The Israeli, Palestinian and international boycott of Hamas and its government since the Palestinian elections in 2006 has backfired and is defeating its purpose.
For a start, the boycott enabled the Hamas-led government to argue that the international community and Israel have double standards and are not honestly committed to the principles of democracy. It also enabled Hamas to further discredit and consequently weaken Fateh and the peace camp by placing them in the same category as the enemies of the Palestinian people, Israel and its staunch supporters, especially the US.
Those in Washington and Tel Aviv who designed the strategy for the post-Hamas election victory period repeated a mistake Israel has made often over the last four decades. They failed to sufficiently take into account the effect Palestinian-Israeli relations have on Palestinian public opinion and assumed that economic measures, whether of reward or sanction, override Palestinian political aspirations.
The international community justified its boycott because of the Hamas government's refusal to adhere to the three conditions of the Quartet: to renounce violence, honor previous agreements and recognize Israel. That justification wore a little thin when Abbas convinced Hamas, or at least a significant part of the Hamas leadership, to partake in a national unity government and accept a political platform that more or less adhered to those conditions.
The same mistakes are now being repeated again after Hamas' military takeover of the Gaza Strip in June. But this time the mistakes are magnified because not only is Hamas being boycotted, all Gazans are being isolated. It is not difficult to argue that what Hamas did in Gaza in June was completely illegitimate, whether by international or Palestinian standards. The question is what is the best strategy to deal with this reality.
The economic boycott of Gaza, which seems to be the preferred strategy, is again backfiring. First, it is causing further economic deterioration, poverty and unemployment and thus simply reinforcing one of the factors of radicalization in recent years. Second, it creates a sense of victimization among Gazans in general and a feeling that they are subject to collective punishment, this time not only from Israel.
And while it is true that the latest poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed a decline in public support for Hamas and the Haniyeh government and an increase in the support for Fateh and its leaders, that is not a result of any positive evaluation of Fateh. Rather it is a reaction to the brutal way Hamas' takeover of Gaza unfolded. We might have witnessed a greater decline in support for Hamas had there been greater interaction, rather than less, at all levels between the outside world and Gazans. The boycott, it is true, has weakened Hamas, but equally it has weakened all parties in Gaza.
There are two basic facts that need to be understood before arriving at a meaningful strategy. The first is that Hamas rule in Gaza is not something that can be reversed quickly or easily. Hamas has shown that not only is it militarily superior in Gaza, it has strong public support and, as elections showed, is very politically adept.
Secondly, the only people who can overcome Hamas in Gaza are Gazans. They thus need to be empowered politically and economically. That cannot happen by neglecting and boycotting the entire population as is happening now.
It is easy to understand why Israel would want to boycott Gaza and only allow the minimum of humanitarian supplies into the impoverished strip of land. It is harder to understand why other countries, as well as Palestinians in the West Bank, go along with this misguided policy of not differentiating between Hamas and Gazans.
It is only by enhancing relations with the people of Gaza that Hamas may be exposed and the balance between Hamas and the peace camp can be altered.- Published 3/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
The idea that Israel can manipulate the direction of Palestinian public opinion and Palestinian attitudes toward peace through the use of economic carrots and sticks is as old as the occupation itself. Back in 1967, Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, supported by Shimon Peres, initiated the open door policy aimed at integrating the Palestinian and Israeli economies by encouraging Palestinians to work in Israel. Dayan reasoned that close economic dependency would prevent Palestinians from contesting Israeli occupation by force.
During Likud rule in Israel in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when the PLO continued to oppose a peace process with Israel and Israel did nothing to encourage it, the prevailing assumption held that economic benefits for the West Bank and Gaza were the best insurance against active Palestinian opposition to Israel's rule.
Yet again, after the signing of the Oslo declaration of principles in September 1993, Israeli and Palestinian economists set about negotiating a joint economic framework. It was based on the assumption--this time with the active agreement of the Palestinian leadership--that close economic integration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would benefit the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process by providing maximum economic benefit to the PA.
In all these instances, the assumed link between prosperity and progress toward peace and stability was proven wrong. Prosperity, the "carrot", was there--but not peace. The first and second intifadas broke out at times of relative economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian national political factor, opposition to Israeli settlement expansion and the resolve of extremist Palestinian organizations to prevent unacceptable compromises with Israel were stronger than a "full stomach".
