israelis, they do not mention it. Mahmoud's mind is on business. He posts the videos on his website,, hoping to attract design clients.

"I dream that even one of them will succeed," Wasfiyeh said of her sons. "Then he can rescue the family."

Recently, Hamdullah's brother, the professor Wasfiyeh admires, paid $2,000 to a shady tour agency that got him to Norway, where he applied for refugee status. Hamdullah wonders if his family can follow.

The gears in Wasfiyeh's mind are already turning. She looks out at the waves hitting the Gaza beach and imagines Norway: clean, organized, civil. It's not as cold there as it is in Sweden, she has heard. Perhaps she could be a hairdresser there. Or sell Palestinian pottery. Or falafel.

Hossam al-Madhoun and George Azar contributed to this report. Barnard can be reached at the New York Times.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: One family's struggle
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