The Fall of Gaza: Can Disaster Be Avoided?

Back in 2005, Jewish Voice for Peace took to the streets in San Francisco to protest the just-commencing Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. More than a few people were puzzled by this action; here was a Jewish peace group apparently echoing the stance of some of the most hard-line so-called “pro-Israel” groups who opposed Israel giving up any territory at all. What was going on?

Of course, JVP was never opposed to Israel withdrawing its soldiers and checkpoints and abandoning its settlements in Gaza. But doing the right thing in the wrong way can be just as bad, in some ways perhaps worse, than doing the wrong thing, and this was what we saw happening with the Gaza withdrawal. Sadly, this prediction has come true, leaving the Palestinians split between two governing bodies, leaving Gaza in ruin and chaos and leaving Israel with an increasingly hostile and dangerous territory on its western border.

The middle of June, 2007 will be remembered by many as the time which saw Hamas and Fatah engage in horrible atrocities against one another, further aggravating the awful situation in the Gaza Strip. While Hamas has now established full, though tenuous, control over the Strip, it remains to be seen whether it is possible for them (or anyone) to actually rein in the chaos and whether they can hold on to any semblance of authority under a tightening economic blockade and a general atmosphere of lawlessness.

How did this state of affairs come about?

The situation in Gaza has roots that go back before the Israeli withdrawal in 2005. We’ll briefly review those events.

After the death of Yasir Arafat in 2004, the ability of the Palestinian Authority to govern all sectors of Palestinian society began to deteriorate rapidly. While Arafat was never able to control the many armed groups and independent parties, he was a figure sufficiently revered that he could always negotiate with all these groups, and often could find ways to get them to agree to his wishes. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, did not and does not have anything resembling that kind of prestige.

Even under Arafat, the crushing disappointment in the Oslo Peace Process and the devastating Israeli response to the second Intifada, which began in 2000, had severely eroded Palestinians’ confidence in the Palestinian Authority. Rampant corruption and human rights abuses against Palestinians had alienated many of the people, and their turn toward Hamas as an alternative was already evident in municipal elections where Hamas was succeeding in gaining quite a lot of local control. While only a decided minority of Palestinians actually supported Hamas’ religious or political ideologies, the disgust with Fatah’s ineptitude and corruption, now exacerbated by the absence of the leadership of Arafat, caused them to vote for the available alternative. This was true in the West Bank, but much more so in Gaza.

Gaza has long been an impoverished area; it was occupied by Egypt from 1949-1967 and fared little better then than it has since Israel captured the area in 1967. This makes it a fertile ground for radical groups and extremist ideologies, much more than the West Bank. By mid-2004, when Ariel Sharon announced his decision to withdraw the Israeli settlements and occupying armies from the territory of Gaza, it was clear that Hamas had a strong foothold in Gaza and that they were quite likely more influential than the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

Sharon surely knew this, and, while some think that he ignored this fact, it seems far more likely that it was part of his calculations to split the Palestinians politically, as they were already split geographically. The rise of Hamas in Gaza was entirely predictable, even clear, at that early date. Equally predictable was the fact that the PA was going to have a very difficult time establishing any kind of control over Gaza. This was greatly exacerbated by Israel’s withdrawing unilaterally, rather than through an arrangement with the Palestinian Authority. Not only did this leave the PA unable to coordinate and arrange matters for taking over, it more importantly humiliated them and finished the job of undermining their credibility in Gaza.

The withdrawal of the settlements and soldiers was seen as an end to Israel’s occupation of Gaza, and in one sense, it was. But in most meaningful ways, Israel remained in control of Gaza. Gaza is completely surrounded by a wall, with only three land crossings in and out of the region. Two of those lead into Israel and one into Egypt. None of them provide enough traffic in and out of the Strip to allow for any kind of trade to flourish. Israel also controls the shoreline and the airspace. In essence, Gaza is completely isolated from the rest of the world. For an area as bereft of resources as Gaza is, this means no economic activity can develop, leading to massive unemployment, widespread malnutrition and hunger and short supplies of electricity, medical supplies, water and other basic necessities.