We are presently witnessing yet another attempt to manipulate the Palestinian economy in order to achieve a desired political outcome--this time with sticks as well as carrots. Once again, the moderate PLO leadership subscribes to the strategy, as does the United States and to a large extent the European Union. The idea is to make Palestinians in Gaza miserable by denying them all but the most basic food and medicine needed to stay alive while simultaneously delivering on prosperity and a peace process in the West Bank, to the point where the Gazans turn on their Hamas rulers and somehow dismiss or remove them.
By cooperating in an economic boycott of a portion of his own people, albeit with the best of intentions, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is by any standard walking on thin ice. He will have to emerge from his biweekly meetings with PM Ehud Olmert with a truly outstanding declaration of principles and noticeable progress toward restoring security and prosperity in the West Bank in order even to put the boycott of Gaza to the test and determine whether this concept of an economic stick works with Palestinians.
But that kind of political achievement is very doubtful. And everything we have learned about the Palestinian attitude toward manipulation by economic incentives and disincentives tells us that the boycott of Gaza will fail.
At the level of public opinion, Palestinians in Gaza are more likely to blame the PLO for their misery than Hamas, which from all reports has already far exceeded the PLO's poor performance in terms of delivering on law and order in Gaza. If called to the polls, Gazans' votes will more likely be based on the argument that the PLO never gave Hamas a fair chance to govern than on anger at Hamas. Besides, recent Palestinian public opinion surveys appear to indicate that Palestinians will in any case reject the compromises Abbas negotiates with Israel. And if none of the above happens, Hamas will fall back on violence--suicide bombings in Israel, assassinations in the West Bank--to thwart Abbas' designs, while the latter will once again prove impotent to restore security no matter how well the West Bank economy is doing.
Better to abandon this strategy, which in any case is hard to "fine tune", before the first CNN and al-Jazeera coverage of starving children emerges from Gaza. That outcome is as inevitable as Israeli bullets and rockets, fired with the best of intentions at interdicting terrorists, sooner or later killing Gazan children. Better to revert to a policy that invokes closure of Gaza's borders solely on the basis of Israel's legitimate security concerns. If those concerns are not satisfied, we may be facing a major military escalation against Hamas. If they are, we should trade with Gaza, help market its cherry tomatoes and flowers in Europe and allow it to import non-lethal goods.
None of these alternatives is likely to persuade Hamas to pursue a real path of coexistence with us. But neither, by the same token, will they make any difference to the success or failure of the West Bank peace process.- Published 3/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A delicate balance
by George Giacaman
It is no secret that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority leadership are participating in the boycott of Gaza, in the hope that this will turn the population against Hamas. A recent declaration by President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) gives an idea about the general drift. Local newspapers quoted him as saying that he is for opening the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, provided it is not under the control of Hamas.
Who is in control and who cooperates with Hamas is the key to the boycott. But this is not as straightforward a matter as it may appear at first sight, since a delicate balance will have to be made between the continuation of basic services to the population and boycotting Hamas if it controls them. This is the dilemma facing the PLO and PA leadership: keep the siege against Hamas without losing the support of the million and a half that live in Gaza, or risk generating a humanitarian crisis that might put an end to the boycott of Hamas.
The balance is difficult to keep, and the result is a series of crises related to basic services: electricity, hospital services, garbage collection and soon, treatment or disposal of waste water which most likely will be dumped in the sea if the boycott continues.
More recently, Fateh supporters in Gaza, who have by no means disappeared, have resorted to tactics reminiscent of those of the first intifada, including "civil disobedience": demonstrations, marches, strikes and most recently, Friday prayers in the streets and not in mosques controlled by Hamas. One would wish those had been the tactics throughout the second intifada as well.
In a sense therefore, the people of Gaza are held hostage in this tug of war between Hamas and Fateh, and it is they who are paying the higher price. It is not without some irony that both sides are vying for the hearts and minds of the very victims of this struggle.
But the boycott by itself is not likely to bring Hamas down. This I think is well understood by the PA and PLO leadership. For what brought Hamas to power in the first place were the failures of the PA, especially on two counts: rampant corruption in some quarters of Fateh and the PA and failure of the political process with Israel and the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
It is therefore no accident that the PA and PLO leadership is trying to remedy the situation, in so far as it can, by seeking to achieve a political breakthrough with Israel that it hopes is sufficiently convincing to the Palestinian public, thus turning the tables on Hamas. The strategy then, is the old two-pronged "pincer" maneuver: boycott and siege, combined with a determined effort to achieve clear political results.
This is a high-stakes game. If there is one moral to be drawn from the failure of the Oslo process and the Camp David talks that were held in July 2000 it is that no new political process is likely to succeed without first agreeing on where the process is going, the end result or "final status" issues as they were called by the Oslo agreements. This indeed is Abu Mazen's strategy. Since he was elected in January 2005, he has never tired of repeating his opposition to another open-ended process replicating the failed one.
