By taking over Gaza by force, Hamas has successfully completed the process that Israel started of separating the Gaza Strip from the West Bank.
The move was rooted in unhappiness--mostly among members of the armed wing but also by some in the political leadership--with the Mecca agreement. The critics of Mecca were unhappy that Hamas had been forced to offer political concessions to Fateh, which they saw as too weak to deserve them.
In addition, plans by President Mahmoud Abbas and his newly appointed security advisor Mohammad Dahlan to reform and rehabilitate the Palestinian security services under the command of the president created an impression among Hamas cadres that their military superiority in Gaza could be in jeopardy. Ever since winning parliamentary elections, Hamas had felt that its authority was undermined by a lack of control over the security services. This led to the creation of the Executive Force, which Hamas placed above other security forces. The mooted security reforms threatened this order.
The battles in Gaza showed how weak the Palestinian Authority has become. While this weakness is a direct result of Israeli policies, including unilateralism and the deliberate targeting of the PA security infrastructure, those battles will have far-reaching consequences for the Palestinian people and cause. They shook Palestinian confidence and undermined the image of the Palestinian cause in international eyes. In addition, aftershocks will be felt on the economy and on other institutions of the PA.
Even more damaging, the fighting will lessen the likelihood of any potential international political efforts to pressure Israel into some form of compromise, especially since Israel will use the situation to further justify its unilateralism, whether in terms of continued settlement expansion, the building of the wall or the draconian closures in the West Bank.
In light of the situation, Abbas had no choice but to dismiss Haniyeh's government. Indeed, in reality this move came late. The challenge, and it is a large one, is for Fateh and the new emergency government to set an example. This must mostly happen in the security sphere. There are elements within Fateh that are already unhappy with the new government and Abbas needs to discipline his movement into working closely with Salam Fayyad and his cabinet.
In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas' takeover may soon be seen to be shortsighted. While the Islamist movement has proven itself strong militarily, it has weakened its position politically. The battles exposed the ideological and sectarian side of Hamas, and the brutality exhibited during the weeklong fighting has damaged the movement's standing among ordinary Palestinians. Hamas, it would seem, did not think of the day after.
The question of what happens next depends on a number of factors and players, including Fateh, Israel and the international community.
Fateh has to show a maturity that it has hitherto failed to exhibit, mostly in terms of imposing order on the streets and adherence to the due process of the law. Israel, meanwhile, must stop giving credibility to Hamas and discrediting Abbas in deed, if not in word.
Finally, the international community must stop seeing itself as a charity that exists only to supply humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The international community is the determining factor in any political way out--not only of this crisis but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. It has a political responsibility to take its duties seriously, most importantly in terms of implementing international law and persuading Israel to adhere to international legitimacy.
This means in the first instance that the international community must move swiftly to pressure Israel to halt its settlement expansion and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank.- Published 18/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
What happened in Gaza last week was a revolution in more ways than one. Not only was this a coup d'etat at the internal Palestinian level, but it also generated a broader revolutionary situation in our part of the Middle East. It demolished more than a few fundamental or historic assumptions about the nature and future of Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Palestinian and Palestinian-Arab relations.
Given the strategic dimension of this change we can for the moment only speculate concerning developments in the near future. Anyone who purports today to speak with authority and certainty about what's ahead is skating on thin ice.
In order to sharpen our appreciation of the issues at hand, here are two extreme scenarios for upcoming developments as seen from an Israeli perspective. The most likely course of developments almost certainly lies somewhere in between them.
At the optimistic end of the spectrum, Israel relatively successfully and peacefully manages its relations with two very different Palestinian leaderships on two fronts. In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas consolidates Fateh's control, stabilizes security and accepts to deal with Israel and the international community on behalf of the West Bank alone. The new Salam Fayyad government receives tax money from Israel and aid from Europe and America, and the West Bank prospers. Abbas begins negotiating an interim agreement with PM Ehud Olmert that involves Israeli withdrawal from territory and dismantling of additional settlements.
Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas, now in exclusive control, confronts the need to maintain security in order to continue to receive infrastructure and food supplies and export agricultural and other goods. Israel links the opening of the Gaza passages to the absence of Qassam rockets falling on Sderot and its surroundings as well as a prisoner exchange. Israel and Egypt impose an effective arms embargo. The government in Gaza confronts Palestinian public anger over its brutality and Egyptian determination to constrain it, and becomes more pragmatic.
In contrast, at the pessimistic end of the spectrum, the organizational and leadership weakness demonstrated by Abbas and Fateh in Gaza last week continues to characterize their performance in the West Bank. Hamas makes inroads there, and together with disparate elements launches terror attacks against Israel. This renders Israeli-Palestinian security, economic and political cooperation in the West Bank impossible. Meanwhile in Gaza, the dominant Hamas military wing moves from internal takeover to exporting violence to Israel. It also attacks targets in Egyptian Sinai, as Egypt fails to remedy its sloppy effort to police the Gaza-Sinai border. Israel responds with major military strikes into Gaza, where chaos and crisis spread. Iran, sensing that Israel has been put on the defensive on two Palestinian fronts, encourages its Syrian and Lebanese Shi'ite allies to launch a third.
If we do try to deal more specifically with anticipated events, it seems easier at this juncture to identify a number of much-discussed developments that are almost certain not to take place.
First, under present and likely near-term circumstances there will be no international force in Gaza. No third country will volunteer to place its troops between Israel and Hamas or (on the Gaza-Sinai "philadelphi" border) between Egypt and Hamas. For a peace-keeping force to succeed in the Middle East it needs both a peace agreement to maintain and two viable and responsible governments to work with. Hamas does not qualify. In any event, its Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, has rejected the idea.
Second, whatever new Saudi- or Egyptian-mediated efforts to reform a Palestinian unity government emerge, there will be no genuine reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas or, for that matter, between Israel and Hamas. The lines are drawn between a radical Islamist Arab regime on the shores of the Mediterranean--and the rest of us.
Third, no matter how badly Hamas treats its own people or antagonizes Israel, the latter will not permit the emergence of a total humanitarian crisis and mass starvation in Gaza.
Fourth, an Israeli-Palestinian political process confined to the West Bank could conceivably provide a helpful confidence-building boost and contribute conflict management. But given both Abbas' and Olmert's weakness and Hamas' capacity to interfere, we should not expect anything resembling a full-fledged peace process.
And finally, Israeli illusions aside, neither Egypt nor Jordan is about to take over responsibility for, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank, thereby letting Israel "off the hook". Egypt, on the contrary, is eliminating its diplomatic and military advisory presence in Gaza; hopefully, the penny has finally dropped in Cairo and the Mubarak regime will start to treat Hamas as part of the opposition to its regime.
As for Jordan, a successful re-launching of an Israeli-Palestinian political process on the West Bank could hopefully open up opportunities for closer East Bank-West Bank cooperation. But it is very doubtful that King Abdullah in Amman would be tempted to attach more Palestinians to his kingdom and reinstate their Jordanian citizenship.
Above all Israel and its Arab neighbors, along with the Europeans and Americans, now have to confront the emergence of a tiny but venal Islamist entity in their midst for which there are no quick, bloodless or easy solutions.- Published 18/6/2007 © 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
Fighting for democracy
an interview with Ayman Taher
bitterlemons: Hamas has now taken full control in Gaza. Aides to President Mahmoud Abbas have called the events in Gaza the actions of "murderers". Is there any possibility of reconciliation with Fateh?
Taher: We don't have any problem with Fateh. We are together in a struggle for liberation and we are together in the political process. The problem, from the beginning, was and still is with the group inside Fateh that was planning to undermine Hamas' election victory and is following its own agenda. This group is headed by Mohammad Dahlan and his men.
bitterlemons: What is the future of the Palestinian Authority now that Abbas has fired the government?
Taher: Hamas is committed to Palestinian unity and the unity government. This government was welcomed by all Palestinian factions, all Arab countries and some countries outside the region. We still believe it is the only choice for Palestinians. The emergency government that has been established by President Abbas is not acceptable and has no future.
It seems, however, that Abbas from the beginning has been working on destroying the Palestinian cause and separating the two sides of Palestine. He was, after all, the designer of the conspiracy called Oslo.
