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‘We don’t care who wins’: young Gazans see little choice in Israel’s elections | World news

As reflections from the quayside lights twinkle in the water below, the fisherman Maher Abu Hazima takes a five shekel coin from his pocket and holds it face up. “That’s Netanyahu,” he says before turning it over with a flick of his wrist. “And that’s Gantz. They’re the same.”

Demonstrating that his contempt for politicians is not confined to the rivals for the premiership in Tuesday’s Israeli election, he adds with a laugh: “Like Fatah and Hamas.”

Abu Hazima, 36, is standing on the weather-beaten deck of a boat owned by the Abu Odeh family. It should be heading 15 nautical miles into the Mediterranean to exploit a four-month-old extension to limits enforced by live fire, arrests and seizures of boats that stray past the Israeli navy’s vessels. The limit has been as low as three miles – compared with 20 miles prescribed under the Oslo accords – so this ought to have been a welcome respite.

But in blockaded Gaza, life is rarely that simple. Starved of spare parts, which Israel says could be used by Hamas for military purposes, the crew has had to stay in port while a mechanic cannibalises a truck gearbox to repair the boat’s broken one.

Abu Hazima is not alone in seeing the leading contenders in Tuesday’s election as two sides of the same coin. “We don’t care who is in charge of Israel – even if it’s Trump,” says Issa Hassan, 22, who runs a coffee stall on the edge of the beach in Gaza. “We’re like a ball being kicked between the PA [Palestinian Authority] and Hamas and Israel. We are hit by everybody.”

Said Abu Odeh (left), 24, and Mohammed Abu Odeh (right), 28, in a family-owned fishing boat in Gaza. Photograph: Ali Mousa/The Observer

Ahmad Gharabli, 31, who runs the stall next door, agrees gloomily that “it doesn’t matter” who is the Israeli prime minister after Tuesday. “The Jews don’t like us,” he says. “They don’t care about us.”

Indifference to the election result is understandable. None of the leading candidates has highlighted the impact of a crippling 12-year economic blockade on Gaza, during which time unemployment has increased to a historic high of 46.7% (compared with 15% in the West Bank). Indeed, Gaza was largely marginal in the campaign until a few nights ago, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s protection officers rushed him from an election podium in Ashdod after two rockets were launched from the strip, probably by Islamic Jihad.

The footage – gleefully seized on by both Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman, the former defence minister who is likely to play kingmaker if there is a hung parliament – did not enhance the prime minister’s “Mr Security” image. That, no doubt, is one reason why two days later, Netanyahu declared he saw “no alternative” to another war in Gaza. Despite more than 18 months of border protests, in which more than 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed, Netanyahu and Hamas have pulled back several times from the brink of an all-out war. Indeed, the public posture of Netanyahu’s opponents has actually been fierier.

Gantz began his campaign for this year’s first election, only five months ago, with a video boasting how he had bombed parts of Gaza “back to the stone age” as military chief of staff in 2014. (A Netherlands court will on Tuesday hold an initial hearing on a universal jurisdiction case brought against Gantz by a Palestinian Dutch citizen, Ismail Ziada, over the killing of six members of his family during the 2014 war.)

For this reason, some Palestinians in Gaza are less convinced than Israeli liberals that Netanyahu’s removal would promise a better future.

Ahmed Alfalit, 48, an ex-Hamas militant, graduated from Hebrew University while serving 20 years of a life sentence for a stabbing attack in which an Israeli settler was killed. Released in the prisoner swap for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he now runs a private college teaching Hebrew and Israeli affairs. An avid follower of Israeli elections, he predicts Netanyahu will keep the premiership and adds: “I don’t think Netanyahu will start another war and I don’t think the others would put Gaza in a better situation.”

‘I’m terrified of another war,’ said Roba Shabit, 21, an English trainer and student at Islamic University.

‘I’m terrified of another war,’ said Roba Shabit, 21, an English trainer and student at Islamic University. Photograph: Ali Mousa/The Observer

Stallholder Gharabli thinks another leader would be more “aggressive” that Netanyahu, who he thinks has “understandings” with Hamas.

But Gazans are well aware that political substance does not always match rhetoric. Noting Gantz’s bellicose warning in August that a war led under his premiership against Hamas would be “the last”, Roba Shabit, 21, a student at Islamic University who teaches English to graduates, says: “I’m terrified by the possibility of another war but I don’t think Gantz will do that if he wins. I think he was appealing to voters on the right.” A point in favour of this argument is that after the 2014 war, Gantz called for an easing of Gaza’s dire economic conditions, in order to “tilt to hope over despair” in Gaza and prevent a subsequent conflict.

This raises the question of whether Netanyahu’s own Gaza threat last week – like the even higher profile one to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank – was more than merely playing to the right before the election. Hamas is increasingly restive over what it says is Netanyahu’s repeated failure to fulfil promises brokered by Egypt, the UN and Qatar to ease the blockade beyond the painfully incremental modifications enacted so far. The extreme rightwing parties that Netanyahu would need for a coalition would almost certainly prefer him to move militarily on Gaza than to order the lifting of the blockade.

For now, the frustration of Gaza’s younger generation is palpable – and not just among those who have risked life and limb at the border fence each week. Nineteen-year-old Fadi Dorra has no job, but earns 10 shekels a day helping out at Hassan’s beachside stall. Along with 48% of Gazans polled last year, he would like to emigrate. “There’s no work here, no income.” Asked who he would like to see lead Israel after the election on Tuesday, Fadi says bluntly: “I don’t give a shit. I don’t care about it. We need work. We need to live.”