The last week has been a period of grace, of partial freedom for the 1.4 million residents of the large open-air prison also known as Gaza. Last Wednesday, Hamas activists apparently blew up the border barriers between Gaza and Egypt, and by morning it was a free-for-all. Gazans, used to being blockaded into 360 square kilometers, turned the Egyptian border towns of Rafah and El Arish into an impromptu and unlikely shopping mall/holiday resort. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into the Egyptian Sinai to stock up on basic goods and supplies, to visit family, and to enjoy a respite from the claustrophobia of Gaza. More than just the border barrier has been blown apart, and even as it is now rebuilt, the Israeli, Egyptian, United States, and Palestinian Authority policies have a very visible hole in them.
Events leading up to the Gazan furlough days have been infuriating, first and foremost from a humanitarian perspective, but beyond that in the short-sighted and self-defeating policies of the main protagonists. The escalation of the siege in Gaza was of course inhuman, but it also did nothing to improve the security of the neighboring Israeli population. It undermined the peace process that was supposed to have been relaunched and weakened the ability of the Arab states to support that process.
The dire economic situation in Gaza, where there has been a lack of basic supplies and power, exacerbates an already precarious socioeconomic reality in which unemployment is rife, most industries have closed down, and the population is being forced to rely on international handouts. (For an excellent description of the situation, read this piece by UNRWA Commissioner General Karen Koning AbuZayd.) Proponents of the siege policy claim that these conditions will turn the population against Hamas and induce a collective appreciation of a need for moderation, thereby facilitating progress toward a peace deal between Jerusalem and Ramallah and long-term Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. And pigs will fly.
The Hamas control of Gaza is entrenched, and the popular support that it enjoys has not been significantly eroded. The border breakthrough made Hamas look creative and effective at playing a weak hand -- correctly calculating that Egypt had no alternative but to respond with resignation. The statements of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, criticizing Arab impotence and the weak international response to the Gazans' plight, as well as his calls for Palestinian unity had great resonance in the Arab media. The public undoubtedly is angry, but that anger (and if you can't understand this than you are a Vulcan or a Washington Post editorial writer) is directed primarily against Israel. And after that, against Israel's American backers, Israel's interlocutors in Ramallah, and Israel's friends in the Arab world.
Mahmoud Abbas, and his capacity to conduct peace negotiations with Israel, has been weakened as a consequence of this policy. The Arab states who participated in the Annapolis gathering are embarrassed and cowering in the face of criticism across the Arab media, which is being led by the various offshoots of the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brothers. The Gaza predicament now threatens to seriously impact the most stable and durable peace treaty that Israel has with an Arab neighbor, namely Egypt. Pushing the Egyptian leadership to choose between their own regime stability or Israel's security is not the constructive or responsible thing to do. The Israelis and Americans need a strategy that can restabilize that critical relationship and that looks beyond tomorrow's headlines or the next editorial in The Weekly Standard.
Palestinian division, rather than being a building block for a successful peace process, actually looks like one of its greatest obstacles. Much of the Arab and Palestinian media analysis and commentary of the last days has focused on the need to restart an internal Palestinian dialogue. Hanni al-Masri, writing in the leading Palestinian daily, Al-Ayyam, represents this trend. He argues that "the Palestinian leadership should concentrate on restoring and bolstering national unity rather than peace talks with Israel." And in a piece in the Lebanese An-Nahar daily, Mohammad Ibrahim points out, "There is no instance of a national liberation movement in history that achieved its aims while being so divided." Israeli leaders are often heard lamenting that they want to close on a two-state deal but that there is no Palestinian partner -- Abbas can't deliver and Hamas won't deliver. The key to changing that equation would be for Hamas to again authorize and accept the negotiations between Israel and Abbas and to pursue a ceasefire -- as Hamas had agreed to do when the Palestinians briefly formed a national unity government. Israel and the United States refused to deal with the unity government and all sides are still managing the consequences of that error of judgment.
While we're at it, let's debunk a couple of other myths. Some have argued that the supplies into Gaza are not Israel's responsibility since Israel evacuated the area. By maintaining control of the external envelope of borders (land, sea, and air around Gaza) either directly or indirectly by dictating terms to Egypt, Israel in effect places itself in the position of continuing to have the obligations and responsibilities of an occupying power. More to the point, it was Israel's actions that so integrated the Gazan economy and Gazan infrastructure with that of Israel over the last 40 years. Gaza was a pool of cheap commuter labor and an independent Gaza infrastructure of power generation, of ports and airports, was either prevented, kept to a minimum, or destroyed.
Israel also still controls the Gazan population registry and tax revenues. The Israeli Supreme Court has recognized these responsibilities and ordered the government to limit its blockade on crucial supplies to Gaza. As my friend, MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum, argues in his weekly column, "Israel wants to divest itself of all humanitarian responsibility for Gaza while maintaining control. It just does not work that way. Responsibility and control are two sides of the same coin."
In recent days, some in the Israeli media and defense establishment have been suggesting that Israel should turn this development to its advantage, make supplies to Gaza Egypt's problem, thereby completing the disengagement from Gaza that began in the summer of 2005. That approach might have some merit over the long term, but the integration of Gazan and Israeli infrastructure (a product of Israeli policy) practically cannot be switched-off overnight. There is also the need, eventually, to reconnect Gaza with the West Bank -- a signed Israeli commitment.
