Thanks to Fatah’s ineptitude and corruption, Israel’s shortsightedness, and the Bush administration’s misguided policies, Hamas is now in control of the Gaza strip, setting the stage for potentially ominous developments.
Specifically, it was Israel, seeking a counterbalance to the PLO, that gave Hamas’s early organizers a helping hand in the mid-1980s; it was Fatah’s unscrupulous ways of governance combined with endemic corruption under Arafat that promoted discontent and militancy; it was the Bush administration’s naiveté and zealousness in pushing for Palestinian elections in January of 2006 against the advice of Abbas and Olmert without considering the consequences, and finally, it was the blind eye Egypt turned to the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza during the past ten years, that have largely brought about this sorry state of affairs.
This conclusion is not the result of hindsight. The effects of such policies have been foreseen and written about on these pages and by many other commentators over the years. Decades of occupation, however explicable or necessitated by circumstances, have created two generations of embittered and disillusioned Palestinians with no hope of escape from intolerable conditions to a better future. And with no Palestinian Authority that cared, but an Authority that thrived on squandering resources and abusing power, an Authority infected to the core with nepotism, Hamas seized the opportunity to fill the vacuum, to offer meaning to otherwise shattered lives, to give the young a reason to live or die for a cause they could understand.
None of this, of course, justifies Hamas’ extremism and militancy, not to speak of its avowal to seek the destruction of Israel. Indeed, while Hamas may have brought the hope of salvation to its followers, its determination to destroy Israel, should its leadership stick to this elusive goal, will bring about its own demise. And, because this too is a predictable end, now may be the moment that Hamas’s leaders may well ask themselves: Where do we go from here? It is one thing to take over Gaza; it is an entirely different matter to make it a governable and economically viable entity where people can live in peace and security. Although for humanitarian reasons Israel will allow basic necessities to continue to flow to Gaza, it can still choke off the territory and destroy Hamas’ leaders one by one. Another looming problem for Hamas is that, to protect its own interests and under increased pressure from the United States and Israel, Egypt may feel more compelled to prevent future smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
For obvious reasons, Hamas will now try to move quickly to consolidate its power. Thus, the last thing its leaders would want to do is to provoke the Israelis. In full control of Gaza, they must choose between demonstrating moderation or pressing on by committing violent acts against Israel. The period of indecision, however brief, will certainly intensify the conflict between the organizations’ moderate and extremist wings. The moderates are likely to seek, at least temporarily, accommodation with Israel, and they have already put out some feelers, by ending the firing of rockets and perhaps negotiating the release of Shalit, The extremists, drunk with victory, and swept forward by the momentum of events, are equally likely to press on by challenging the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, thereby inviting Israel’s military wrath.
For Israel the choices are somewhat clearer. Now that the so-called Palestinian unity government has been dissolved, Israel can focus on the West Bank and work with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s president. Israel’s narrowed focus will not only prevent Hamas from expanding its presence and strength in the West Bank; it should greatly bolster Mr. Abbas, ensuring his hold on power through direct economic assistance. To the same end, Israel should feel considerably freer in initiating extra measures to ease the life of Palestinians in the West Bank, even at the cost of taking certain risks, to create a most transparent contrast between the two areas. If this happens, the creation of two Palestinian entities allows the Fatah camp to demonstrate how moderation brings peace, progress, and prosperity and continued violent resistance brings nothing but more despair.
It is possible to see a silver lining in these developments, but then again they may represent another sad chapter in the ongoing tragedy of the Middle East. Which is the more likely outcome? I am not sure if the main players in the region, especially the United States, Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinians, have learned any lesson from the past or their own experiences. The new landscape in the Palestinian territories contains the potential for ominous developments and an opportunity to positively change the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But to widen any opening that Hamas’s takeover of Gaza might have produced, Israel and the United States must come up with a new construct. The present situation allows Israel not only the chance to move the peace process forward with Fatah but to turn North and begin a dialogue with Syria and so isolate Hamas completely.
As for Hamas, left to its own devices, it may not withstand the temptation to provoke Israel, destroying its victory before tasting its fruits. The answer will come soon. For the sake of the Palestinians living in Gaza, I hope the moderates win the day.