In the wake of the withdrawal, some Gazans, while perhaps expressing understandable rage, did themselves no favors by destroying synagogues that Israel had left standing in the Strip (despite the requests of the PA that Israel remove them precisely to avoid this) and looting and destroying greenhouses that international Jewish donors had bought and donated to the PA. These actions were harmful to Palestinian interests and to Palestinians’ image in the world’s eyes. They were seized upon by those who wished to dehumanize the Palestinians, and this “proof” of Palestinians’ alleged “inability to govern themselves” has fueled an ongoing propaganda campaign.

In January 2006, Palestinian elections were held, over the mild objections of some parts of the Israeli government and the much more strenuous objections of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. The Bush Administration pushed hard for these elections, despite the predictions of virtually every Middle East expert across the political spectrum that it would produce major gains for Hamas. Few predicted that Hamas would win a ruling majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, but while the extent of Hamas’ victory came as a surprise, it was clear to anyone paying attention that Hamas would become a major party in the PA at the least.

The Hamas victory sent waves of panic throughout the world. The US, Israel and the European Union almost immediately cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, and this had its most devastating effect in Gaza. Most of the Arab leadership was equally terrified at the Hamas victory, and even more at the prospect that they might prove successful in governing the Palestinian Territories. For their part, Hamas proved unable to find the flexibility necessary to lead the Palestinians in dealings with Israel and the US, or even the Arab League. In the end, Hamas had to allow Mahmoud Abbas to conduct most foreign relations as he saw fit, with the only proviso being that any full or partial peace deal with Israel would need to be submitted to a popular referendum.

The 2006 election did not fully decide the question of Palestinian leadership. As Gaza wilted under the pressure of international sanctions, Fatah refused to enter a government of national unity, preferring to try to undermine the new government politically. Israel generally maintained its distance from the internal Palestinian conflict, though the lack of unity and the growing infighting clearly pleased the Olmert government, despite the growing instability that must threaten the security of Israelis. The US, on the other hand, openly supported Fatah. This was a mixed blessing for Abbas. He received the US’ diplomatic support, which also meant that he would receive support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Abbas also occasionally received material support, sometimes in arms sometimes in cash, from the US. But this support weakened him considerably in Palestinian eyes, where he is seen more and more as an American lackey. The support was also inconsistent, as some sectors tried to marginalize Abbas as irrelevant or even as part of the new “terrorist government.”

In June 2006, a group of Palestinians infiltrated an Israeli army post inside Israel and kidnapped or captured (depending on your point of view) an Israeli soldier. The Israeli response had little connection to retrieving the young man, but was devastating to Gaza. Though it was soon overshadowed by the war in Lebanon, Israel pounded Gaza through much of the summer, including destroying a major power plant. Gaza sank further into chaos and despair. Despite a cease-fire agreement in late 2006, Qassam rockets from Gaza were consistently fired at the western Negev in Israel, mostly at the working class town of Sderot. While Hamas was likely not responsible for the rocket fire, they also did nothing to prevent it. On several occasions, including in June of 2007, Israel would hit Gaza hard again as a result. Israel also reinforced the crippling blows against Hamas by imprisoning dozens of the party’s leaders and legislators.

In December 2006, tensions between Hamas and Fatah erupted into full-scale fighting in Ramallah. Despite Saudi intervention and the formation of a Palestinian Unity Government, fighting ebbed and flowed until May 2007. The flare-ups generally escalated to a near-boiling point, but the leaderships of both parties managed to contain the violence temporarily, avoiding decisive battles. But in May, large scale fighting erupted again, and Hamas probably felt that their performance in these battles warranted more confidence in their ability to defeat Fatah.

By mid-June, the Bush Administration had reinforced their rhetoric with action, increasing the flow of arms to Fatah. This was also likely a factor in Hamas deciding that more decisive action was necessary, lest Fatah build too big an advantage. In any case, in a matter of less than five days, Hamas had complete control of the Gaza Strip. The fighting featured many acts of brutality, including a bound man being thrown from a roof and killing of opposition fighters in hospital beds.

Reactions

Mahmoud Abbas responded to the Hamas victory in Gaza by dissolving the existing government and installing an emergency government consisting of unaffiliated technocrats. He called the Hamas takeover in Gaza a coup, and both sides have blamed the other for the infighting boiling over and the resulting split. Abbas has outlawed Hamas’ militias and executive force, though not the political party. He also accused Hamas of attempting to assassinate him and claimed to have video evidence to this effect.

