The past week's events in and around the Gaza Strip may, in retrospect, be understood as a strategic turning point in the complex relationship linking Israel, Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Israel, by launching an economic and infrastructure siege in response to the Qassam rocket attacks, was the protagonist; but it did not control the way subsequent events unfolded.
The timing of the Israeli decision to cut petrol, gas and other supplies and close all passages to the Gaza Strip had far more to do with Israeli domestic politics than with any specific Palestinian rocket attack. After seven years of those attacks, particularly on the western Negev town of Sderot, public pressure has finally built up to a point where PM Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak feel compelled to escalate demonstrably in an effort to prove to the public that they are prepared to take risks to stop the rockets. Neither is yet prepared to order a full-scale military invasion of the Strip--an extremely risky venture, however justified it may be by Hamas's terrorist behavior. Still, the economic pressure can also be seen as a way of demonstrating to the international public and the Arab world, once Israel does invade Gaza, that it had first tried every other means of pressuring the Palestinians.
The two Ehuds' hapless economic sanctions were launched in the vain hope that they would cause the Palestinian population in Gaza to pressure the Hamas leadership to cease all Qassam fire and other attacks. The Israeli leadership appears to have calculated that Arab and international anger and pressure would be easier to countenance than the scorn of the Israeli public over the embarrassment of Sderot.
The new strategy appears to have backfired badly. First, Hamas exploited the very declaration of a cessation of fuel deliveries, turned off the electricity throughout most of the Strip, organized candle-light demonstrations and successfully focused international opprobrium on Israel to the extent that the siege was partially lifted within barely a day. Then, after an initial demonstration at the Rafah crossing into Sinai drew Egyptian gunfire, Palestinians broke through the philadelphi corridor fortifications and, while Egyptian forces look on, streamed into Sinai by the tens of thousands, mainly to purchase supplies but undoubtedly with terrorist objectives in mind too. Meanwhile, the moderate Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with which Israel is negotiating peace had no alternative but to side with the Gazan population and threaten to freeze the peace process.
Hamas in Gaza seemingly emerged holding the upper hand: it registered an inter-Arab and international propaganda victory and at least temporarily opened up a joint border with Egypt. The latter, in stepping aside while Gazans streamed into Sinai, demonstrated the outer limits of its willingness to cooperate with Israel in forcing Hamas to stop attacking Israeli civilians.
There are some strategic lessons here for Israel. First, after 40 years of trying and failing to substantially influence Palestinian behavior with economic carrots and sticks, it's time to recognize that this method doesn't work. Punishing the Palestinian population of Gaza by denying it vital goods and resources just makes it angrier at us. By the same token--Tony Blair, take notice--priming the West Bank economy with development projects, while a good thing in and of itself, will not make a real difference in the peace process.
Second, the problem with Hamas in Gaza is fast becoming a major source of friction between Egypt and Israel. True, if Egypt now agrees to leave the Rafah crossing open, in effect formalizing the unexpected twist taken by last week's drama, Israel can conceivably finally begin to end Gazan economic dependence on it, thereby conclusively "ending the occupation". But Egypt has good reasons to want the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) out of Sinai and ensure that it remains Israel's problem. It is certainly not about to enter Gaza and pacify the place as a favor to Israel. It will not "take Gaza off our hands". Besides, the current terrorist alert throughout the western Negev reflects a serious downside to an open Gaza-Egypt border.
Third, Hamas leaders have now threatened an attempt by masses of Palestinian civilians to breach the Erez crossing gates into Israel the same way they stormed through the Rafah crossing into Egyptian Sinai. The last time that threat was made was in 1949: the IDF announced it would have no alternative but to open fire and the Palestinian threat was withdrawn. Today, Israel needs to find a different response. One way or another, Israeli deterrence has failed in Gaza.
Fourth, the failure of Israel's short-lived economic siege of Gaza hastens the day when Israel launches a major military incursion, the outcome of which is difficult to predict. One reason is that the IDF is running out of alternatives, though it still has not reverted to the one tactic that many Israelis feel has proven itself in the past: targeting the Hamas leadership. Another is the fear that, if the Rafah crossing remains open, Hamas will spirit captured IDF corporal Gilad Shalit out of Gaza and all the way to Iran.
The main factor delaying such an incursion today appears to be the Winograd report on Olmert's failures of leadership and administration during the summer 2006 Lebanon war. That delay will last well beyond the January 30 publication date--until the political smoke has cleared and Israel's national leadership is solid and able to count on public support.- Published 28/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
The dramatic recent developments on the Palestinian-Egyptian border are direct and predictable results of the internationally supported Israeli siege on Gaza. It should have been expected that the mounting pressure on Gaza would cause a popular explosion. The Egyptian border was the weakest link in the prison wall, since all other escape routes, including the sea, are blocked by Israel.
That the Egyptian border should be the weakest link is not a reflection of the performance of Egyptian security. Rather it is a reflection of Egyptian and Arab public sympathy with the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and a sign of support for the challenge they pose to Israel. The Egyptian government has paid a heavy internal political price for the Israeli siege, which has not been successful in weakening Hamas but has rather backfired by stimulating public sympathy for the movement.
