GAZA CITY — The second anniversary of Yasser Arafat's historic return to the Gaza Strip passed unobserved last week at the home of Majed Tawil, a Palestinian laborer who has been without work since February.
There were no sparklers, no picnic, not even a nod to the pictures of Arafat hanging in Tawil's concrete house in the Shati refugee camp. Instead, the 34-year-old construction worker spent July 1 as he does most days, searching for his name on lists of Palestinians who might be allowed back to their jobs in Israel.
He did not find it.
Since Israel closed Gaza and the West Bank after a wave of suicide bombings in February and March, Tawil has gone into debt to feed his mother, wife and eight children. He pulled his 5-year-old out of kindergarten, which he no longer could afford, and put off surgery the boy needs after letting the family's health insurance lapse.
Now Arafat's Palestinian Authority is threatening to cut Tawil's electricity for lack of payment.
"We don't feel like celebrating," Tawil said.
In the last year, Arafat added six West Bank cities to the pseudo-state that began with his return from exile to Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho in July 1994. He won election as president of the Palestinian Authority with an overwhelming majority. His officials even inaugurated negotiations for a final peace agreement with Israel that many Palestinians hoped would lead to a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
But any sense of progress that Gazans may have gained from these and other changes in two years of self-rule has been overtaken by the economic despair brought about by the Israeli closure.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians are out of work and out of money--and, many say, they are running out of patience. They cannot go to jobs in Israel, and there is no work to be found at home, primarily because the closure stymies the investment necessary to create jobs in Gaza.
Atop that, residents say the election of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel has cast doubt over the very future of the peace process. Many Palestinians believe that Netanyahu intends to continue negotiating with Arafat and to throw them economic bones with jobs in Israel but to cease making political concessions.
Netanyahu has said he does not believe in the previous, Labor government's concept of "separation" between Palestinians and Jews and that he intends to open borders for work and business. Tawil does not believe that will be enough to keep the peace.
"I need work on the one hand and political rights on the other. These are two separate things. I would not accept that the Israelis make economic improvements and stop negotiations for political rights. This would mean the intifada would start again," Tawil said, referring to the seven-year Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation that began in 1987.
This was not a threat but rather an assessment by the slender laborer who has worked for 17 years in Israeli construction. He was never among the masses of young Palestinian men who clashed with Israeli troops and were arrested during the intifada. He said he does not want his children to live through another period of violence. But, he said, "I fear for the future."
Tawil spoke on a hot summer afternoon in the central room of his four-room house while a table fan sucked electricity that he could not afford. His wife served sweet coffee and tea as his children and neighbors gathered to hear their problems recited like verses everyone knew by heart.
In better days, Tawil would leave home at 2:30 each morning to commute for four hours--going through an Israeli army checkpoint and passing the area where his family lived before the creation of Israel in 1948--to be on the job by 6:30 near the city of Lod.
Tawil was a relatively privileged worker, earning about $650 a month after taxes and transportation--or three times what a laborer makes inside Gaza.
During the intifada, his employer used to let him sleep in Israel so he could continue working and earning money throughout any closure.
But back then, closures were brief.
"During the occupation, it was [the Israeli army's] responsibility to look after us. They didn't want the closure to go on for very long. It has been more difficult in the last two years," Tawil said.
He added hastily that he does not want to return to the days of occupation, with Israeli troops in Gaza, but rather to see the situation improve.
Now his employer could go to jail for allowing him to stay in Israel during a closure.
The latest shutdown was a response to four suicide bombings within Israel by extremists from the Islamic group Hamas, which is opposed to the peace process. More than 60 people died in the explosions in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Tel Aviv; after the last one, on March 3, Israel shut Gaza and the West Bank tighter than ever before.