For an informal smuggling route, the tunnel complex underneath Gaza’s border with Egypt is remarkably formal. A security cordon of chicken-wire fencing surrounds the Gazan side of the site, barring entrance from Rafah town a few hundred meters away. At each exit a squad in military fatigues monitors the round-the-clock traffic for blacklisted goods. At one checkpoint, Hamas security men frisked a youth in jeans and a baggy T-shirt, discovering a colored paper bag taped to his waist. Inside were 16 packets of tramadol, an opioid painkiller that can be purchased over the counter in Egypt but is sold by the pill in Gaza. The young man’s stash would have fetched 6,000 shekels (over $1,600) on the streets.
Every year or so the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas confounds the Western policymakers who have worked to deny it power since its electoral triumph in January 2006. If the goal of Western policy is to keep the Islamists out of sight, out of mind, then Hamas is like a jack-in-the-box, periodically jumping out of its confines to general surprise and consternation.
Shortly before assuming office, President Barack Obama was handed a missive signed by such Washington luminaries as ex-national security advisers Zbigniew Brezezinski and Brent Scowcroft, urging him to “explore the possibility” of direct contact with Hamas. One month after he entered the White House, Obama received an epistle from Ahmad Yousef, a Gaza-based spokesman for the Islamist movement, making the same recommendation. “There can be no peace without Hamas,” Yousef told the New York Times when asked about the letter’s contents. “We congratulated Mr. Obama on his presidency and reminded him that he should live up to his promise to bring real change to the region.”
Speaking to his people on January 18, hours after Hamas responded to Israel’s unilateral suspension of hostilities with a conditional ceasefire of its own, the deposed Palestinian Authority prime minister Ismail Haniyeh devoted several passages of his prepared text to the subject of Palestinian national reconciliation. For perhaps the first time since Hamas’s June 2007 seizure of power in the Gaza Strip, an Islamist leader broached the topic of healing the Palestinian divide without mentioning Mahmoud Abbas by name.
Three weeks after the war on Gaza, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire but refused to terminate its so-called defensive operations. In response, Hamas declared a ceasefire for one week, until the withdrawal of Israeli troops has been completed. For many in the West, the ceasefire might seem like an occasion to celebrate, for the cessation of military hostilities on both sides will perhaps renew the peace process. But there are reasons to be critical of this ceasefire, since it continues the situation in which Israel acts unilaterally. What we are actually witnessing is a new phase of the catastrophe in Gaza. While the characteristics of this phase are not yet known, Israel’s violence has become ever more evident.
Shortly after 11:30 am on December 27, 2008, at the height of the midday bustle on the first day of the Gazan week and with multitudes of schoolchildren returning home from the morning shift, close to 90 Israeli warplanes launched over 100 tons of explosives at some 100 targets throughout the 139 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Within minutes, the near simultaneous air raids killed more than 225 and wounded at least 700, more than 200 of them critically. These initial attacks alone produced dozens more dead than any other day in the West Bank and Gaza combined since Israel’s occupation of those lands commenced in June 1967.
A stopped clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. The “senior Bush administration official” who chatted with the Washington Post on December 28 was right that Israel is “not trying to take over the Gaza Strip” with the massive assault launched the previous day, and correct that the Israelis are bombing now “because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in.” That’s twice, and so one must take this official’s remaining reasoning — that President-elect Barack Obama may not smile upon Israel’s gross abuses of military power as the Bush administration has done — with a grain of salt.
The latest convoluted set of events within Palestine, and at its borders, form a depressing tableau that mirrors the conflict as a whole.
Since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent Middle East tour concluded without concrete results, and unity talks between Fatah and Hamas remain at a standstill, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian political compromise appears bleaker than ever. But Palestinian lives and livelihoods should no longer be held hostage to the reigning diplomatic stagnation.
Secretary Rice’s recent Middle East tour concluded without any discussion of peace between Israel and Palestine. Unity talks between Fatah and Hamas have hit a standstill. In other words, the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian political compromise appears bleaker than ever. Meanwhile, US and European governments reiterate their demands of the Palestinian Authority after Hamas’ electoral victory in March: recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace accords. While Hamas has repeatedly offered Israel a long-term truce, they have not announced their recognition of the Jewish state.
President Bush and many other supporters of the current Israeli assault on Lebanon and its reoccupation of the Gaza Strip justify these military actions on the grounds that Hamas and Hezbollah do not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Negotiating with “terrorists” is impossible, they claim, because Hamas and Hezbollah exist only to destroy Israel.
“WAR,” proclaimed the three-inch headline in Ma‘ariv, Israel’s leading daily, the day after Hizballah launched its cross-border attack on an Israeli army convoy on July 12. With the onset of Israel’s massive bombing campaign in Lebanon that evening, its aerial and ground incursions into Gaza were transformed into the southern front of a two-front conflict. But are the two fronts, in Lebanon and Gaza, part of a single war? Speaking in such terms risks misidentifying what really links Israel’s actions on its northern and southern borders.
The elections scheduled for March 28, 2006 will conclude what has got to be one of the more bizarre campaigns in Israel’s history. The series of totally unexpected events began with Amir Peretz’s surprise victory over Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the race for the Labor Party leadership. Peretz immediately withdrew Labor from the coalition government, forcing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to call early elections.
The Bush administration is caught in a trap of its own making. Having championed democratic elections in the Middle East, Washington now confronts a politically unpalatable outcome—a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas, the radical Islamic group.
The choices for the US are stark, but clear. President Bush can either accept Israel’s logic of unilaterally imposing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or he can show some leadership and insist that Israel finally end the occupation.
Two days before the January 25 Palestinian legislative elections, Birzeit University professor and Hamas campaign adviser Nashat Aqtash found himself in an unusual situation. Bound by US regulations forbidding direct contact with Hamas, the joint National Democratic Institute (NDI)/Carter Center election observer delegation asked Aqtash — who pointedly describes himself as a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not of Hamas — to brief its members on the Islamic organization’s philosophy and electoral activities. After enthusiastically showing several Hamas TV advertisements, Aqtash provided the large group of observers gathered in Ramallah a list of reasons why Hamas may consider a long-term hudna (state of calm), but never a permanent peace with Israel.
On January 27, 2006, Fatah activists and Palestinian security personnel converged on the Palestinian Authority’s parliament building in Gaza City. Within minutes, cars were torched, tires set aflame and stones thrown at election banners displaying the visages of victorious Hamas candidates. The cry was for vengeance, particularly against a leadership that had just presided over Palestine’s premier nationalist movement’s worst political defeat in its 47-year history.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted that her staff was caught off guard by Hamas’ victory in the Jan. 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming,” she said. “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.”
While the State Department, President Bush and many other observers understand that Hamas’ popularity is due to frustration with Fatah’s corrupt governance of the Palestinian Authority, they have been missing several other crucial reasons why the P.A. has failed.
In March 2005, Hamas, the largest Islamist party in Palestine, joined its main secular rival Fatah and 11 other Palestinian organizations in endorsing a document that seemed to embody the greatest harmony achieved within the Palestinian national movement in almost two decades. By the terms of the Cairo Declaration, Hamas agreed to “maintain an atmosphere of calm”—halt attacks on Israel—for the rest of the year, participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for July and commence discussions about joining the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).