There is no doubt that in the short term this Hamas-orchestrated move has complicated the situation for Hamas' opponents and enemies. It has granted Hamas a notable success in finding a solution to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza created by the Israeli closure, and has given the movement leverage over the Egyptians who will need Hamas to close the border again. Equally importantly, the move managed to sabotage the plan by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Salam Fayyad-led Palestinian Authority government to take over control of the Gaza crossings, including at Rafah, which had been gaining momentum and was embarrassing Hamas.
Hamas aims to achieve international recognition and force Egypt and the PA to deal with it, something both parties have resisted so far. Egypt, which cannot live with the current situation, has two options: to use force, which needs Israeli and American cooperation; or to enter into dialogue, which needs Hamas cooperation. The political costs of the first option could be irredeemably steep, and Egyptian statements on the situation and Egypt's invitation to Hamas and Abbas for dialogue suggest Cairo will go for the second option. The price Hamas will want to extract for such a dialogue to succeed is a role in running the border crossings, especially at Rafah. If Hamas achieves this, it will count as a strategic gain for the movement, on both the political and financial levels.
In the long term, however, the current situation will play into the hands of the strategic Israeli agenda of separating Gaza from the West Bank and getting rid of its responsibility as occupier for the impoverished strip of land by throwing this particular hot potato to Egypt. The unilateral Israeli disengagement plan that was designed and executed by stricken former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon included exactly such a component to de-link Gaza from both the West Bank and Israel and thereby de facto connect it, without agreement, to Egypt. The same was supposed to happen with the populated areas of the West Bank and Jordan, once Israel's wall there was completed. That plan was interrupted by the victory of Hamas in the last Palestinian elections.
The root cause of these complications is the internal contradiction in the position of the international community. On one hand, the international community encouraged, supported and monitored fair and democratic elections in Palestine. On the other, the world refused to accept the result. What is further aggravating the situation is that the policies pursued to reverse Hamas' electoral victory have instead reinforced the factors that strengthened the movement in the first place. Palestinians suffer continued economic deterioration, there is little hope of ending the occupation through peaceful negotiations and Fateh's poor performance on the political and governance levels has not improved.- Published 28/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Where we must draw the line
by Jessica Montell
The scenes this week of tens of thousands of Palestinians streaming across the Egyptian border speak eloquently to the levels of despair in the Gaza Strip. The situation has indeed reached a crisis point, with most businesses shut down due to a lack of raw materials or ability to export, and some 80 percent of the Strip's 1.4 million people dependent on food relief from the international community. Most recently, the poverty has been compounded by disruptions in the electricity and fuel supply, imposing additional hardships for families trying to get through the winter and putting at risk all the systems that depend on electricity and fuel, including water pumping, sewage treatment and the functioning of hospitals.
This situation is not the result of an earthquake or some other natural disaster. It is the direct consequence of intentional Israeli measures. Following the Hamas takeover in June 2007, Israel closed its border crossings into Gaza and also ensured that the Rafah crossing into Egypt stayed closed. The Gaza Strip is a tiny economy, heavily dependent on the outside world for import of raw materials and basic goods and export of everything Gaza produces. Yet Israel completely halted all exports out of Gaza and only allowed import of the most essential humanitarian supplies. Even many people in need of urgent medical care inside Israel--cancer patients, heart patients, children with cystic fibrosis--were denied the necessary permits or turned back at the Erez crossing.
In September, as Palestinian militants continued to fire Qassam rockets into southern Israel, Israel escalated the sanctions on Gaza to include disruptions in the supply of electricity and fuel. Last week, the Palestinian Electric Company totally shut down the power station, citing a lack of fuel necessary to operate it. As a result, the power supply in the Gaza Strip was cut by 32 percent, causing a widespread blackout. The power station supplies electricity to Gaza's largest medical facility, Shifa Hospital, as well as the sewage treatment facility in Gaza City and dozens of wells, sewage pumps, medical clinics and schools. As electricity is needed to pump water, residents also suffered severe cutbacks in water supply.
This Israeli siege was broken suddenly and dramatically with the toppling of the Rafah fence, separating Gaza from Egypt. Although this somewhat alleviates Gaza's sense of strangulation, an economy cannot function through a hole in a fence. The Gaza Strip economy is extremely dependent on Israel--in its 38 years of direct occupation, Israel intentionally made it so. Since disengagement, Gaza has not been allowed to develop independently, as Israel controls its air space and territorial waters, all imports and exports, the taxation system and even the population registry.
Israel claims that it cannot relinquish this control, given the rocket fire and weapons smuggling. This may be the case; the question is how Israel wields its control?
Residents of Sderot and the rest of southern Israel also have a right to live in safety, a right they have not enjoyed for years. Qassam rocket fire has killed 11 people inside Israel since 2004, and forced entire communities to live in fear. Israel has the obligation to protect this population, but not by any means whatsoever. In fact, our limitations are precisely what distinguish us from the terrorists. Not every means is legitimate to protect residents of Sderot, and intentionally inflicting harm on Palestinian civilians is where we must draw the line. Sadly, Israel has not respected this distinction.