Nevertheless, I can affirm that the only future is with the unity government and we are still committed to it. The PA exists and Hamas will protect it and we will not allow any project that separates Gaza and the West Bank, neither geographically nor politically.
bitterlemons: Are there not, in effect, two Palestinian Authorities now, one in the West Bank and one in Gaza?
Taher: No. Palestine is one unity. The PA is still one authority and all the conspiracies that are being made and designed against it will collapse. The PA is the legitimate choice of the Palestinians.
bitterlemons: Does Hamas intend to respect the Basic Law, and, in terms of establishing law and order, will Hamas support an independent judiciary in Gaza based on that Basic Law?
Taher: Hamas has always faced a problem with Fateh, or at least the above group in Fateh, not respecting the Basic Law. From the beginning Hamas has called for respect for the law and respect for the independence of the judiciary through transparency and appointments based on merit and qualification.
bitterlemons: Hamas ran for and won democratic elections. Now it has also used force to impose its will. Is Hamas still committed to the democratic process?
Taher: We did not use force to impose our will. We used force only when necessary to protect ourselves from this group in Fateh that was planning a coup against the legitimately elected government. Hamas is the democratic choice and built the government by democratic choice. We used force to protect democracy.
This group in Fateh was threatening and killing Hamas members. We were targeted even in the mosque. We used force to defend ourselves. The coup group has now moved to the West Bank and everyone can see what they are doing there.
bitterlemons: With Hamas in control of Gaza, but Israel in control of borders, there would seem to have to be some contact between Hamas and Israel at least for practical purposes. How will Hamas deal with this issue?
Taher: There is a government here and this government will deal with this subject. From the beginning Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh gave instructions to the relevant ministries and officials to deal with their Israeli counterparts on all issues related to practical affairs. We have no problem with this issue.
bitterlemons: The Arab League and the Quartet have condemned the Gaza take-over. There is a possibility that Gaza will now be even more isolated. What plans does Hamas have to overcome this problem?
Taher: We are not trying to impose our control on Gaza. We came to power through elections. The international community imposed a siege on the will of the Palestinian people and tried to undermine its democratic choice. The international position is against democracy. Hamas is protecting the democratic choice of Palestinians. The siege has been imposed for about a year and a half and we have done our best to punch holes in the walls of this siege. We have managed. We are continuing serious contacts with Arab and European countries in order to lift the siege imposed on the Palestinians.- Published 18/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ayman Taher is a Hamas spokesman.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
by Galia Golan
It is not particularly difficult to see how we got to where we are today with regard to the Palestinians. Successive Israeli governments systematically destroyed or weakened moderate Palestinian leaderships, from the destruction of the Palestine National Front in the mid-1970s (the early champions of the two-state solution within the territories) through the total failure to undertake any measures that might have strengthened Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) as prime minister or president in the eyes of his people, all the way to the recent imprisonment of the few Hamas leaders willing to speak with Israel.
Add to this PM Ariel Sharon's successful effort to weaken and disperse the Palestinian Authority, as well as Israel's undeclared policy of separating Gaza from the West Bank, and we have the situation we are facing today. Fateh obviously carries its share of responsibility for the situation as well, through its own internal divisions, corruption and indecisiveness. Let us not forget, however, the underlying, critical matter: Israel's failure to end the occupation throughout these 40 years of increasing hardship, poverty, disappointment, loss of land and lives and hopelessness for the publics over which Hamas and Fateh are competing.
The question is: can these (and many more) mistakes of the past provide some clues as to how best to proceed for the future? With a rump "government" officially dissolved by the PA president but still presiding over Gaza, a new emergency government appointed by Abu Mazen, a legislative council dominated by Hamas but possibly also dissolved under emergency regulations (if they exist), one security force in Gaza and another one apparently maintaining its supremacy in the West Bank, and opinion seemingly divided within both Hamas and Fateh over policy--there are probably no ideal answers.
