The violence in and around Gaza and the resignation of the PA unity government minister of defense reflect across-the-board failure in a number of dimensions: internal Palestinian, Israeli, Arab and international.
From the internal Palestinian standpoint, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August-September 2005 presented Palestinians with a golden opportunity to prove that they know what to do with territorial contiguity delivered by Israel and economic opportunities offered by the international community. They failed abjectly to make a success out of it, as they have failed at state-building since 1994.
Second, Hamas as an Islamist movement has failed at governing. This is a significant and sorry development for Arab Islamists. In January 2006 Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, became the first Islamist movement elected to rule an Arab political entity and allowed to take office. Gaza became the seat of the Hamas government because that is where the movement is strongest and safest. Israel and the international community presented reasonable conditions for interacting with Hamas. The latter responded by refusing to talk to Israel and by persisting with terrorism and acts of war.
Perhaps most significant are the accounts of Hamas’ attitude in the recent fighting inside Gaza. It invoked extreme violence and cruelty, dealing with secular, i.e., Fateh-oriented Palestinians, as non-believers. This has inevitably exacerbated the divisions within Palestinian society and led its secular majority to call almost openly for Israel to reoccupy the Strip and cleanse it of extremists.
The Arab world has failed in Gaza as well. Egypt’s extended efforts to mediate between the factions there, whether in Gaza City or Cairo, have never gotten beyond temporary ceasefires. Saudi Arabia appeared to be more efficient and successful in producing the Mecca agreement and the unity government, but its efforts largely went up in smoke last week. The Arab League’s peace initiative is virtually meaningless unless and until a united and moderate Palestinian interlocutor is on board.
The Americans have failed, too. The Dayton plan to beef up Palestinian security forces loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas has, as predicted here, led to an escalation of Hamas-Fateh violence in Gaza, with Hamas still clearly holding the upper hand. And the Quartet, i.e., the international community, has failed. The three conditions for interacting with Hamas did not appreciably soften its positions, while the economic boycott has impoverished Palestinians yet left Hamas indifferent–indeed, triumphant, insofar as it has succeeded in financing its operations with the help of Iran and sympathetic Islamists in the Gulf.
Israel’s failure regarding Gaza goes deeper. Israel never seriously tried to uphold the Oslo provision according to which the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are a single entity. Its fear of facilitating terrorist collaboration between extremists in the two territories is justified. But it never really bothered to contemplate how the positive economic and political benefits of a physical link (a road on stilts or a tunnel) between them might offset the security risks.
In fact, Israel never came to terms with the need for Gaza-West Bank integration in order to avoid what Gaza is now becoming: a desperate case, a Somalia, and a nightmare for Israel. Had it allowed the European Union or Japan to build that link ten years ago, it would today confront an integrated Palestinian entity totally dependent on it for its physical existence, hence having a vested interest in peace and quiet. It would still be able to cut that link at will with a platoon of border police if and when security in either territorial component deteriorated. Today, despite the dismal outlook for Gaza, or perhaps because of it, the land-link option remains open, though obviously it offers no solace in the short term.
Indeed, in the short term all the options look doubtful. Drop the three conditions and talk to Hamas? It would probably respond by persisting in its refusal to talk to Israel, while such a move would undermine Fateh and its leader Abbas. Yet the latter has proven he is neither a worthy rival of Hamas nor a partner for getting things done with Israel. Extend the ceasefire unilaterally to the West Bank even as Hamas continues to attack Israelis, in the hope it will desist? The risk that this will be seen as yet another Israeli gesture of weakness, thereby encouraging more violence, is daunting.
Quarantine Gaza and seek a separate deal with Abbas on the West Bank? It’s hard to imagine Palestinians will go for such an option, insofar as it threatens to partition the PA permanently. Besides, Gaza cannot be safely quarantined; it will find ways to attack us even as it becomes more extreme and possibly falls under al-Qaeda’s influence.
Nor is international custodianship a viable option. No country is likely to volunteer its forces to restore order in Gaza, risking large-scale losses. Similarly, the Israeli military option promises heavy IDF casualties. Israelis have no urge to reoccupy Gaza for any length of time. And the moment the IDF withdraws, the entire bloody Gaza saga is liable to start up again.
On the other hand, Hamas should not be surprised–when it attacks Israel and Fateh simultaneously, ignores Egypt and targets the American plan to improve security in Gaza–if all these actors coordinate their counteroffensive against it. It is instructive to note how the militant Islamist menace sharpens the thinking of old enemies.