The siege on Gaza and the disruptions to the fuel supply are illegal and immoral. The vague statements that these measures are intended to only harm the militants cannot obscure the fact that the intention is to pressure Hamas by causing its civilian population to suffer. These are collective punishments, explicitly prohibited by international humanitarian law.
So long as Israel controls Gaza, it must exercise its control in a legal and lawful manner. But it is not only Israel that has legal responsibilities. Given the deep involvement of the international community--indeed, Europe is paying the humanitarian bill for Israel's collective punishments--third states must also act to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The answer lies not only in distributing medicine and bags of flour but in ensuring respect for the law.- Published 28/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Jessica Montell is executive director of B'Tselem: the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Chocolate for the children
an interview with Eyad Sarraj
bitterlemons: How has the border breach affected the situation on the ground in Gaza?
Sarraj: Well, most people are not in Gaza at the moment. Some say that almost 700,000 people have been traveling in and out of Egypt. Gaza is flooded with the things that Israel did not allow us to have before and people are swarming to the markets to buy computers, cement, lamps, oil, fuel and even windows. When Israel bombed that building in Gaza last week, all the windows in the surrounding buildings were shattered. With no windows allowed in from Israel, they could not replace them before, but now there are new windows in place.
Everything is available in the market now. From NIS40 a packet, cigarettes are now down to six. There is chocolate for the children. People are almost euphoric since they can get out of the prison, even if it is only for a short respite. People go to El Arish for a picnic, eat fish there and spend a couple of hours. Families sometimes go for the day and come back at night. Gaza is quite a dynamic place now.
bitterlemons: Some see this border breach as a major coup by Hamas. Is that how you read the situation?
Sarraj: I think whether Hamas planned it or not, the movement was instrumental in what happened. Hamas has now again proved that it is a power to be reckoned with and that if you want to talk about rockets, about [captured Israeli soldier Gilad] Shalit, about the crossings or relations with Egypt, then you have to talk with Hamas.
bitterlemons: How is this affecting Hamas' popular standing?
Sarraj: Hamas lost some of its popularity after the killing of a number of people during the Fateh anniversary demonstrations as well as certain abuses of human rights. But Hamas has become an example for Palestinians generally, because it suffers no corruption and there is a sense of security in Gaza that was never there before. Finally, people identify with Hamas as a victim of the Israeli blockade. So, while it is a mixed picture on the whole, Hamas has emerged stronger.
bitterlemons: Is there not a possibility that the current situation will lead to Egypt having to take more responsibility for Gaza and Israel taking less?
Sarraj: Of course. There is a definite Israeli plan to return the situation to that prior to the 1967 war, when Gaza was controlled by Egypt. If this happens, it will help Israel to concentrate on the West Bank and gradually bring the situation there back to pre-1967. It is not that simple of course. There are security risks for both Israel and Egypt in doing so. These two powerful parties now have to find a compromise, and they have to take account of the fact that Hamas is in control.
bitterlemons: Can Egypt afford, politically, to close the border?
Sarraj: I think it is very difficult because doing so risks an uprising in Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood is very strong there. However, Egypt also needs to consider its own security. Egypt doesn't want Palestinian fundamentalist groups to forge links with the bedouin in the Sinai, because together they can become a real headache for Egyptian security and also give Israel a pretext to take direct action in the Sinai.
bitterlemons: Is the Israeli position not equally difficult?
Sarraj: The problem for Israel is the potential security risk and I think Israel will have to come to terms with the fact that Hamas is here to stay and that it has to deal with the movement, maybe through Egypt. I doubt Israel will, but maybe it can forge a deal to at least have a ceasefire.
bitterlemons: Does this include the rocket fire?
Sarraj: If you sit with Hamas and recognize that Hamas is a major player in the game, the question of the rockets can be resolved. But if you don't, and continue to isolate the movement, the rockets will continue. There is no popular movement against the firing of rockets. How can people oppose this kind of resistance, if there is no hope of ending the occupation? Israel perpetrated a massacre last week in which 19 people, including [Hamas leader] Mahmoud Zahar's son, were killed. People cheer rockets against Israel and will continue to do so until there is hope that Israel will end the occupation and give Palestinians back their land, their rights and their freedom.
bitterlemons: What are the chances of some kind of Palestinian reconciliation?
Sarraj: Very remote. Even if Palestinians want reconciliation, I think there is strong American resistance to the idea of any dialogue with Hamas. Only if there were leaders of courage and wisdom on both sides and real belief that unity alone would help the Palestinian cause, would reconciliation be possible.
We have to consider that the real player in the game today is the fundamentalist regime in America and I don't think this border situation will persuade the US to talk to Hamas. Europeans, as far as I can see, are willing to talk to Hamas as the major power here, but the Americans will not yield. Perhaps the US will even pressure the Egyptians to close the border or perhaps Washington will simply collude with Israel to continue the siege so people will continue to flood the Sinai.- Published 28/1/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Eyad Sarraj is a political commentator and the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
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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.