Yesterday, at the Carnegie Institute of International Peace, I attended a program sponsored by the American Task Force on Palestine and the Foundation for Middle East Peace on the crisis in Gaza. The speakers were Geoffrey Aronson (Director of Research and Publications of the Middle East Forum) and Mark Perry (Director of the Conflicts Forum). Their presentations underlined the severity of the impact of the siege on the Gazans, the fact that American media coverage of the recent events is missing the most significant elements of recent events: how Hamasâ€™ success in piercing the border with Egypt is shaking up the alignments of state actors, how Abbasâ€™ intransigence is eroding Fatahâ€™s legitimacy, and how hitherto ignored matters of sovereignty and occupation may be soon pushed out into the open.
Perry noted that the initial Israeli cabinet response to Hamasâ€™ Dec. 19, 2007 proposal of a cease-fire was positive, but on Dec. 24 Israel abruptly rejected it out of hand, falling back on the Quartet pre-conditions for inclusion of Hamas in negotiations, for example recognition of the state of Israel. Significantly, no mention of rocket fire into Israel was made at that time. This surprised Egypt, which took Ismail Haniyyah’s offer as good faith. After all, if Israelâ€™s real concern was the safety of Israelis who might be killed or injured by the Palestinian rockets, what more direct solution could there be than for Palestinians to cease firing them?
Ignoring American policy that it should not talk to Hamas, Israel has been in communication with them. Perry thinks that Hamas looked on Israeli signals favorably, leading Hanniyyah to prematurely propose a cease fire. He reminds us that on the day before 18 Palestinians had been killed by the Israelis, who saw the offer as a sign of weakness.
On Dec 2 Arlen Specter had threatened aid cuts to Egypt unless they did more to protect the borders and Israel accused pilgrims returning to Gaza from Mecca of arms smuggling. On the same day, Egypt announced that they had confiscated smuggled arms to demonstrate acquiescence to American and Israeli pressure. One Egyptian official noted they sided with America on â€œthe war on terrorâ€ without getting even a thank you. Egypt then snubbed both sides by letting the pilgrims return. Their subsequent decision to allow the breaks in the wall signaled a departure from supporting American policy. Until then Egypt had cleared such actions, such as the decision to let the pilgrims out of Gaza in the first place, with Israel. This time Egypt sided with its own constituents. The Egyptians seem to be poking the eye of the Americans, recently calling for a national reconciliation conference between Hamas and Fatah to which Hamas said yes and Fatah said no.
To those who have asked, â€œWhere is the Palestinian Ghandi?â€ Perry emphasizes that what Hamas did last week was both a classic act of civil disobedience and an engineering feat. While Abu Mazen has been negotiating about walls, he says, Hamas has been tearing them down. The difference between al-Qaida and Hamas has been demonstrated in Gaza: One blows up buildings and the other tears down walls.
Geoffrey Aronson stated that Israel’s view of Gaza has changed over the years. Israel now treats Gaza as a foreign country. It removed its troops and its civilian population, but not its control and envelope. It continues to control the flow of people and goods. However, the Palestinian leadership did not want to pay the economic price of the end of the Paris protocols and the development of a new economic regime. Of the numerous actors in talks over the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Hamas is the most favorably disposed towards free trade–even with Israel.
Israel defines itself as the sovereign on the both sides its border, a claim unchallenged by the Palestinian Authority and only recently challenged by Hamas. The Egyptians do not see the breach of the border in their interest.
Why hadn’t Hamas breached the border sooner? Things were not great in Gaza even before their takeover in June. Aronson says they wanted to be seen as a responsible party and they wanted to cultivate an improved relationship with Egypt. Things have changed. The Israelis wanted the return to be mediated through a checkpoint they controlled, but the Egyptian forces couldnâ€™t be seen using violence against old men and women on pilgrimage.
Israel thought about declaring an end of the occupation of Gaza, but didn’t do it because they want to retain that control. Israel is succeeding in manipulating how the international community views the issue, reducing it to an argument over humanitarian relief and avoiding discussions of the health of the Palestinian economy.
Perry says the long-standing American position to make governing difficult for Hamas will reduce their popular support, paving the way for Fatah (which recognizes Israel) to be restored to power. His own view is that although the economy has worsened, Hamasâ€™ status has been enhanced and thinks Egypt has come to the conclusion that the American policy cannot possibly work.
Aronson says that an international crisis is brewing in Gaza. For the first time since its treaty with Israel, Egypt has tended to Palestinian concerns against the wishes of Israel. Israel has been in an effective dialog with Hamas for years whether the U.S. likes it or not. The U.S. will follow in Israelâ€™s wake, as it did after Oslo, as it always has done.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute