The Islamic Republic of Gaza

By Gwynne Dyer

I like this violence … It means other Palestinians are resisting Hamas,” said a US official some months ago to Alvaro de Soto, the UN envoy to the Middle East, according to de Soto’s confidential “End of Mission Report,” leaked to “The Guardian” newspaper last week. That certainly fits what we know about US policy at the time, which was to block international cooperation with the shaky Palestinian coalition government including both Hamas and Fatah elements that had been cobbled together after a year’s delay, and to build up Fatah’s militia for a showdown with Hamas.

The showdown came last week in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas has won it. In less than a week, at the cost of about a hundred deaths, it has eliminated almost all Fatah’s strongholds in the Strip. So the question is:was the United States and its Israeli ally being naive in boycotting Hamas and backing Fatah — or was their real goal all along to split the Palestinians? In a sense this confrontation has been coming for years, because the Gaza Strip is an overcrowded open-air prison where living conditions are vastly worse than in the West Bank, and it has consequently always been a breeding ground for extremism. Nevertheless, the change is dramatic: where yesterday there was one “Palestinian Authority” seeking to build an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the bits of former Palestine that were not incorporated into Israel after the war of 1948, there are now two rival authorities with very different aims.

The West Bank is still run by the familiar institutions built up over forty years by the late Yasser Arafat: Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the “Palestinian Authority”, the proto-government of what the Oslo peace accords of 1993 envisaged as an independent Palestinian state. The PA, currently led by President Mahmoud Abbas, remains committed to the “two-state” solution in which Israel and a Palestinian state share former Palestine.The Gaza Strip, however, is now controlled by Hamas, an Islamist organisation that rejects peace with Israel. Its vision is a single Palestine reunited under Islamic law, a country in which Palestinian Arabs would be the clear majority. (There are currently 5.5 million Jews and 4.5 million Arabs in the lands under Israeli control, but millions more Palestinian refugees live in the surrounding countries.) Hamas says that native-born Jews would be welcome to stay, but the state of Israel would have to vanish.

The state of Israel is not going to vanish, of course — it has by far the strongest army in the region, the unquestioning support of the United States, and lots of nuclear weapons — but this marks the definitive end of the “peace process” that began fourteen years ago. The Israelis blame the Palestinians, and the Palestinians blame the Israelis (and they are both right), but there will be many more years of violence before there is any return to serious peace talks. Even another Arab-Israeli war is a possibility.

The last exit before this disaster was probably passed seventeen months ago, when the Palestinians elected a Hamas government in a fair and free election and Israel and the West refused to have anything to do with it. The Palestinians had made the wrong choice, and they would just have to be bludgeoned into changing their minds. What followed was a political boycott, a financial blockade and, in the case of the Gaza Strip, and an almost complete physical blockade as well.

The aim was to push Fatah and the Palestinian Authority into defying the election results and taking Hamas on in an open civil war. What it actually did, of course, was to impoverish and radicalise the population, especially in the Gaza Strip. The civil war duly arrived, in the end, but in the Gaza Strip Hamas won it. It never had any chance of winning in the West Bank, where there was little fighting and Fatah remains in control, so now there are two Palestinian proto-states where there used to be one.

It is finally true, ten years after the Israelis began saying it, that there really is “no one to negotiate with on the Palestinian side.” On Thursday night Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led coalition government that had been created three months ago in an attempt to re-open channels of communication with the Israelis and the West, declared a state of emergency, and promised new elections. But Hamas would win again if they were ever to be held, so they probably won’t be.

Back to the original question: were the US and Israel being naive and clumsy in trying to push the Palestinians into a civil war that was bound to end with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip — or were they being devious and very clever? For if the goal was to take the spotlight off the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, free Israel from pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians, and destroy the prospect of a viable Palestinian state for at least a generation, it has certainly been achieved.The only losers are the ten million people, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, who live between the Jordan and the sea. They have been condemned to another generation of war.
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