The scenes playing out in Gaza are reminiscent of those we’ve seen too many times before. The pictures are so common, in fact, that they have come to define the Palestinian reality in the West: masked young men ducking behind walls firing semi-automatic weapons, emptying their clips into distant buildings or at other young armed men behind other walls. These are matched by pictures of women and children running for shelter from the deadly thugs. This time, of course, is different because the shooting is all part of a blind and pointless fratricidal war.
And toward what end?
So the gunmen in Gaza have won, but what exactly have they won? While their spokesmen may proclaim the reign of justice and Islamic law and "victory over traitors," reality suggests otherwise. This was no more than one armed gang beating another. Describing your thuggery in religious terms doesn’t make it so. The desolate Gaza Strip has already been cut off of the world. With Hamas in control, calls for greater isolation will only intensify. One and a half million innocent lives will be trapped in what has become the world’s largest concentration camp, where despair, anger, lawlessness, and violence have been turned inward with deadly consequence.
The young men, whose brains have become so deadened and despairing of the possibility of living a real life, now think with their guns. It is easy to condemn their wanton violence. But more to blame are their leaders, at home and abroad, who are directing this national suicide mission.
This much is true; but also culpable here are those who set the stage on which this tragedy is playing out.
Israel’s callous and brutal strangulation of Gaza for the last two years only compounded its earlier, almost four decades of de-development and depraved indifference to the needs of Gaza’s people. And while the U.S. still speaks of its support for two states and Palestinian moderates, one might well ask "exactly what have you done to advance that goal and support moderation?" At every turn in the last seven years, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to Israel’s aggressive expansion in the West Bank and its systematic humiliation of the people there, and its assault on Gaza. In this context, it was plainly stupid for the administration to allow their ideology to trump reality and insist that Palestinians hold parliamentary elections, and then reject not only their inevitable outcome, but also frustrate Saudi efforts to reconcile that outcome with the demands of the international community.
It was the U.S.’s use of carrots and sticks (Israel got the carrots, Palestinians got the sticks) that helped set the stage for this disaster. And now what?
While some Israeli and U.S. commentators now flippantly speak of a "two-state solution" – meaning Gaza and the West Bank – neither will ever be sovereign in any real sense of the word. Make no mistake about it, there is no silver lining here. One and half million in Gaza will pay a bitter price; and the Palestinans of the West Bank will continue to languish in tiny cantons locked in by walls and fences, expanding settlements and checkpoints. (Note: if Washington had really wanted to help President Abbas, it would have made it clear long ago that the Israelis needed to end these. They still should, but I’m not holding my breath.)
Having said this, an urgent need exists to address this unfolding crisis. While Hamas and its foreign patrons must be condemned, this cannot be done at the expense of Gaza’s people. An international mechanism must be put in place to provide emergency and continuing assistance. And Abu Mazen must be supported not just with words but real deeds (and not too publicly by the U.S., whose embrace more often hurts than helps). As distasteful as it may be for some, efforts must still be made to bring about Palestinian unity. This will not be easy given the bloodletting and the dehumanization of each side by the other, but given the realities of Palestinian society, there can be no "victor" only "vanquished." Nor should Gaza cannot be left to Iran and other extremist elements, and Gaza’s people must not be abandoned. The way forward is not so much to tighten the noose around Hamas, but to concretely demonstrate to Palestinians the benefits that national unity and peace can bring.
Who can take the lead here? It is time for the Arab States and the E.U. to assert themselves more vigorously. They must see in this disaster a wake-up call: the house that Israel and U.S. policy have built is collapsing; extremists rule the streets, and not only in Gaza. And the catastrophes still to come will have far-reaching consequences. The choice is clear: it’s either leadership, or mounting losses.