- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | In the teacher’s lounge at Al-Qahira Girls School, Nashwa Annan’s exasperation was clear as she tried to convince her colleagues that there are no real differences between the main contenders for Israeli prime minister.

“For us, [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Tzipi] Livni are just two sides of the same coin. It’s just a question of who will kill more Palestinians,” she said.

Mrs. Annan, 47, teaches English to fifth-graders. Twenty-two of her students lost their homes in the recent Israeli offensive, and according to Mrs. Annan, all of them are traumatized.

Despite her dismissal of political variation among Israeli politicians, other Gazans, speaking in the aftermath of Israel’s elections, said that they worry that the rightward shift of Israeli politics bodes poorly for Gazans and Palestinians in general.

Many here said that a centrist or left-leaning Israeli government would be more likely to ease a tough blockade of their beleaguered enclave, resolve disputes over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and achieve a more durable cease-fire with Hamas.

“I stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the Israeli news,” said Mohammad Matter, 22, who studies English literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, “I was so excited that Livni was winning. But then my father, who speaks Hebrew, told me that Netanyahu and Likud might run the government anyway. I was crushed.”

Israel’s Election Commission released the final results of Tuesday’s vote on Thursday, which confirmed the exit polls. Mrs. Livni’s centrist Kadima party won 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament, one seat more than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud - both far less than the required 61-seat majority.

Typical of his generation, Mr. Matter has watched in dismay as living conditions and personal freedoms in this tiny enclave on the Mediterranean have eroded, along with hopes for peace.

Read about Elliott Woods’ related work: Inside Gaza

Optimism briefly surfaced in 2005 when Israel withdrew all its troops and thousands of Israeli settlers from the territory, captured from Egypt in the 1967 war. But brutal infighting soon followed, pitting Fatah security forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the armed brigades of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

In June 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza, brutally ejecting Fatah officials. Israel reacted by slapping a near-total blockade on the enclave, closing Gaza’s lone seaport and shutting down crossings to Egypt and Israel for all but the most basic commodities.

The blockade threw the Strip into an economic nose dive from which it has not recovered, despite a network of tunnels under the Egyptian border that has allowed some Gazan merchants to function.

Then, on Dec. 27, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day assault on Hamas that left Gaza’s infrastructure in ruins and more than 1,300 dead, along with 13 Israelis. Israel launched the operation in response to rocket attacks from Gaza on southern Israel.

While the makeup of the next Israeli government is not yet clear, Gazans fear the influence of Avigdor Lieberman, leader of an extreme-right party, who has advocated a mandatory loyalty oath for Arab Israelis and offhandedly suggested that Israel use nuclear weapons to make the reoccupation of Gaza “unnecessary.”

Mr. Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israeli is Our Home, came in third with 15 seats, beating the Labor party of Ehud Barak, who is regarded as more moderate even though he served as defense minister during the Gaza offensive. Labor won only 13 seats, followed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party with 11.

Mrs. Livni’s deputies are currently engaged in talks with Hamas through Egyptian intermediaries in Cairo, and a sliver of hope remains that negotiators will reach a long-term cease-fire whereby Israel will lift the blockade in exchange for measures to prevent Hamas’ rearmament and the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006.

While Mrs. Livni inspires scant hope here, Mr. Netanyahu rankles.

“Livni said during her campaign that she would continue to negotiate for a two-state solution,” Mr. Matter said. “This was very good. But Netanyahu said he wouldn’t negotiate, that he would rid all political movements from Gaza and the West Bank, Fatah and Hamas.”

As for Mr. Lieberman, “he said he wants to look across Gaza from Ashkelon to Rafah and see only land, no people. This is scary!” said Mr. Matter, who sat with his friends, drinking tooth-numbingly sweet Nescafe and smoking cigarettes at a Gaza City cafe.

“We live in a prison,” Mr. Matter said. “You see that box of tissues there? If you told me that you could take me out of Gaza in that box, I would find a way to get into it.”

His friends laughed wryly at his exasperation, but Mr. Matter wasn’t joking.

• Mr. Woods traveled to the Gaza Strip on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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