Gaza won't go away
Ian Black, The Guardian. May 13, 2008
The Gaza Strip is the elephant in the room of the Middle East's longest-running crisis, effectively ignored by all participants in the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process despite the knowledge that without its involvement, peace in any meaningful sense is simply unattainable.
George Bush's latest (and probably last) swing through the region, first to Israel to take part in its 60th anniversary celebrations, then on to Arab allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will not change that. Israel, backed by the US, has opposed any dealings with the Islamist movement Hamas since it won free and fair elections in January 2006, and has implemented a punishing blockade of Gaza and its 1.5 million people since the Hamas takeover of the strip from the Palestinian Authority (PA) last June.
The basis for the boycott, supported by the EU and Britain as well as, in effect, by the PA and its Arab supporters, are the "Quartet" conditions that Hamas has failed to fulfill: end violence, recognise Israel, and respect existing peace agreements (signed by the PLO).
The "president's theory", as US national security adviser Stephen Hadley put it with doubtless unintended irony in a pre-trip briefing, is that "if the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis can come to agreement for a framework for a two-state solution and for the outlines of a Palestinian state, that will open the door for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And at that point, President Abbas will be able to go to the people in Gaza and say, you have a choice: you can have the kind of life that you have under the oppression, really, of Hamas - and as we all know how difficult the situation is for a Palestinian in Gaza - or you can be part of a Palestinian state, which is what we want and what Palestinians want. And at that point, the people of Gaza will have a choice to make."
That's a brief summary of the idea that by "showcasing" the quality of Palestinian life and freedoms in the West Bank, Gaza will be won over. Yet its most fervent supporters have done far too little make it happen. The Annapolis talks (a "virtual peace process" is a good description) have got nowhere slowly, and as the congenitally optimistic Tony Blair has found, it has been an uphill struggle to persuade Israel's hawkish defence minister, Ehud Barak, to remove even a handful of the 600 or so roadblocks and checkpoints that make daily Palestinian movement so difficult and humiliating.
As even US officials complain privately, Israel still has strong objections to arming the Palestinian security forces it ostensibly wants to take over. And settlement activity has of course continued apace, as it always has since the Oslo agreement with the PLO back in 1993. Israel has faced no significant pressure on these key issues.
Leaving aside the moral and legal implications of what the UN has repeatedly condemned as collective punishment, another problem with the Bush "theory" is that despite Gaza's catastrophic humanitarian crisis, documented exhaustively by the UN, independent NGOs and journalists, there has been no significant drop in Hamas's levels of support - a healthy 43% in March according to the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki after a decline that followed last June's violent takeover.
It is worth noting nevertheless that a propaganda war is going on alongside the Qassam rockets and targeted killings. How else to explain Palestinian attacks on the Israeli border terminal delivering fuel to Gaza? It is hard to avoid the impression that Hamas military chiefs are taking a Leninist approach to the crisis and want to goad the Israelis into a new and large-scale ground incursion rather than sign up to the Egyptian-brokered tahdiya (calm) that could become a long-term hudna (ceasefire). In parallel, Barak and his generals clearly have their doubts too.
Exchanges on Cif about the Hamas charter and attitudes towards antisemitism and the Holocaust provide sobering evidence of some of the more toxic aspects of its ideology. But it is fundamentally a political not a religious movement that owes its support in large measure to the failures, corruption and incompetence of the PLO - and the absence of hope for a just peace settlement.
And that is why the only way forward, in line with the demand of Fatah activists like Qadura Fares and the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, is an inter-Palestinian dialogue to heal the bitter rift between Hamas and the Ramallah-based mainstream. The Saudis, as they did in Mecca last year, would and could help with this, with plenty of spare cash to sweeten any deal.
A ceasefire and a role for the PA at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt would be significant steps in the right direction. And if Hamas and Islamic Jihad are no longer firing rockets into Israel it will be far easier for those advocating dialogue and a softening of the Quartet conditions to get their way. (They would be supported by several former luminaries of the Israeli defence establishment who have argued for pragmatic engagement rather than isolation, recognising that peace with the Palestinians cannot be built on Palestinian divisions.) Opinion polls in Israel also show support for talks with Hamas.
Neither Bush nor Blair dare visit the Gaza Strip but on any clear-eyed, practical view the continuing blockade can only contribute to more suffering, desperation and hatred. Gaza is a daily reminder that the Palestinians and their problems will not just go away - and a timely one as Israel marks its 60th anniversary. The elephant in the room is also the ghost at the feast.