How to Curb the Tension in Gaza
With Robert Malley, Financial Times, 6 July 2006
Ever since the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit was abducted by Palestinian militants a little over a week ago, all actors in the current drama in Gaza have been performing according to script.
Not knowing what to do, they are doing what they know. For Hamas – the elected Palestinian government – that means violence; for Israel, collective punishment; and for the international community – well, not much really. None of this will lead anywhere, certainly nowhere good. There is a desperate need for all parties to reassess pragmatically their positions.
The first step is to understand what the crisis is and is not about. Israeli and western analysts swiftly concluded that Hamas’s decision to resume armed attacks reflected a deep internal split, that it was dictated by a harder-line Islamist leadership in exile bent on confrontation in order to embarrass a more pragmatic Islamist government obsessed with self-preservation. If tensions within Hamas prompted the violence, then the way to end it was surely to isolate its more radical external wing while pressuring local leaders to make a more decisive break.
This analysis, and the policies to which it has given rise, display unhappy ignorance of how Hamas functions and what its current leadership is about. Differences of opinion do exist, but they are far more complex than any tidy inside/outside split could possibly suggest.
The International Crisis Group, as a conflict prevention organisation, meets very regularly with its leaders, in the occupied territories and elsewhere. We have little patience for Hamas’s ideology and nothing but revulsion for its terror tactics. But we listen. Over the past several weeks, we have heard divergent tonalities, distinct priorities – and one overriding message: let Hamas govern or watch it fight.
Governing is what Hamas has not been permitted to do. From Fatah, its rival secular movement, to Israel, the Arab world and the west, the strategy since the January 25 Palestinian elections has been roughly similar and wholly transparent: to pressure and isolate the government, squeeze it of funds and count on popular discontent with its non- performance to ensure the Hamas experience in power comes to a rapid end. In this context, the recent attack on the Keren Shalom military base came neither out of nowhere nor out of intra-Hamas divisions. It came, chiefly, from the Islamists’ calculation that they should show they had options other than electoral politics – and that the consequences of their governmental failure would be borne by all.
It is understandable, in this fraught environment, that Israel may believe that punishing the Palestinian people in violation of international law is all it can do to preserve its deterrent credibility and discourage future abductions. But lead to the soldier’s release unharmed? Strengthen Palestinian pragmatists? Restore the ceasefire? By now, through trial and serial errors, one would hope Israeli leaders know better. In the current confrontation, Hamas’s support is growing, its ranks are becoming more unified and its detractors are being reduced to silence.
None of this paints a pretty picture but it may suggest a way out. If a deal is to be reached, its rough outlines are predictable: Israel wants quiet, and Hamas wants the ability to govern. Hamas must release the soldier, reinstate the truce and stop all militias firing rockets. Israel must end its Gaza incursion, cease disproportionate military action in the occupied territories and release recently jailed ministers and parliamentarians as well as Palestinian prisoners who have not been charged with an offence. Getting any such agreement will require far more active and assertive third party mediation than has been the case so far.
Any resulting tranquillity will be only fleeting if the international boycott of the Palestinian Authority continues. That decision never made much sense in terms of Europe’s and America’s own stated objective, to induce Hamas’s evolution. It makes even less sense now if the goal is to prevent all-out deterioration.
The recent signing of a Fatah-Hamas agreement, the decision to form a national unity government and the designation of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, as the person in charge of negotiations with Israel do not quite add up to the conditions put forward by the Quartet group of Middle East mediators for treating this government as it did its predecessor. But, insufficient as they may be, these developments do represent some movement. Given the urgency of the current situation, they ought to prompt at least Brussels to rethink its posture and consider expanding its funding mechanism to include Palestinian salaries and the critically important security sector.
The western consensus since the Palestinian elections has been that no one should deal with Hamas unless it fundamentally alters its ideology. That is a perfectly defensible position until you actually want something from the group – ending violence, say, or releasing a hostage.
Whether the deal outlined above actually can be reached is anything but sure. But the alternative is known. It has been seen before. And it is hauntingly depressing.
Gareth Evans is president and Robert Malley Middle East programme director of the International Crisis Group