By Ghassan Khatib
Since the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza some nine months ago, the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have all seemed to follow roughly the same strategy to reverse both Hamas’ control over Gaza and the parliamentary election results of two years ago. This strategy has simultaneously sought to weaken Hamas and empower the Palestinian "peace camp" led by Fateh and President Mahmoud Abbas.
The strategy has been articulated in different statements and speeches by US President George W. Bush, advocated verbally by Israel and pursued by both the US and Israel as well as the PA. It comprises several components. Overall, the strategy seeks to make the "West Bank model" more attractive to Palestinians than the "Gaza model". The idea is to do this by imposing political and economic sanctions on Hamas in Gaza and at the same time providing increased economic aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and, possibly, through the PA to Gaza. Finally, the strategy is to re-launch a political process of the kind that would empower Abbas politically, partly by reducing Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to improve the conditions for Palestinians there.
Hand-in-hand with the strategy came a proposal by Abbas that early elections should be held before national unity and order could be restored. This, of course, was assuming that the above strategy would work to shift public opinion and ensure victory for the opponents of Hamas.
Nine months on the strategy needs to be revised, with all indications showing that it is failing. Hamas has been able to survive not only by depending on the use of force, but also because it has pursued policies and practices that have earned the movement public support.
For a start, the sanctions on Gaza were just that. Rather than target Hamas, they targeted all Gazans, thus forging solidarity between the people and the movement. In addition, the sanctions were easily fingered by Hamas as the primary cause of Gazan misery. Finally, when the siege became too draconian, Hamas masterfully orchestrated the breach of the Egyptian border, something that afforded the movement immense public goodwill.
At the same time, Israel consciously stymied any success of the "West Bank-model", and the occupation has instead embedded itself deeper there. The failure of the Annapolis process to achieve any tangible results, as well as the continuation of Israeli measures to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank by expanding settlements, restricting movement and fragmenting the territory, have in fact almost reversed the stated aims of the above strategy. Public opinion polls show that the long-term trend of increased public support for Hamas and decline in support for Fateh and the peace camp continues.
The strategy therefore needs to be revised from its fundamentals. The alternative is to go back to the Mecca model and pursue an inclusive, rather than exclusionist, strategy. Had the Mecca agreement been pursued properly, this inclusive strategy could have maintained Palestinian unity and kept at least the relatively moderate elements in Hamas closer to the PA and the peace camp.
More importantly, an inclusive strategy would have continued the trend of moderation in the political thinking and positions of Hamas that was already evident. Witness the difference in the platform of the unity government and that of the Hamas government that preceded it. The unity government endorsed the Arab peace initiative and committed the government to already signed agreements. There is little doubt that the survival of the unity government would have resulted in a much healthier situation than the present one.
In analyzing why the relevant parties instead chose to pursue a self-defeating strategy, the motives of the most important party, Israel, must be investigated. Perhaps the key to understanding what went wrong is to realize that Israel in fact has no interest in empowering Mahmoud Abbas or the Palestinian peace camp. Nor has Israel any interest in encouraging an effort that would reverse the political and geographical split that now exists between the West Bank and Gaza.
This in mind, the international community and the Palestinian Authority need to devise a strategy independent of Israel, one that seeks to encourage, or at least not oppose, a Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue. Such a dialogue should reduce the negative domestic effects of the current split and go some way toward improving the internal political situation. That, in turn, is a prerequisite for any progress in the peace process.- Published 31/3/2008 © 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. (This article was originally published in Bitterlemons – www.bitterlemons.org – March 31, 2008)