The last day has been a period of grace, of partial freedom for the 1.4 million residents of the large open-air prison also known as Gaza. Gazans, used to being blockaded into 360 sq km, turned the Egyptian border towns of Rafah and El Arish into an impromptu and unlikely shopping mall/holiday resort. An initial wave of protesters met with partial resistance from the Egyptian border guards—then overnight Hamas activists apparently blew up the border barriers and by morning it was a free for all. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into the Egyptian Sinai to stock up on basic goods and supplies, to visit family and to enjoy a respite from the claustrophobia of Gaza. More than just the border barrier has been blown apart—the Israeli, Egyptian, even international and PA policy now has a very visible and big hole in it.
Events leading up to Gazan furlough day have been infuriating, first and foremost from a humanitarian perspective, but beyond that in the short-sighted and self-defeating policies of the main protagonists. The escalation of the siege in Gaza was of course inhuman but it also did nothing to improve the security of the neighboring Israeli population, undermined the peace process that was supposed to have been re-launched and weakened the ability of the Arab states to support that process.
The dire economic situation in Gaza in the last days, where there has been a lack of basic supplies and power, exacerbates an already precarious socio-economic reality in which unemployment is rife, most industries have closed down and the population is being forced to rely on international handouts. For an excellent description of the situation, read this piece by UNRWA Commissioner General, Karen Koning AbuZayd. Proponents of the siege policy claim that these conditions will turn the population against Hamas and induce a collective appreciation of a need for moderation, thereby facilitating progress towards a peace deal between Jerusalem and Ramallah and long term Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. And pigs will fly.
The Hamas control of Gaza is entrenched, and the popular support that it enjoys has not been significantly eroded. The border breakthrough made Hamas look creative and effective at playing a weak hand—correctly calculating that Egypt had no alternative but to respond with resignation. The public undoubtedly is angry but that anger (and if you can’t understand this than you are a Vulcan or a Washington Post editorial writer) is directed primarily against Israel. And after that Israel’s American backers, Israel’s interlocutors in Ramallah, and Israel’s friends in the Arab world. Abbas and his capacity to conduct peace negotiations with Israel has been weakened as a consequence of this policy. The Arab states who participated in the Annapolis gathering are embarrassed and cowering in the face of criticism across the Arab media, which is being led by the various offshoots of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brothers.
Palestinian division rather than being a building block for a successful peace process actually looks like one of its greatest obstacles. While we’re at it, let’s debunk a couple of other myths. Some have argued that the supplies into Gaza are not Israel’s responsibility since Israel evacuated the area. By maintaining control of the external envelope of borders (land, sea and air around Gaza) either directly or indirectly by dictating terms to Egypt, Israel in effect places itself in the position of continuing to have the obligations and responsibilities of an occupying power. More to the point, it was Israel’s actions that so integrated the Gazan economy and Gazan infrastructure with that of Israel over the last forty years. Gaza was a pool of cheap commuter labor and an independent Gaza infrastructure of power generation, of ports and airports, was either prevented, kept to a minimum or destroyed. Today, some in the Israeli media and defense establishment have been suggesting that Israel should turn this development to its advantage, make supplies to Gaza Egypt’s problem, thereby completing the disengagement from Gaza that began in the summer of 2005. That approach might have some merit over the long term but the integration of Gazan and Israeli infrastructure (a product of Israeli policy) practically cannot be switched-off overnight and there is also the need, eventually, to reconnect Gaza with the West Bank—a signed Israeli commitment.
What about the argument that any easing of the closure on Gaza and any ceasefire deal with Hamas would serve to legitimize their rule and undermine the Ramallah government. The premise here is all wrong. It is not for Israel or the international community to confer legitimacy on Hamas, the Palestinian public did that when they elected a majority of Hamas members to the Palestinian Legislative Council. One can disagree with Hamas’s positions and their tactics, and this writer certainly does, but the policy that has been pursued since the PLC elections of January 2006 wasted an opportunity to begin to reframe relations with a Hamas leadership who had won the internal argument and pursued electoral politics and government responsibilities as a preferred strategy. The more militant wing of Hamas that opposed political participation is now arguing that it has been vindicated. That is not an outcome that Israeli, American or European policymakers should be proud of. Even more worrying, and predictable, and a consequence of the policy pursued, is that a space is increasingly emerging in the Palestinian territories for an al-Qaeda ideology and presence to develop.
Hamas can be the bulwark that prevents the spread of al-Qaedaism but its ability to do so is compromised under the current circumstances. The Iraq war and mismanagement of Middle East policy by the US in the last years has already contributed to the spread of al-Qaeda type cells and attacks from Iraq into Jordan, the refugee camps of Lebanon and the Egyptian Sinai. And it almost seems as if everything is being done to reproduce that “success” in the Palestinian territories. For a very useful piece contrasting Hamas with al-Qaeda read this essay that has been written by Khalid Amayreh for the Conflicts Forum NGO.
Finally what about the claim that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and rearm? From a very narrow military perspective it may well be reasonable to assert that absent constant IDF pressure Hamas will be able to go some way towards increasing its arsenal. The key point here though is that the Israeli military confrontation with Hamas is asymmetrical and will remain asymmetrical even if there is a slightly larger Hamas stockpile of rockets. Hamas is not about to start smuggling F16s, submarines and tanks through the Rafah tunnel network. Using that asymmetry is what has allowed Hamas to create a degree of balance of deterrence and that is not going to change. Israel’s most senior political and military leadership know that they have no military solution, that is why they are constantly deferring the pressure to launch a large scale ground invasion and why Israel has maintained what is essentially an agreed rules of the game posture vis-à-vis Hamas, in between escalatory cycles. Hamas has not attacked Israeli civilian targets but has not prevented others from doing so and has only fleeting used its longer range rockets, while Israel has not gone after Hamas leaders or government structures. This was all broken in the last days but at a minimum, those previous rules of the game point the way to a more far-reaching set of understandings that could be reached between Israel and Hamas.
Israel has to look beyond the securito-crat consideration of a limited increase in rocket stockpiles and has to start thinking more strategically. A ceasefire could provide a respite for Sderot and the communities in southern Israel. It could also pave the way for a prisoner exchange deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit. A ceasefire combined with conditional lifting of the closure, could incentivize Hamas to prevent others from launching attacks from Gaza while strengthening the more pragmatic leadership within Hamas who advocate a political path and would squeeze the space within which al-Qaeda wannabes are beginning to organize. This kind of a broad ceasefire would then create far more conducive conditions for pursuing peace negotiations with President Abbas, especially if an internal Palestinian dialogue is re-launched in parallel.
The new situation on the Gaza-Egypt border in any case necessitates a re-think: who will control that border in the future, can it be hermetically re-sealed. This presents an opportunity for the 4 concerned parties—Egypt, Hamas, Israel and the PA—to indirectly agree on border crossing arrangements—this could expand to a broader Fatah-Hamas dialogue and facilitate understandings with Israel. Zvi Bar’el suggests in Ha’aretz that Egypt “will have to get the Palestinian Authority and Hamas talking again.”
The three conditions that Israel had the international community impose on Hamas after their election victory were a brilliant diplomatic victory and simultaneously a debilitating strategic own-goal. The focal issue should have been security and that can still be addressed via pursuit of a ceasefire. Some or all of this logic has guided several Israeli ministers and former senior officials to recently advocate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The alternative is not only more human suffering and the continued pursuit of an ethically very un-Jewish collective punishment of the Gazan population but also the risk that an escalatory cycle keeps escalating, dragging everyone into a wider clash. As today’s Egyptian border crossing events prove, what happens in Gaza will not stay in Gaza.