Hamas has threatened a major uprising if Fatah tries to clamp down on the group in the West Bank. Fatah fighters with the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade stormed the Hamas controlled Parliament on June 16 in Ramallah, and actions against Hamas strongholds have been ongoing. Hamas continues to maintain that it is the legitimate ruling party in all of the Palestinian Territories while being able to exercise power only in Gaza. They note that the current government is in power by appointment, while they won an election.

Palestinians are generally displeased with both parties in this whole episode. The Al Quds newspaper reported on June 19 that 75% of Palestinians opposed Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, that 54% supported Abbas’ disbanding the government and 51% said both parties were equally responsible for the conflict between them.

Israel and the United States have moved quickly to bolster the new Abbas government. Israel has promised to finally release the tax money it has withheld form the PA since the January 2006 elections (Note: Israel collects taxes on various services, such as water, electricity etc. and is supposed to pass that money on to the PA).

The US has announced that it will lift the economic blockade against the PA, on condition that no money goes through Hamas’ hands in Gaza. In a bizarre turn, many groups and individuals that were hindering aid to the PA for years, well before the Hamas victory, are now among those who are calling for major increases in aid to Abbas.

Israel has also announced that Egypt will host a summit including itself, Jordan and the PA to resume peace talks. The announcement included many optimistic words, which is important for Abbas since he will need to demonstrate that he can make real and significant progress with Israel now that Hamas is out of the way.

The Arab world is mostly lining up behind Abbas, seeing this, in part, as another front in the face-off between much of the Arab world on one side and Syria, Iran and their various allies in the region on the other. Indeed, immediately following the Israel-PA-Jordan summit, Egypt plans to convene talks with Saudi Arabia about forming a united Arab bloc against Hamas.

Finally, many pundits are seeing this as the creation of two Palestinian states–one in Gaza, an Islamic state which cannot abide any compromise with Israel and the other a secular state in the West Bank which will. Others see the split as less permanent and more reflective of both the physical separation of Gaza and the West Bank and the different conditions in each place.

Analysis: What’s next?

The first thing one sees when looking at the current split among the Palestinians is that the situation is not one that can last. It’s eminently clear that the forces arrayed against Hamas–the US, Israel, Fatah, the moderate Arab states, the EU–are not going to be content with the status quo. Fatah in particular will not just sit idly by and let some 1.5 million Palestinians be governed by someone else. They will have considerable support from outside in pressing Hamas, politically, economically and militarily. For its part, Hamas has already shown they can and will act aggressively in pursuing their own position atop Palestinian society.
Right now, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas does not seem realistic and there is no third option in the Palestinian polity. This would seem to indicate that, at least for the time being, these two groups will continue to work against one another and that the opportunity to engage the broad spectrum of the Palestinian people by dealing with a broad-based government with Abbas at its head is lost. Still, even though the leaders of Fatah and Hamas have done little more than pay lip service to the value of national unity among the Palestinians, this value remains strong among the Palestinian populace. That might pressure change and force the two groups together at some point. But such a possibility is not on the radar right now.

On the other hand, the view that seems to be dominating both Washington and Jerusalem right now is quite distorted. It seems that the US and Israel believe that they can crush Hamas for good by strengthening Abbas with a peace summit and encouraging aggressive actions against Hamas in the West Bank. The latter is a foolish strategy, and one that has repeatedly bolstered Hamas, rather than weakened it. Indeed, virtually every attempt by Israel, the US and much of the rest of the world to harm Hamas has helped them over the years, and if foreign hands are seen too clearly in Fatah’s attacks on Hamas, support for Fatah, even from within, will quickly wither.

Many analysts, including this one, have been urging for some time that Hamas must be dealt with, not shunned. By engaging Hamas and forcing them into politics rather than ideological grandstanding, they will be forced to confront the ineffectiveness of their more extreme positions, which is precisely what happened after the election. This is why they were forced to allow Abbas to represent the Palestinian government in the Arab League vote on their peace proposal, and to allow him to keep his leading position in any negotiations and contacts with Israel.

Even the freeing up of funds is going to bite Abbas, as he will be hamstrung by restrictions to spend not only US aid, but even the tax money that is Palestinian and has been illegally withheld by Israel, only in the West Bank. That will not be acceptable on the Palestinian street, either in Gaza City or Ramallah.

The summit is fine for what it’s worth, but what happens when it fails to bring about truly significant concessions for Abbas?

