IDSA COMMENT

Gaza on the Boil

June 21, 2007

The factional fighting between the Islamist Hamas, represented by the recently dismissed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip, and the 'moderate' Fatah, headed by the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, took a turn for the worse on June 14 when Hamas cadres ransacked the Preventive Security Service building, the headquarters of the PA in Gaza City. The renewed fighting between the two factions, which accounted for more than 100 deaths during the week gone by, has already claimed over 600 lives since January 2006. That was when Hamas secured its electoral victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, which set in motion a series of events that culminated in the bloody takeover in Gaza 17 months later.

Hamas's surprise victory and its refusal to acknowledge Israel as a sovereign entity, renounce violence to achieve its objectives (its 1988 Charter calling for the destruction of Israel not being rescinded), or accept interim peace deals that had already been agreed upon between the Palestinian Authority and Tel Aviv put it on a collision course with Israel and Western powers involved in negotiating a solution to the intractable Palestinian issue. The US and the European powers imposed an aid embargo in March 2006 has been badly hurting the Palestinian economy and preventing the proper functioning of the administration.

In the meantime, ill will and clashes between the Hamas and Fatah grew. The latest round of fighting not only marked the failure of the Egyptian-backed truce brokered in May 2007 between the two factions, but also the dissolution of the national unity government formed in March 2007, following the February 8 Mecca agreement between Abbas and Hamas's leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, brokered under Saudi auspices. The Saudi-brokered initiative was aimed at ending the rising internal violence and facilitate the easing of Western sanctions imposed in the wake of Hamas's victory.

Abbas, operating from his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, reacted to the Hamas takeover by declaring a state of emergency, which enabled him to bypass constitutional limits on his authority subject to a Hamas-controlled parliament, dismissed the serving Prime Minister, Haniyeh, and installed Salam Fayyad in his place. Fayyad was the Finance Minister in the short-lived national unity government formed in March. Haniyeh has refused to accept his dismissal and has accused Abbas of participating in a US-led plot to overthrow him. He has, however, ruled out the setting up of a separate Palestinian State in the Gaza Strip and reiterated the Hamas's position of a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 to include Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel, which considered the 'moderate' Fatah faction a better negotiating partner over the radical Islamist Hamas, has been leaning towards the Fatah to facilitate the latter's establishment of its dominance in the Palestinian domestic stakes. In the aftermath of Hamas's 'coup', it has concentrated its efforts on boosting the position and legitimacy of Abbas and has pledged to release a substantial part of the frozen tax revenues to the PA government (Israel had been withholding close to US $700 million of the same since the Hamas's electoral victory). In the short term, it has also considered dropping food aid to ease the humanitarian problems of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza due to the closure of all border crossings into Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also stated that Israel would give "serious consideration" for proposals to station international peacekeepers in Gaza along the international border with Egypt as a measure to cut off arms and supplies to the Hamas. The EU's Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana also voiced support to the idea and stated that the EU could consider participating in such an international force. On the other hand, the concrete administrative division between Gaza and the West Bank seems to offer a unique opportunity for Israel to enforce a political solution favourable to it, by further isolating Hamas. This was attested to by Tzipi Livni, Israel's Foreign Minister. Washington is also pressing Egypt to shut the tunnels Hamas depends upon to smuggle in cash and arms.

In the wake of the recent bloody developments, regional and international sympathies seem to lie clearly with President Abbas and his Fatah faction. The Quartet of interlocutors involved in the Middle East negotiations, including the United Nations, United States, Russia, and the European Union, have reiterated their continued support to Abbas. While UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged international support for Abbas's efforts "to restore law and order", the US lifted its aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority and pledged to immediately release $40 million to ease the suffering of the population and bolster Abbas's credentials. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vowed not to leave "one and a half million Palestinians at the mercy of terrorist organizations" and stressed that the Middle East was confronted with a fundamental choice "between violent extremism on the one hand, and tolerance and responsibility on the other." Reports also suggested that the US has in fact been arming Fatah in its fight against the Hamas.

While aiming to isolate Hamas economically, militarily, and diplomatically in Gaza, Washington has also hoped to speed up the dialogue process between Abbas and Olmert. In his meeting with Olmert in Washington on June 19, President Bush termed Abbas the "president of all Palestinians" and promised to cooperate with him "to provide the Palestinians with a real, genuine chance for a state of their own". On his part, in a telephone conversation with Bush earlier in the week, Abbas expressed his intent to "resume the political process" and keep political channels open.

The Arab League Foreign Ministers, meeting in Cairo on June 16, also came out in support of Abbas and called on the rival Palestinian factions "to immediately halt internal fighting and stop shedding Palestinian blood" and to keep unity in the Gaza Strip, eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank. Saudi Arabia, currently chairing the League, heavily criticized the factional fighting. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal expressed regret at the factions who had "vowed in the holy lands and swore on the holy Quran not to fight again".

Egypt closed its representative office in Gaza City in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover, which it condemned very strongly. Cairo has always had a tenuous relationship with Hamas as it considered the Palestinian group to be close to the Islamic Brotherhood, an anti-establishment entity in Egypt which also aims to establish Islamic theocracies across the Arab world. The fact that Iran also supports and sponsors Hamas does not go down well with the Arab states in the region. The Mecca accords in early February were in fact seen as an effort by these states to seize the initiative and reduce the Iranian foothold on the Palestinian issue. An aide to Abbas also accused Iran of encouraging Hamas to employ violence to take control of the Gaza Strip and alleged that Tehran supported what he termed 'non-democratic' groups in Palestine, Lebanon, as well as Iraq.

Hamas's takeover of Gaza City on June 14 dented the near-term hopes of establishing a single Palestinian State encompassing the four million people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The subsequent actions taken by Israel, the United States, the EU, the Arab League and Egypt, in bolstering Abbas on the West Bank and further tightening of the screws in the Gaza Strip, could lead to further bitterness among the 1.5 million Palestinians there. It remains to be seen whether Gazans would be swayed towards the leadership of Abbas and the opportunities he can provide, given the vast international backing he has obtained. This will particularly depend on the extent to which he can provide good governance and rein in the rampant corruption, which had contributed to the PA's alienation from the population in the first place. If he cannot do this in an appropriate time frame, the populace could become more radicalized, thus adding to the cadres and support base of Hamas, the outcome which Israel and the Western interlocutors are striving to prevent. Even worse, if Hamas fails to quickly restore order and provide reasonable governance, it could attract recruits to the Al Qaeda and help it achieve a firmer foothold in the region.

Abbas, meanwhile, has rejected Hamas calls for negotiations to find a political consensus to resolve the imbroglio and has accused them of being "murderous terrorists". Hamas leaders have also warned against a crackdown on their members and sympathizers in the West Bank. It seems that a lot more than rhetoric is needed to wash away the bad blood that has flown and, more importantly, prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.