In a sense therefore, the PA leadership, and Abu Mazen especially, are putting their careers on the line. It's a make-or-break-situation. There is also a double tragedy here: the Palestinian public, in Gaza especially, is held hostage in the struggle between Hamas and Fateh. But equally, the PA leadership is itself hostage to Israeli and US intransigence for it is they who can tip the scales, not through siege and boycott, but by putting an end to the 40-year old occupation, the last vestige of settler-colonialism in the world today.- Published 3/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a political analyst and teaches in the MA Program in Democracy and Human Rights and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University. A collection of his writings from the second intifada will appear in 2008.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Determination and sensitivity
by David Brodet
"Determination and sensitivity" was the prevailing slogan in Israel during implementation of the disengagement plan in August 2005. It expressed the attitude demanded of Israel's security forces toward removal of the settlers from the Gaza Strip. In fact, it is a fair description of the dilemmas surrounding Gaza today, two years later.
The Gaza Strip as a geographic-economic unit depends entirely on its neighbors, primarily Israel and to a lesser extent Egypt. It lacks even minimal capacity to sustain itself. Basic infrastructure is provided by Israel: electricity relies on the Israeli grid or Israeli-supplied fuel, Israeli-supplied water is required in addition to local supply, and petrol and gas are imported in their entirety from Israel. Israeli ports are the supply source for imported goods, particularly basic goods. Fresh food is supplied in part by local agriculture that itself relies mainly on Israeli input; milk products and other agricultural goods are imported directly from Israel.
Gaza, then, has virtually no indigenous economic capacity. This is the outcome of the many years of Israeli presence in Gaza, though it was also the reality there during the Egyptian presence prior to the Six-Day War of 1967.
Gaza is easily placed under siege and boycott. Its only land links are to Israel and Egypt, and it has no naval or air transport capacity. Its 1.4 million inhabitants cannot live for even a few days without supplies from Israel or Egypt. Its per capita production is estimated at $700 per annum.
Since mid-June 2007, when Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip, Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the international community have maintained a policy of brinkmanship vis-a-vis the Hamas regime there. A full-fledged economic siege is not being applied for fear of starving the population and creating a huge humanitarian crisis that violates the sensitivities of world opinion. The dilemma is whether to exercise the full extent of economic power in order to bring down the Hamas regime by starving the population ("determination") or to maintain supplies of food, medicines, fuel, electricity and the like at a minimal level short of causing a humanitarian disaster while still signaling the local population that it is paying a heavy price for Hamas' rule in terms of daily necessities ("sensitivity").
For some two months now, the policy has ranged between determination and sensitivity, with fluctuations in both directions. Israel permits minimal supply of goods and completely prevents agricultural exports, an important source of employment and income. Interruptions in fuel supply during August that generated an electricity shortage lasted only briefly because the European Union, which pays the bill, capitulated to international pressure, thereby illustrating the limits of "determination".
In the West Bank, the PA faces a huge dilemma in explaining to the Palestinian public its support for an economic siege that inflicts suffering on fellow Palestinians in Gaza. For its part, the Hamas government is of course trying to play on the world's sensitivity by exaggerating the crisis, arguing that Gaza's poor population has fallen victim to hostile and cruel neighbors. In contrast, the anti-Hamas forces--Israel, the PA, the US and part of Europe--are looking for the sensitive balancing point that might keep the suffering at a level short of humanitarian crisis while bringing the population to appreciate the uselessness of supporting Hamas even as it splits Palestinian society and prolongs regional violence. This is a contest of nerves to see who blinks first.
There can be no doubt that a policy of siege, even if measured, can over time hurt the local population to a point where in its frustration it will pressure the Hamas government. While the Palestinian population has over the years displayed considerable capacity to absorb such blows, particularly during the second intifada that began in 2000, the reality we have described here is worse than anything experienced in the past. Ongoing economic pressure over the coming months and into winter will exacerbate the Hamas government's dilemma and increase the pressure on the part of anti-Hamas elements. The economic "breaking point" could be softened if it emerges that the political contacts currently underway that are expected to climax in a planned international conference in November 2007, bear fruit and point to a different way. Indeed, this may be the only policy that can succeed.- Published 3/9/2007 © bitterlemons.org
David Brodet is former director general of the Ministry of Finance. He headed the Israeli delegation that negotiated the Paris protocols in 1993-94.
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