That Abbas will not come back to Ramallah bearing an acceptable final status resolution is inevitable. The only way he can do that is to offer at least the hope that Israel can be convinced to return to something close to the 1967 borders, to share Jerusalem and to agree to acknowledge the refugees’ right of return, allow a token number back to Israel and compensate the rest. Abbas need not actually deliver all of that. But the whole idea of bolstering Abbas with a summit rests on the presumption that a sufficient number of Palestinians can be convinced that Abbas, freed of the burden of Hamas, can deliver the minimal Palestinian demands some time in the near future. Abbas will need to show some concrete indication that he can pull this off, and he will have to do so with a very skeptical audience. The Olmert government is far too weak to even signal the possibility of such concessions, much less actually make them.

Abbas is walking a difficult tightrope. For all the pictures being painted of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank, both parties still have a significant presence in both areas. If Abbas is seen as selling out Palestinian interests to the US and Israel, Hamas will have the popular support and the ability to threaten, and possibly topple, him in the West Bank as well. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Fatah is sure to try to hasten Hamas’ demise, and reports indicate that Fatah attacks on Hamas positions in the West Bank are ongoing.

It is far from certain that Fatah would win an all-out battle for the West Bank. But it is very likely that Israel would be drawn into a conflict there, either to defend Fatah or because some Palestinians decide to bring them in with an attack on Israelis. The resulting violence would expand very quickly, and would not only quickly bring back, and possibly surpass, the worst days of the last intifada, but is likely to spark off conflicts in other areas of the Middle East. There is very little good that can come of Fatah’s aggressive actions against Hamas in the West Bank, and the potential for a great deal of harm.

Much has been made of Iranian backing of Hamas, which tends to cast this as another chapter in the struggle between the US/Israel and Iran. While it would be wrong to say that this is not a factor, it is not one that should be over-emphasized. Hamas’ backing by Iran is a marriage of necessity. With Saudi Arabia unambiguously hostile to Hamas, and most other Arab states following their lead, Iran is a necessary lifeline. But Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian nationalist group, and their being an Islamist group is their expression of Palestinian nationalism. They will cooperate with Iran to get the needed support, but there are limits to that partnership, and Hamas will likely continue to chart their own course.

Egypt, however, has other concerns. Hamas originated as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a long-standing Islamist group, and one which is pressing for more influence in Egypt. Where Hamas and Iran are strange bedfellows, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are natural partners; one might even say long-lost relatives. This drives Egyptian horror at Hamas’ undisputed control of Gaza, right on their doorstep.

And there are new concerns, ones which Israel had better take very seriously. For quite some time now, we have heard from Mahmoud Abbas as well as from Hamas leaders of attempts by al-Qaeda and similar groups to gain a foothold within the Palestinian Territories. Thus far, these have been rebuffed, and nothing in the current developments will make either Fatah or Hamas more receptive to such groups. But the general chaos in Gaza may well make it much more difficult for the Palestinians to keep these groups out, and if Hamas is proven to be a failure, the radical elements in Palestinian society are going to turn not to more moderate elements, but to still more radical ones, giving these groups a foothold. This would be exceedingly dangerous for Israelis. Whatever one thinks of Hamas or Fatah, they are not the same at all as al-Qaeda, simplistic Western propaganda notwithstanding. The last thing any Israeli civilian wants is to see al-Qaeda operating on their doorstep.

The simple fact is that there can never be any progress between Israel and the Palestinians if a big chunk of the Palestinian community, the Islamists, are excluded from the process. Not only will many other Palestinians support their right to be heard, but groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad can easily derail any peace process with attacks on Israelis, as they have so often done in the past. They need to be engaged so they will have incentive to refrain from such actions. The alternative is not just failure, it is a brand of radicalism that will be much worse.

Any crisis contains in it the seeds of progress. These opportunities have been routinely missed by all parties. This one has the potential for serious consequences throughout the region, as well as the potential to make any kind of peace unrealistic for years to come. That must not be allowed to happen. Israel, the US, the PA, Hamas, the UN, the Arab League, indeed, the entire world has got to allow good judgment and cooler heads to prevail in this matter. If everyone continues to only pursue their own political ends, disaster is sure to follow. But history has witnessed occasions where people with understanding of prevailing conditions and dynamics and sufficient diplomatic skill overcome politics to bring about significant progress, and it is not unusual for such things to happen just at the brink of disaster. Let’s hope that is the course that is chosen. In fact, let’s demand it.