Breaking the Gazan Impasse

The most important news photo from Israel this week was the one that didn't appear. It would have shown 40,000 unarmed Palestinian marchers, children and women and men, pouring through a gap trampled in the border fence around Gaza toward Israeli troops. With tear gas failing to work its dark magic in the rain, with the crowd pushing forward past those felled by rubber bullets, Israeli commanders—half panicked, half agonized—would have ordered their men to aim live fire at the marchers' feet. Ineluctably, some of the shots would have hit higher. The footage would have shown people kneeling next to the fallen. It might have shown the crowd still marching forward.

It didn't happen. Instead, newspapers in Israel the next day showed pictures of a 10-year-old Israeli boy lying wounded in the southern town of Sderot, his shoulder torn by shrapnel from a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip. Next to him kneeled his eight-year-old sister, her hand on his forehead to calm him as they waited for an ambulance. At least for now, the Hamas government of Gaza and its allies proved unable or unwilling to use nonviolent confrontation even as a one-time tactic.

Instead, the "ballistic intifada" of rocket fire continues, as do Israel's siege of the Strip and its raids and air attacks inside the enclave. Each side is imposing suffering on the other and achieving little else. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah government in the West Bank has no influence over events in Gaza, just one sign that it is the weakest side of the Israel-Hamas-Fatah triangle. One potential outcome, an Israeli invasion of Gaza, would be a disaster for all sides. If there is a political alternative, it may require restoring a unified Palestinian government. That, in turn, could depend on Israel making the painful choice to release Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader and symbol of either terrorism or violent resistance, depending on who’s speaking.

First about the photo that was never taken: On Monday, tens of thousands of Palestinians were expected to take part in a protest organized by the Popular Committee Against the Siege, forming a human chain the length of the Gaza Strip. The committee's leader, Jamal al-Khudari, is a Palestinian legislator, politically independent but regarded as pro-Hamas. Before the demonstration, Israeli reports stressed the risk that crowds would try to break through the border fence with Israel, possibly at the Erez crossing at the north end of the Strip. That forecast was based partly on the precedent of the flood of Palestinians who breached the Gaza-Egypt border in January, partly on ambiguous statements by Hamas sources, partly on Israeli fears. News items, vaguely attributed to security sources, stressed that the army and police would try to stop marchers with nonlethal means—and if all else failed, with gunfire at protesters' legs.

The reality fell far short of the forecasts. Only a few thousand demonstrators showed up. The easy explanation is that rain and cold kept people away. More likely, the organizers failed to mobilize support and never planned the confrontation Israel feared. No one tried to break through the border. From the pre-event hype, Palestinians could learn just how anxious Israeli military and political leaders were about facing the dilemma of massive civil disobedience: Allowing thousands of Gazans to march into Israel would have been a dangerous defeat. Yet stopping the demonstrators with gunfire would have invited international condemnation—even given the risk that terrorists might enter as part of the crowd. For imaginative Palestinian activists, this could be a lesson in the rich potential of a truly nonviolent strategy.

So far, Gaza's militants have not taken notice. They are more comfortable with missiles. The rocket that wounded the 10-year-old in Sderot was fired soon after Monday’s protest.

Afterward, both sides escalated their attacks. On Wednesday, 10 Palestinians—four of them children—died in Israeli strikes reportedly aimed at stopping missile launches. The answer from Gaza was dozens of rockets, some reaching the coastal city of Ashkelon. A student at Sderot's Sapir College was killed. The Israeli siege has not stopped the rockets or provoked a popular rebellion against Hamas rule. But beyond showing defiance, the rockets do nothing to serve Hamas politically. Israelis blame Hamas for their pain, just as Gazans blame Israel for theirs.

And every Israeli casualty amplifies the calls in Israel for the easy, simple, and doomed solution for sending the army back into Gaza. Likud Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz, an advocate of that option, speaks of "Defensive Shield II," a Gazan encore to Israel's incursion into West Bank cities in 2002. Yet Steinitz, a close ally of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, admits that even in his hawkish opposition party, people are reluctant, "hesitating," and "afraid of many casualties."

The allure of taking control of Gaza, says Shlomo Brom of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, is that it offers a way to stop the missiles. The obvious catch is that Israel, or someone else, would have to stay there and keep controlling the Strip. For Israel to try to reinstall Abbas as the ruler of Gaza would turn the Palestinian president into a "mere collaborator." An international force might keep the peace in Gaza—if anyone wanted the job. As Brom dryly notes, "I don't see a long line of volunteers." If Israel tried to stay, its forces would become the target for an endless guerrilla war.

This would be a victory for Hamas only if it prefers to being underground to being in government. If Israel invades, everyone loses—including Abbas, who would have to suspend peace talks with Israel.

If there's a way out of the impasse, it lies in reuniting the West Bank and Gaza under a Palestinian unity government, with Fatah and Hamas sharing power. It's a slender hope. The unity government of early 2007 was undermined not only by an international boycott and Hamas-Fatah disagreements, but also by divisions within Fatah itself on whether to work with Hamas.

Still, only a unity government would have a chance of negotiating and enforcing a ceasefire with Israel. It's true that even if Hamas were willing to stand aside and allow talks on a peace agreement, a unity government would be a difficult partner. But any agreement it reached would include Gaza—something that Abbas cannot now deliver.

The Palestinian political figure who has done the most to promote unity is Marwan Barghouti, the leader of Fatah's younger generation. But Barghouti is in an Israeli prison, serving five life sentences for murder. (In a Washington Post op-ed before his arrest, Barghouti defended both a two-state solution and violent resistance to occupation.) Barghouti "is the most popular Palestinian figure today," says political scientist Khalil Shikaki, the leading Palestinian pollster. Though he would be Fatah's strongest candidate in an election, the Islamic movement sees him as "a politician with integrity," Shikaki told me. Shikaki says Abbas needs Barghouti's support, or at least acquiescence, for any peace deal with Israel.

Barghouti catalyzes strange political alignments. Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said last weekend that Israel should free Barghouti so that the Palestinians have a leader capable of making peace. Ben-Eliezer, a Laborite and ex-general, was defense minister when Barghouti was captured in 2002. Consistent reports say Hamas has put Barghouti on the list of prisoners it wants released in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. On the other hand, a top Hamas official in Damascus said last week that Israel had asked that Barghouti's name be dropped—at the request of Abbas. It's entirely possible that members of Fatah's old guard fear Barghouti would endanger their own dwindling power.

Barghouti might not succeed in putting together a coalition capable of calming Gaza and negotiating peace. But he stands a better chance than anyone else. As far as is known, he remains an advocate of a two-state solution. He is also a man with a bloodstained past. So is nearly everyone else who is available as a peace partner. Among the bitter alternatives, Barghouti is better than the ballistic intifada.

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