Older Gazans recall jobs and friends in Israel while isolation radicalizes the youth

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip (AP) — From his ramshackle Gaza home, Palestinian Sobhi Hamami, 61, fondly recalls the 23 years he worked on an Israeli kibbutz, where he learned Hebrew, swam in the pool with Israeli friends and celebrated holidays with his Jewish boss.

His son Mohammed, 21, sees Israelis differently: "They're the enemy," he says, "without exception."

This generational split slices through families across Gaza, where older people remember when jobs in Tel Aviv and contact with Israelis were a short drive away, while those under 25 have grown up locked in, seeing little from Israel but fighter planes and bombs.

Israel has been tightening restrictions on who can leave Gaza for nearly two decades, finally imposing a strict blockade with Egypt when the Islamic militant group Hamas overran the territory in 2007.

After its deadly May raid on an activist flotilla seeking to break the blockade, Israel allowed more consumer goods into the impoverished seaside strip. But outside of rare exceptions for medical patients, Israel says the travel ban will remain to keep out would-be attackers until Gaza is ruled by a government that doesn't seek Israel's destruction or consider Israeli civilians legitimate targets. Hamas rejects those conditions.

This means Gaza's youth — 68 percent of its 1.5 million residents are under 25 — have no contact with people outside, which critics warn could make them more susceptible to militant groups and calls to violence.

"We have a whole generation that has no chance to see the other, whether that other is an Israeli, a European, another Palestinian, anyone," said Hamdi Shaqqura of Gaza's Palestinian Center for Human Rights. "This will push people more and more toward self-containment, further from other communities, and widen the gap with Israel."

The gap is clear in the crowded streets of this refugee camp, from which hundreds of men once commuted to Israel daily for jobs in industry, agriculture and construction. Most are now middle-aged and haven't left Gaza in years. Still, they can recall Israeli towns in street-by-street detail and the names of Jewish colleagues, bosses and friends.

The elder Hamami spent what he considers the best 23 years of his life working on Israeli kibbutzim, or collective farms, near Gaza. He had his own room, took Hebrew classes, swam in the community pool with kibbutz members and danced at their parties.

"They were all my friends," he said, "from the old man to the child."

When asked about Israel, his son Mohammed sees "mass destruction and killing people," he said. "I've seen lots of houses destroyed and children killed."

Mohammed has never left Gaza nor met a Jew. He has childhood memories of Israeli soldiers storming the camp during the Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, and clearly recalls Israel's three-week offensive last year to stop militant rocket fire on Israeli towns. The war killed 1,400 Gazans, many of them civilians, and left swaths of the strip in ruins. Thirteen Israelis also died.

Their politics also differ. The father thinks violence is self-defeating. His son supports those who fight Israel.

"As long as they are fighting the army, we have to support them," Mohammed said. "They fight the enemy that kills children and destroys homes."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev defended the Gaza travel ban as protection against militant attacks and blamed Hamas' rhetoric for younger Gazans' negative views of the Jewish state.

"The Hamas regime in Gaza is constantly bombarding the younger generation with extreme violence and anti-Israeli propaganda that plays on traditional anti-Semitic themes, often describing Jews as Satanic," he said.

This prevents them from seeing the good Israel has done, he said, citing the withdrawal from its settlements in 2005 and its allowing thousands of Gazans to enter Israel for medical care.

Sari Bashi of the Israeli group Gisha, which advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, said the lack of contact between Gazan and Israeli civilians leads to the "demonization" of Gazans in the Israeli mind. This she said, could lead to greater violence from the Israeli side.

"This separation is very dangerous for the future because if people in Gaza are not human beings, you can do pretty much anything to them," she said.

Moussa Himmo, 45, also from Shati camp, worked for years in a factory in Tel Aviv, eating and lodging with the Jewish owner's family, which sent him home on weekends with sweets for his children.

In 1990, during the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, Israel arrested Himmo for throwing firebombs at an army jeep in Gaza and imprisoned him for three and a half years. He says he was repeatedly beaten. Still, upon entering Israel seven years later, he sought out his old boss, who embraced him like a prodigal son.

"He was a beautiful guy, with green eyes and curly hair," his former boss Nuriel Izhaki, 70, said of Himmo. "It was only because he was an honest guy and did clean work that I let him work here. I trusted him."

The men lost touch years ago. And both see no way to return to the old days. Izhaki blames Hamas for Gaza's woes, especially for holding Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit captive for four years.

"If they hold Gilad Schalit and don't let anyone visit him, how do they think life can be good for them?" he said.

Himmo, the Palestinian, said he doesn't believe Israelis want peace. "They think all Arabs are dangerous," he said. "The whole situation has changed and there is no way to go back."

The former boss of Hamami, the kibbutz worker, said Hamami was "like family." Strolling through the tree-lined community of Gvulot, Michael Adler, 70, pointed out many buildings Hamami helped build, including the dining hall and Adler's own home.

His wife, Daphna, remembered the local children liking Hamami's Gaza-style felafel.

They, too, had lost touch with their former employee. Now, they said, their children and grandchildren live in communities near the Gaza border that have been frequent targets of militant rockets.

"I don't see a solution in the near future," Adler said, suggesting that the only way out is for the sides to talk to each other.

"If we don't speak, what else do we have?" he said.