The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence
Report 85 / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Gaza's Unfinished Business

The Israel-Hamas war has ended but none of the factors that triggered it have been addressed.

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Executive Summary

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.

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


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