WORLD

PALESTINE’S DEATH SPIRAL

With the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Palestinian dream of nationhood is slipping away

MICHAEL PETROU July 2 2007
WORLD

PALESTINE’S DEATH SPIRAL

With the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Palestinian dream of nationhood is slipping away

MICHAEL PETROU July 2 2007

PALESTINE’S DEATH SPIRAL

WORLD

With the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Palestinian dream of nationhood is slipping away

MICHAEL PETROU

Their cause has notoriety and global support that other stateless peoples can only dream of. The goal of creating an independent Palestinian state dominates the United Nations and much of international diplomacy, and it is backed by organizations as disparate as the Arab League and Western teachers’ unions. “Free Palestine” banners are held aloft at anti-globalization marches, and the motto is displayed on buttons by countless undergrads who would have a difficult time telling the difference between a Karen and a Kurd.

Yet for six decades, ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, this goal has eluded Palestinians and their supporters, through periods of hope-and setbacks. What is now unfolding in Gaza, however, is different, more serious, and possibly irreversible. Last week, following months of intermittent

fighting and failed ceasefires, Hamas launched an all-out assault on the comparatively secular and moderate political party Fatah, and seized control of the Gaza Strip. Maclean’s reached Aya Asaker, a 12-year-old resident of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, in the midst of the fighting. She was afraid to leave her home because of the violence outside, staying indoors, reading and playing on the computer. “Children don’t go out, because the events are dangerous for them, because of the killing. It’s dangerous for us,” she said.

Hamas’s takeover in Gaza shattered the unity of the Palestinian government. In Fatah’s West Bank stronghold, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sacked the Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya and swore in a new emergency cabinet. Hamas, whose partisans have bullied women into wearing the veil and forcibly closed Internet cafés and shops that sell alcohol, appears poised to turn Gaza into an Islamic mini-state. “The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived,” boasted Islam Shahawan, a Hamas official. Hundreds of Palestinians tried to flee Gaza at the Erez crossing into Israel. A handful were let through, joining the 12,000 Gaza Palestinians who have

left the territory since Hamas triumphed in parliamentary elections in January last year.

What few are yet willing to acknowledge, perhaps because it is too early, perhaps because it is too painful, is that these events have dealt a crushing blow to Palestinian nationhood. Israel will not negotiate Palestinian sovereignty with Hamas, a movement dedicated to its destruction and an ally of its mortal enemy Iran. And the Israeli public has lost any appetite it once had for unilateral disengagement, after doing so in Gaza resulted in rocket attacks, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, and now a statelet controlled by Hamas. If the dream of Palestine isn’t dead, it is slipping away. “I think it is the biggest catastrophe in the Palestinian cause,” Bassem Eid, the founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, told Maclean’s. “I think that we almost destroyed the dream to establish and create a Palestinian independent, secular state.”

For more than a decade, Eid has bravely documented and condemned human rights violations committed against Palestinians by both Israelis and by other Palestinians. Reached at his home in Jericho, in the West Bank, Eid’s

voice seethed with frustration and outrage. “Fatah and Hamas are people who are struggling for their own power,” he said. “And they have forgotten that the struggle has to be appointed toward the occupation itself.”

Eid blamed Palestinians for choosing sides when the conflict between Hamas and Fatah turned violent, instead of demanding that it end. “The bloody internal fight means that almost all the Palestinian people have blood on their hands, including, of course, myself. People have become so frustrated, so angry, so hopeless, and so tired.” He added that some “simple” Palestinians are watching the chaos in Gaza and musing that they would prefer the Israeli occupation. “Now imagine that after 40 years of occupation, you are pulling the occupation from your salon to your bedroom. It’s unbelievable. You are telling the occupation to interfere more. ‘You are sitting in my salon. Now, please, go ahead to my bedroom.’ This is the reality.”

Eid said he could not imagine how the warring Palestinian factions might be reconciled and civil society re-established in Gaza. There has been talk of international intervention, perhaps from neighbouring Arab states, but Eid dismissed this. “We don’t deserve it,” he said. “Because in such a horrible situation, if the Palestinians can’t interfere by themselves, can’t help themselves, then the Palestinians will never be considered as a people who deserve their own state.”

It is wrong, of course, to pretend that Palestinians stood on the brink of statehood and threw it all away over the last few weeks. In the sad history of the Palestinian people during this century and the last, there is no shortage of blame. Israel itself was created on territory inhabited by Arabs who never agreed to give it up, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forcibly driven from their homes during the Israeli war of independence. Most who remained were made Israeli citizens; most who fled to neighbouring Arab states were left in refugee camps.

Then, following its victory in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied the Sinai peninsula, the Syrian Golan Heights, the old city of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. And Israelis, euphoric because of their decisive victory and capture of the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), planted Jewish settlements throughout Gaza and the West Bank and established a military occupation over the Palestinians there.

The botched 1967 war also had a profound effect on Arab public opinion. Many Muslims lost faith in their leaders. Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood-of which Hamas would emerge as a Palestinian branchflourished, intensifying activities in mosques,

charitable organizations, schools, student councils and trade unions. The result was a steady penetration by the Brotherhood into Palestinian society. As a result, Hamas found fertile ground when it was formally created at the beginning of the first intifada in 1987 with the purpose of destroying Israel and establishing an Islamic state in its place.