What about the argument that any easing of the closure on Gaza and any ceasefire deal with Hamas would serve to legitimize their rule and undermine the Ramallah government? The premise here is all wrong. It is not for Israel or the international community to confer legitimacy on Hamas; the Palestinian public did that when they elected a majority of Hamas members to the Palestinian Legislative Council. One can disagree with Hamas' positions and their tactics, and this writer certainly does, but the policy that has been pursued since the PLC elections of January 2006 wasted an opportunity to begin to reframe relations with a Hamas leadership that had won the argument within their movement. Electoral politics and assumption of government responsibilities became their preferred strategy.
The response to their election victory and the later unity government should have been to encourage and, yes, test this trend and to emphasize security, not diplomatic agreements, as the initial key testing ground. Now, the more militant wing of Hamas that opposed political participation is arguing that it has been vindicated. That is not an outcome that Israeli, American, or European policy-makers should be proud of. Even more worrying, and predictable, and a consequence of the policy pursued, is that a space is increasingly emerging in the Palestinian territories for an al-Qaeda ideology and presence to develop.
Hamas can be the bulwark that prevents the spread of al-Qaedaism, but its ability to do so is compromised under the current circumstances. The Iraq War and mismanagement of Middle East policy by the United States in the last years has already contributed to the spread of al-Qaeda type cells and attacks from Iraq into Jordan, the refugee camps of Lebanon, and the Egyptian Sinai. And it almost seems as if everything is being done to reproduce that "success" in the Palestinian territories. For a very useful piece contrasting Hamas with al-Qaeda read this essay written by Khalid Amayreh for the Conflicts Forum NGO.
This is one of the reasons that key Arab states who have an al-Qaeda problem, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are keen to renew the Fatah-Hamas dialogue and to end the Palestinian division. The Saudis hosted the Hamas leader, Meshaal, and were of course the mediators of the original national-unity deal in Mecca. Egypt will host both Abbas and Meshaal this week in Cairo for indirect or proximity talks.
Finally, what about the claim that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup and rearm? From a very narrow military perspective it may well be reasonable to assert that absent constant IDF pressure Hamas will be able to go some way toward increasing its arsenal. The key point here, though, is that the Israeli military confrontation with Hamas is asymmetrical and will remain asymmetrical even if there is a slightly larger Hamas stockpile of rockets. Hamas is not about to start smuggling F16s, submarines, and tanks through the Rafah tunnel network. Using that asymmetry is what has allowed Hamas to create a degree of balance of deterrence, and that is not going to change. Israel's most senior political and military leadership know that they have no military solution. That is why they are constantly deferring the pressure to launch a large-scale ground invasion and why Israel has maintained what is essentially an agreed rules of the game posture vis-a-vis Hamas, in between escalatory cycles. Hamas has not attacked Israeli civilian targets but has not prevented others from doing so and has only fleetingly used its longer-range rockets.
For instance, Alex Fishman, the military correspondent for Israel's largest circulation daily, Yediot Aharonot, quotes his military sources as saying that "Hamas was careful not to bombard Ashkelon" (a larger Israeli town near the Gazan border). Similarly Israel has stopped going after Hamas leaders and has not attacked their symbols of government in Gaza. This was all broken in the last days, but at a minimum, those previous rules of the game point the way to a more far-reaching set of understandings that could be reached between Israel and Hamas.
Israel has to look beyond the securito-crat consideration of a limited increase in rocket stockpiles and has to start thinking more strategically. A ceasefire could provide a respite for Sderot and the communities in southern Israel. It could also pave the way for a prisoner exchange deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli solider who was captured in a cross-border attack in 2006. A ceasefire combined with conditional lifting of the closure, could incentivize Hamas to prevent others from launching attacks from Gaza while strengthening the more pragmatic leadership within Hamas who advocate a political path. It would also squeeze the space within which al-Qaeda wannabes are beginning to organize. This kind of a broad ceasefire would then create far more conducive conditions for pursuing peace negotiations with President Abbas, especially if an internal Palestinian dialogue is relaunched in parallel.
The new situation on the Gaza-Egypt border in any case necessitates a rethink: Who will control that border in the future, can it be hermetically resealed? This presents an opportunity for a quadrilateral understanding between the concerned parties -- Egypt, Hamas, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority -- to indirectly agree on border crossing arrangements. The border issue might be the first agenda item for Egyptian or other third party mediation with Hamas. This could then expand to that broader Fatah-Hamas dialogue and facilitate understandings with Israel.
In that respect, the new reality forced by Hamas at the border, presenting a fait accompli, may actually make it easier for Israel to respond. There is no border solution without Hamas, as the Haaretz newspaper's Arab affairs analyst, Zvi Bar'el, explains in his weekend piece "De-fenceless in Gaza." Egypt and Israel are now faced with the choice of accepting that reality or risking a further strain on their bilateral relations. New thinking is also required in Washington, which has been rather quiet and invisible throughout this crisis. America's Hamas policy and general approach to reformist political Islamists who participate in democratic elections has been one of the most conspicuous of the many flaws in the Bush Middle East policy. Israel, though, cannot wait for Washington and must pursue its own interests in responding to the new Gaza reality.
The three conditions that Israel had the international community impose on Hamas after their election victory (end violence, recognize Israel, respect previous agreements) were a brilliant diplomatic victory and simultaneously a debilitating strategic own-goal. The focal issue should have been security, and that can still be addressed via pursuit of a ceasefire. Some or all of this logic has guided several Israeli ministers and former senior officials to recently advocate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. These include current Minister and former Shin Bet Chief Ami Ayalon, current Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, ex-Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami, and ex-NSC Chief Giora Eiland. The alternative is not only more human suffering and the continued pursuit of an ethically very un-Jewish collective punishment of the Gazan population but also the risk that an escalatory cycle keeps escalating, dragging everyone into a wider clash. As the recent Egyptian border crossing events prove, what happens in Gaza will not stay in Gaza.