I’ve been thinking through some of the challenges any Israeli government would face as it considers ending its four-year-long siege of Gaza. (And that, it is becoming increasingly clear, is what the entire world community needs to see happening.)
Think of it for a moment from the Israeli government’s viewpoint. They have been telling their own people, the world– and themselves!– for more than four years now that they need to maintain the siege “in order to ensure that Hamas and the other militant groups don’t smuggle weapons into Gaza.” One condition they’ve always insisted on, therefore, is that for the siege to be lifted, there has to be some form “credible” inspection regime at all of Gaza’s borders to ensure such smuggling doesn’t occur.
(In truth, the siege has barely prevented the smuggling-in of weapons. Gaza has hundreds of tunnels connecting it with Egypt. A much bigger role in preventing the arrival of weapons to the tunnel-heads has been played by the Egyptian security forces, acting often deep inside Sinai and not only near the country’s short border with Gaza… Under a “no-siege” regime for Gaza, Egypt could be expected to continue to play an equally strict monitoring role.)
Okay, but bear with me as I continue to think this through. In such “negotiations” as have occurred over the possibility of lifting the siege of Gaza, Israel and its U.S. lackeys have always insisted that the body that monitors the crossing-points on the Gaza side of the border not be constituted by the Hamas regime which was democratically elected– in Gaza and indeed also in the West Bank– back in 2006, and which has been ruling Gaza with some significant effectiveness in recent years, and more especially since it repulsed a U.S.-backed coup attempt in June 2007. Israel and the U.S. have always insisted that there should be a role for the (heavily U.S.-backed) Ramallah regime in controlling the Gaza side of the border. However, given Hamas’s undoubted de-facto– as well as in many eyes, de-jure– control of Gaza, shoe-horning in a role for the Ramallah PA has always necessarily involved seeking form of reconciliation or at least modus vivendi between Hamas and the Ramallah-based Fateh faction. (Or, and here is an interesting possibility, the modus vivendi could be between Hamas and the politically “independent”, though also strongly U.S.-backed Ramallah PM, Salam Fayyad.)
We should all be clear that the challenge regarding Gaza is to open its borders to the normal passage of goods and persons, and also to facilitate free passage of goods and persons between Gaza and the West Bank. It is not simply a matter of allowing/ensuring the passage of aid shipments into Gaza. It is a matter of re-opening Gaza to normal commerce with the whole of the rest of the outside world. Gazans hate the aid-dependency into which they’ve been forced. Previously, they had many factories and agro enterprises that engaged in flourishing commerce with the outside world. One of the worst aspects of the Israeli siege is that it has killed all that economic activity. Gaza needs to be open for normal commercial and human activity– not just for the trucking-in of international aid.
Anyway, for the reasons outlined earlier, for Israeli and American officials, the question of opening the Gaza borders to normal traffic of goods and persons has always been directly tied to securing a reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh on terms that they– the Israelis and Americans– approve of. But guess what. That reconciliation hasn’t happened at any point since the Fateh faction headed by Mohamed Dahlan made his (U.S.-instigated) coup attempt in Gaza in June ’07, and was repulsed. But it’s important to remember that immediately prior to that, Fateh, Hamas, and Salam Fayyad had all been participants in the National Unity Government whose terms were brokered by the Saudis in Mecca in February 2007. So reconciliation is not an impossible dream. The grassroots activists on both sides– including that very important constituency, the thousands of political prisoners from all Palestinian factions who are held in Israeli jails– are all in favor of it. And so is the Hamas leadership (though on its own terms, not those of the U.S. or Fateh.)
So what happens if this Likud-dominated Israeli government decides that it needs to, from its perspective, “back down” on the project of keeping Gaza tightly besieged. How might it do that, and wouldn’t it feel it would be somehow “letting Fateh down”?
Actually, no. Likud people have nothing of the sentimental soft spot for Fateh that so many of Israel’s Labour leaders (and even the people in Meretz) have had. And in particular, Likud does not want to have to tie itself down to negotiating the kind of firm international border in the West Bank, between Israel and the future Palestine, that the Fateh diplomats are now so firmly committed to.
There is actually a lot that Likud has in common with Hamas, as I noted in this 2008 article in Boston Review. Key among the things they have in common are that neither movement is terribly strongly committed to the two-state solution– and more importantly, neither currently wants to see a firm international boundary established in the West Bank, between Israel and “Palestine”. The two movements/parties obviously have many goals that clash against each other. But they have both shown on several occasions in the past that they’re capable of using quiet negotiations, or negotiations mediated through third parties, to reach agreements on partial (not permanent-status) issues that have proved relatively successful.
(Another thing the two of them have in common: A strong distaste for the kind of touchy-feely-huggy “getting-to-know-you” gabfests and photo ops that both Labour and Fateh have traditionally adored.)
So it could happen. Fateh might well get tossed out of the door in this. And of course, it goes without saying that the moment the government of Israel says, “Look, we’ve concluded that we need to do some kind of a quiet deal with Hamas to make this border-opening thing work,” the U.S. administration and the serried ranks of bought-and-paid-for members of the U.S. Congress will come slavering like a lap-dog right behind it and say, “Yes, yes! Of course you must!” Like what happened with the PLO back in 1993.
Well, I’m not saying this is what will happen. But I do think it’s a distinct possibility. And we do need to be able to understand just how Netanyahu and his advisers– assuming they are not all testosterone-addicted, rampant fools, as Ehud Barak appears to be– might be trying to think their way out of their current quandary…