War and Hunger in Gaza and Darfur
War and Hunger in Gaza and Darfur
Briefing / Middle East & North Africa 2 minutes

Round Two in Gaza

Step by methodical step, Hamas is consolidating its control over the Gaza Strip.

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I. Overview

Step by methodical step, Hamas is consolidating its control over the Gaza Strip. The latest development followed a 25 July explosion that killed five of the movement’s military leaders in addition to a young girl. In response, the Islamist movement mounted a broad campaign during which it overran the Hillis family, one of Gaza’s most powerful and which includes prominent Fatah leaders; arrested hundreds of political activists; and raided more than 200 organisations and offices. The campaign largely wiped out the remains of the Palestinian Authority’s security services in Gaza, brought families and smaller political factions to heel, further encroached on civil society and crippled Fatah’s already limited political and military capacities to mobilise. In Arab capitals, there is continued talk of Palestinian reconciliation. In the U.S., there is discussion of a possible peace agreement between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. On the ground, in both Gaza and the West Bank, events are taking a decisively different turn.

Since Hamas’s June 2007 takeover of Gaza, the U.S., Israel, several Arab states and elements within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah have been counting on a strategy of weakening Hamas by isolating Gaza. That approach lies in tatters. The Islamist movement has scored a series of significant tactical victories. Internally, it has improved security and marginalised political challengers. It has reshaped the bureaucracy and pushed out those still loyal to the Ramallah-based government. Externally, it concluded a ceasefire with Israel, which is shaky but still holding. Hamas is developing its ties with outside actors, most recently Jordan.

It all has come at a price. The movement has acquired a reputation for brutality, and many Gazans are scared, particularly after the assault on the Hillis family. They live under a regime that has yet to complete its transition from militia to civilian rule. The government, by its own admission, is constrained to administering a crisis. The economy is a shambles and the flow through the commercial crossings, the ceasefire agreement notwithstanding, has been disappointingly meagre. Hamas has alienated other Palestinian factions, deepened the chasm with Egypt and reinforced the U.S. and Israeli perception – not yet tested, it must be said – that it would be an inflexible negotiating partner. Events also have complicated efforts to maintain the movement’s unity and discipline, as the leadership in Gaza develops
different interests and a new taste for power.

For now, the movement deems the gains worth the costs. Its leaders remain hopeful that greater internal security and improved governance will bolster its domestic popularity and that, as it proves its resilience, international isolation will further erode. It also takes solace from the fate of its domestic foe. The PA and its international allies have yet to turn the West Bank into a model of progress, the likelihood of a comprehensive peace agreement recedes by the day, and President Abbas’s legitimacy will be further undermined when his term comes to an end – which, according to some interpretations, is as early as January 2009. Meanwhile, Hamas is turning Gaza into an entirely different kind of model: one of internal security, regime consolidation and refusal to compromise on the movement’s basic principles.

Reversing the drift toward greater Palestinian separation, both political and geographic, will be a difficult and, at this point, almost hopeless task. In Gaza, new realities are taking hold; likewise in the West Bank, where some PA and PLO leaders are contemplating cutting all links with Gaza, including ceasing salary payments. Prospects for reconciliation, reunification and a credible peace process seem as distant and illusory as ever.

Gaza City/Ramallah/Brussels, 11 September 2008

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