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Gaza's Unfinished Business

Middle East Report N°85 23 Apr 2009


The Israel-Hamas war has ended but none of the factors that triggered it have been addressed. Three months after unilateral ceasefires, Gaza’s crossings are largely shut; reconstruction and rehabilitation have yet to begin; rockets periodically are fired into Israel; weapons smuggling persists; Corporal Shalit remains captive; and Palestinians are deeply divided. It is not as if the war changed nothing. Many hundreds lost their lives, tens of thousands their livelihood and a new political landscape has emerged. But the war changed nothing for the better. The status quo is unsustainable, and Gaza once again is an explosion waiting to happen. Genuine Palestinian reconciliation and a fully satisfactory arrangement in Gaza may not be on the cards, but lesser steps may be feasible to lessen the risk of escalation, address Gaza’s most pressing needs and achieve some inter-Palestinian understanding. That would take far greater flexibility from local actors – and far greater political courage from outside ones.

There is good reason for concern. If the siege is not lifted, Hamas risks launching large-scale attacks. If weapons transfers are not halted and rocket fire persists, Israel could mount a new offensive. Without some form of Palestinian understanding, the international community is unlikely to permit Gaza’s recovery for fear it will benefit Hamas. As tensions surrounding Gaza persist, the regional cold war could heat up. Without a stable ceasefire and broadly representative Palestinian leadership, prospects for peace – already made difficult by the nature of the new Israeli government – will prove more elusive still.

In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, many in the region and further afield seemed at last to comprehend these stakes. Egypt mediated between Israel and Hamas for a more specific and clear ceasefire. In Sharm al-Sheikh, donors pledged vast amounts of money to help rebuild Gaza. Prodded by the same Western countries that in 2007 had pulled the rug from underneath the last unity government, Palestinians discussed a new Fatah-Hamas understanding. Yet, with time elapsing and no results in sight, urgency has given way to complacency and complacency to neglect. The result is that Gaza once again is an explosion waiting to happen.

The deadlock has many explanations, but a principal one is reluctance by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), the U.S. and Israel to grant Hamas anything resembling a reward for provoking the war. That is understandable but makes sense only if one believes the previous policy of seeking to weaken Hamas by isolating it and to bolster Abbas by focusing on the West Bank worked. It did not, and the correction of misguided policies should not be mistaken for weakness or pointless concessions. The challenge is not humanitarian – though opening Gaza to commerce would do wonders for its people. It is, as it has always been, political, so political choices – about how to deal with Gaza, Hamas and the possibility of a new Palestinian government – will have to be made.

The formula for a ceasefire has always been straightforward. Hamas must stop firing rockets and stop others from doing the same, while Israel must lift the blockade. A prisoner exchange also is overdue, but Israel’s insistence that it be part of a ceasefire package complicated both matters and made resolution of neither more likely. Breaking this linkage will be politically costly for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new prime minister, who will be loath to appear softer on Hamas than his predecessor. But it is essential, as the U.S. and Israel’s other allies must make plain. Evidence from Gaza suggests anger is rising, as residents realise their conditions are not about to improve. Some might hope they will turn their anger toward Hamas. More likely, Hamas will turn its anger toward Israel.

On reconstruction, if a middle ground cannot be found between Hamas’s insistence on being involved and much of the donor community’s desire to bypass it, and if Israel is not persuaded to open the crossings, lofty commitments will remain essentially theoretical. Here, too, is need for collective compromise. The Islamists control the situation on the ground for access, security, land use and construction permits. They thus should not fear a mechanism directed by others – whether the PA or some other entity – as long as they are consulted. Likewise, donors and the PA must accept that if reconstruction is contingent on barring all contact with Hamas and denying it all credit for the recovery, it is better not to think of it at all. And while Israel has legitimate security concerns about Hamas diverting imported material for military use, holding Gaza’s population hostage is not a legitimate response. It should be satisfied with end-use verification by an independent body with international membership.

Chances at first appeared most promising on the final issue, Palestinian reconciliation. Among broad segments of the public, the split generated heightened resentment, as its costs – most vividly the inability to act coherently before, during and after the recent conflict – become more apparent. Yet, three rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks have failed, and few hold hope for the fourth. Neither Fatah nor Hamas is willing to relinquish its assets – its position in the West Bank and PLO for the former; its dominance of Gaza for the latter. A full-scale agreement to reunite both territories geographically and politically, unify and de-factionalise security services and broaden the PLO appears out of reach. But that should not rule out a more limited understanding.

The Islamists can boast of their resolve, resilience and growing regional reach; they are convinced the war – their first genuine battle and the first since its birth from which Fatah was essentially absent – strengthened their legitimacy and vindicated their approach. But they also bumped up against painful realities, notably much of the world’s unwillingness to deal with Hamas even if that means leaving Gazans to fend for themselves. Without an arrangement with Fatah and the PA, Gaza’s crossings will remain closed, Gazans will not receive needed aid, and popular dissatisfaction with Hamas will grow.

Reality dawned on Hamas’s rivals, too. Though absent from the war, neither the Ramallah-based PA nor Fatah was immune from its aftershock. As fighting proceeded, a president who had cultivated relations with Israel and the U.S. could not persuade the former to stop nor the latter to help in that task. Abbas’s inability to prevent war was thus added to his inability to bring about peace. Chastened by the public’s negative reaction, several Fatah leaders realise that some arrangement with Hamas is critical both to redressing its image and eventually returning to Gaza.

This is an opportunity. Efforts should focus on an outcome that meets the parties’ immediate needs. Neither wants to give up the territory it controls, so for now let them keep it. That should not prevent forming a government that helps rebuild Gaza, gives Ramallah a foothold in Gaza and Abbas the greater legitimacy he needs to deal effectively with Israel – and with his own people. The rub has been the political program. Hamas refuses one that recognises Israel; Fatah, arguing it is the price for international legitimacy, insists that it must. Several alternatives have been suggested, including an ambiguous program and no program at all, but this is a sterile debate.

Words matter, but actions matter more. The international community should judge the government on what ought to count if the goal is to move toward a peaceful settlement: willingness (or not) to enforce a mutual ceasefire with Israel, acceptance of Abbas’s authority to negotiate an agreement with Israel and respect for a referendum on an eventual accord. Hamas’s position on whether a Palestinian state would recognise Israel will matter only once that state exists. Prior to that, it is academic.

If nothing is moving, it is in part because all eyes are turned to President Obama. Many in the region and elsewhere like what they see. His administration’s early steps suggest an attempt to shape the environment for a meaningful diplomatic initiative – the repeated pledge to work for a two-state solution; the attention to realities on the ground, notably settlements; and the decision to engage with Syria and, soon, with Iran.

That leaves a significant gap: what about the domestic Palestinian scene and the need for credible, representative leadership? The new U.S. administration has provided few precise clues, let alone indicated a real shift. There are political constraints, plus the fear that softening the position on Hamas would deal more pragmatic forces a fatal blow. Yet even refusal to deal with the Islamists unless they adhere to the Quartet’s conditions need not dictate what Washington would do should a unity government committed to a ceasefire emerge and empower Abbas to negotiate with Israel – particularly if, unlike in 2007, its Arab and European allies both pleaded for flexibility. The U.S. position might well be a function of what the PA leadership, EU and Arab world decide to do. Which makes it all the more dispiriting that, hiding behind America’s presumed inflexibility, they appear for now to have decided to do nothing.


To the Palestinian Liberation Movement (Fatah) and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas):

1.  Form a unified government composed of technocrats chosen by the factions that:

a) commits to enforce a reciprocal Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire; and

b) agrees the PLO Chairman will be mandated to negotiate with Israel, that any agreement will be presented to a referendum and that it will respect its outcome.

2.  Establish, pending a unified government, a committee in Gaza composed of independents appointed by the political factions and representatives of international organisations, the private sector and civil society to:

a) coordinate Palestinian Authority (PA) and donor reconstruction efforts, keeping authorities in the West Bank and Gaza fully informed; and

b) verify that materials imported for reconstruction are being used for their intended purpose.

3.  Establish, pending a unified government, a technocratic committee to maintain and improve coordination between respective ministries in Gaza and Ramallah regarding personnel issues, donor-financed projects and other matters of mutual concern.

4.  Take steps, pending formation of a unified government, to improve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza by:

a) ceasing extrajudicial violence and arrest campaigns against Hamas in the West Bank and Fatah in Gaza, bringing detainees rapidly before civilian courts and expeditiously releasing those not charged with criminal offences;

b) reopening shuttered political and non-govern­mental organisations and allow them to operate free from harassment; and

c) helping maintain non-partisan government institutions by permitting them to function free of interference from security services and without political discrimination.

To Hamas:

5.  Reaffirm its previous position that the PLO Chairman will be mandated to negotiate with Israel, that any agreement will be presented to a referendum and that it will respect its outcome.

6.  Allow reconstruction projects, whether run by the Ramallah-based PA or international groups, to proceed without restriction and forgo the collection of all taxes for these projects.

To the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah:

7.  Maintain salary payments to civil servants and other public sector employees in Gaza.

8.  Continue payment of utilities and basic services in Gaza.

9.  Coordinate reconstruction projects in Gaza with Hamas authorities.

To the Governments of Israel and Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas:

10.  Pursue coordination with Gaza’s authorities to allow regular and continued opening of Gaza’s crossings with Israel and Egypt, including:

a) return of PA border authorities to Gaza’s crossings on the basis of existing regulations;

b) return of PA forces inside and to the immediate perimeter of the crossings and, pending Palestinian security reform, redeployment of Hamas forces away from the crossings, with coordination between the two;

c) resumption of European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) operations at Rafah without interference; and

d) rapid transit of people in need of medical care.

To the Government of Israel:

11.  Allow, pending the full opening of Gaza’s crossings:

a) immediate access for material needed to locate and destroy unexploded ordnance;

b) immediate access for cash to facilitate operation of Gaza’s banking system, payment of PA salaries and social allowances and donor projects; and

c) return food, fuel and energy supplies to their pre-June 2007 level.

To the Donor Community:

12.  Uphold pledges to help rebuild Gaza and agree to work with the above-mentioned Gaza committee and relevant UN agencies.

To the Government of Israel and Hamas:

13.  Negotiate separately a prisoner exchange and a ceasefire agreement without conditioning one on the other.

14.  Agree to a written ceasefire that provides for:

a) a monitoring, reporting and dispute resolution mechanism, with mutually acceptable international oversight; and

b) a blacklist of certain products that will not be allowed into Gaza, in accordance with reasonable Israeli security concerns, with no limitation on other goods or materials.

To the Quartet (U.S., EU, Russian Federation, UN Secretary-General):

15.  Make clear that it will judge a unified Palestinian government on whether:

a) it enforces a mutual ceasefire with Israel; and

b) it agrees that the PLO Chairman will be mandated to negotiate with Israel, any ensuing agreement will be subject to referendum, and it will abide by its outcome.

16.  Encourage the Quartet Special Envoy and UN Special Envoy to meet with Hamas members serving in a unified government.

17.  Pressure all relevant parties to reach agreement on opening the crossings, a ceasefire, a prisoner exchange and a unified government.

To Members of the Arab League:

18.  Make clear to Quartet members that it will support a unified government along the lines described above and encourage others in the international community to engage with it.

Gaza City/Ramallah/Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, 23 April 2009