But theoretically, at least, there are a number of options for Israel (and the US and the international community). Among these are a) the introduction of an international force into Gaza (some might add, into the West Bank as well--namely a trusteeship for the territories altogether, concomitant with Israeli withdrawal to at least temporary lines); exclusive reliance upon and strengthening of Abu Mazen coupled with total isolation, boycott and pressure on Gaza; support for efforts to reconstruct the national unity government, including a lifting of the ban on Hamas subject to its demonstrating control over the various Islamic militias in Gaza and concomitant with a strengthening of Abu Mazen; and the opening of negotiations for a comprehensive settlement through the good offices of the Arab League.
The first option of an international force sounds most attractive, relieving both Israel and the Palestinians of responsibility for the Palestinian public. If this included the West Bank it would mean the end of the occupation. But of course, Israel has never shown any interest in this kind of an arrangement, and therefore it is a moot point for the West Bank.
An international force has been broached by Israel as an option for Gaza now that Hamas is in charge there. But for this very reason, it too is a non-starter: Hamas will not agree to such a limitation on its power, and no international body would be willing to take on such a task under these conditions. Conceivably, the Egyptians might agree to international strengthening of their contingents on the border (Rafah crossing, etc.), but short of an agreement with Hamas or some other body in charge of Gaza, the international community would most likely fear to establish a physical presence.
The option that has been adopted already by both Israel and the United States (with the rest of the Quartet likely to follow suit) is to strengthen Abu Mazen and isolate Haniyeh. The idea is to provide the means (primarily financial but possibly material as well) for Fateh to demonstrate its value to the Palestinian public at the expense of Hamas. This is to be done by lifting the ban on the PA and releasing the owed Palestinian funds, thereby providing sorely needed salaries for public workers (though it is not clear if these would include civil servants in Gaza).
But to win over the public, further measures would be necessary. There is talk of lifting some checkpoints and the like to ease the occupation somewhat for West Bank Palestinians, but the most effective "confidence-building measure" to endear Fateh to the public might well be a broad release of prisoners (obviously not including Hamas prisoners). Such a measure could demonstrate that Abu Mazen can "deliver"--mitigating, perhaps, the charges of Fateh "collaboration" with Israel (and the US).
The major risk in this policy, however, is the acknowledgment and possible institutionalization of the separation of the West Bank from Gaza, namely the three-state idea that would actually sabotage the creation of a Palestinian state and resolution of the conflict with Israel. The gamble would be that Abu Mazen might find a way to bring benefits for the population in Gaza (salaries for civil servants for example) without their being credited to Hamas or easing the task of ruling for Hamas. Fateh might count on Hamas' inability to rule (as it did after the elections of 2006), but isolation and hardship for the people of Gaza have already proven to benefit rather than harm Hamas vis-a-vis Fateh among Gazans.
For this reason the third option, resurrecting the national unity government and dealing also with Hamas, may be necessary. This is clearly not an ideal solution for Israel--indeed, it is one the government is most unlikely to support--but it is an option that some in Fateh (and the Arab world) nonetheless believe advisable. It would be a promising idea if it were achieved after a significant strengthening of Abu Mazen and/or the emergence of a united and strengthened Fateh leadership. Otherwise, there would simply be a repeat of the power struggle we have just witnessed in Gaza. Assuming that both options must give way ultimately to new elections in the PA, the choice must be the one that would provide the better chance for a weakening of Hamas.
The last option begs the question of split rule within the occupied territories and is based on the assumption that the end of the occupation could change the entire political picture. The Palestinians, in the form of the PLO, are part of the Arab League (listed as the "State of Palestine") where they are represented by Abu Mazen. Were Israel to agree to enter negotiations on the basis of the Arab peace initiative, and if a peace agreement were reached, we might expect a number of things.
First, Hamas would be hard put to garner a majority against an agreement that puts an end to the occupation on the basis of the two-state solution. Second, an international peace-keeping force on the borders would be far more likely in the event of a peace agreement. Third, it would be most difficult if not impossible for a rejectionist minority to persist significantly with the countries of the entire Arab world standing behind normalization, security arrangements and peace with Israel.
Of course this option could have been chosen before, and without the victory of Hamas in Gaza. But it is still an option.- Published 18/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Galia Golan is Darwin professor emerita, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, currently at the School of Government, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. She is a leading activist in Peace Now, Bat Shalom and the International Women's Commission for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.