Hamas’s charter is explicit regarding its goals and the means to achieve them: “There

is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad... The Islamic resistance movement believes that that land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf [religious endowment] throughout the generations until Judgment Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered. It, or any part of it, should not be given up.”

The Islamist group’s popularity increased as Palestinians grew disillusioned with the corrupt and ineffective Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, whose infrastructure was steadily eroded by Israel during the second intifada, which began in 2000. Hamas sent suicide bombers against Israel, but it also organized clinics, schools and daycares in Palestinian communities that had suffered attacks and sieges by the Israeli military.

Nevertheless, almost no one predicted that Hamas would prevail in the 2006 Palestinian legislative council elections. The group had boycotted the 2005 presidential elections, but now it threw itself into electoral politics and even hired a media consultant to improve its image in the West. For $210,000, Hamas

leaders were advised, among other things, not to celebrate killing people and to stop dying their beards.

Hamas’s electoral victory created a dilemma for those countries that had demanded that Palestinians embrace democracy. The legislative elections were free and fair. But because Hamas refused to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist, many Western countries, including Canada, cut off aid to the Palestinian government, and Israel froze tax revenues that it had collected on the Authority’s behalf. This boycott continued even after Hamas and Fatah formed a shaky unity government in an effort to end their isolation. “What it had the effect of doing was pushing the slide toward civil war,” says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “It’s very clear why the U.S. does not like Hamas. It’s not clear that they had any kind of effective response to it.”

Israel, however, is treating the mini Palestinian civil war as an opportunity. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni thinks that Israel “should take advantage of this split.” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he considers the new Palestinian cabinet a “genuine partner,” and has pledged to release frozen tax rev-

enues. Arab and Western nations, including the United States and Canada, have also lined up to declare their support for Mahmoud Abbas and resume assistance.

But such optimism avoids the question of what will happen to the Gaza Strip. Some analysts believe that Hamas will be forced to be moderate by the mundane realities of civil administration. Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst who has just published a comprehensive study of Hamas, rejects this. Levitt believes that Hamas’s social work-the daycares, clinics and kindergartens—are simply a means of furthering support for its ultimate goal of destroying Israel and Islamizing Palestine. “The fact that Hamas suicide bombings continue despite intermittent truces, that Hamas prepares explosives during periods of calm, and that progress toward peace

The best hope for supplanting Hamas may actually be to let it govern

and even territorial withdrawals do not placate Hamas calls for bloodletting, demonstrate that Hamas cannot be co-opted into moderation simply by virtue of its entry into Palestinian electoral politics,” he writes.

Others, such as Mohammad Yaghi, a native of Ramallah and a columnist for the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, believe that Hamas will flounder if it is forced to govern.

“Let them deal with all the political and economic problems. And if Hamas delivers, and my guess is that it cannot, then the Palestinians themselves will divert their support to Fatah,” he told Maclean’s.

This, admittedly, maybe the best hope for supplanting Hamas in Gaza. As Ben Fishman, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, put it: “Only Palestinians can defeat Hamas.” The problem is that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority had years to demonstrate basic governing skills, and the results were miserable. They’ve set a low standard for Hamas to best. International boycotts might make governing more difficult for Hamas, but it will also provide them with a scapegoat. And funding from Iran would likely make up for any economic shortfall.

Palestinian prospects aren’t much brighter in the West Bank. True, the Palestinian government’s isolation is ending, and negotiations with Israel are once again feasible. But with little tangible authority in the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas’s claim to speak on behalf of all Palestinians is tenuous.

And while Olmert is no doubt eager to bolster Abbas by reducing the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank, Palestinian statehood isn’t on his current agenda. Olmert’s own political future is in doubt, with a final report on Israel’s political and military leadership’s handling of last summer’s war in Lebanon expected to further damage his image and credibility. He’s proven himself craftier than many had thought. But Olmert simply doesn’t have the political capital to risk negotiating Palestinian sovereignty.

The other path to greater Palestinian independence involves Israel’s unilateral with-

drawal from occupied territories, something it did from south Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. This plan died last summer, when Israel was attacked from both territories. There has always been a minority of Israelis who desire a Greater Israel that includes all of the West Bank and Gaza. For them, any withdrawal is a religious betrayal. “We can’t give away Judea. Judea is Jewish,” Moise Karoub, a Tunisian Jew, told Maclean’s in a conversation beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem last.

year. “It belongs to eachjew, and the state of Israel doesn’t have the right to give it away.” Most Israelis don’t feel the same way, but the negative consequences of two unilateral withdrawals have made evacuating the occupied territories a security issue. Most Israelis will no longer support disengagement without a reliable partner on the Palestinian side.

Which brings us back to Hamas, Fatah, and the mini civil war that threatens Palestine. Israel will deal with Fatah. But Fatah cannot defeat Hamas militarily. It can only earn the support of Palestinians by demonstrating that it can better meet their needs—both in terms of social welfare and securing concessions from Israel. It has a chance to do this in the West Bank by breaking with its history of corruption and incompetence, and reforming. If it succeeds, it may win back Gaza, says Mohammad Yaghi, the al-Ayyam columnist. If it fails, he says, then Hamas may also take over the West Bank. If that occurs, the dream of a viable and independent Palestine really will be over. M