Friday, September 24, 2010

Gaza's isolation

On Monday, European Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg heard Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy czar, argue that Gaza's "dangerous isolation" had to end. The 27-nation union agreed that Israel's blockade of the Hamas-governed enclave was "unsustainable" and "politically counterproductive."

In the aftermath of the failed May 31st attempt by a Turkish flotilla to defy Israel's maritime quarantine of the Strip, and the ensuing deaths of nine Turkish mercenaries on board, Jerusalem has come under withering pressure to abandon its policy of strictly limiting the type of non-humanitarian commodities allowed into the Strip.

The EU ministers want daily life for the people of Gaza to return to normal and for Israel to relate to Gaza as if Hamas were not ruling the enclave. To that end, the ministers demanded the unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of goods and persons to and from the Strip. No claim of a humanitarian crisis was made, so what appears to be "unsustainable" in Europe's mind is the continued lack of normalcy. The ministers did not relate to the consequences normalization might have on strengthening Hamas's rule. Instead, they obliquely called for "Palestinian reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas."

After Hamas defeated Fatah in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the Quartet – the EU, US, Russia and the UN – laid down conditions Hamas needed to meet to be accepted by the civilized world: a commitment to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous Palestinian obligations. Nevertheless, several EU countries have been discreetly talking to Hamas; Russia has been doing so openly, and Hamas claims it has even had indirect contact with the Obama administration.
For Europe, isolating Gaza is "politically counterproductive" in the sense that some EU members presumably prefer the path of least resistance and are willing to accept Hamas as a fait accompli. Some see dealing with Hamas as potentially facilitating Palestinian reconciliation. And some may hope that engaging Hamas might help moderate its policies.

In fact, the path of least resistance is paved with perilous consequences. The surest indicator Hamas has no interest in moderating its opposition on peace is its rejection of the Quartet's conditions in the first place. And as for promoting Palestinian reconciliation, Fatah has made it plain that the international flirtation with Hamas is unhelpful.
Far from the continued isolation of Gaza being "dangerous," insisting on normalcy under current conditions is untenable. First, it would legitimize and solidify Hamas's suzerainty over the Gaza Strip, institutionalizing a destabilizing, intransigent and obsessively anti-Israel Iranian-backed satellite situated a short drive from metropolitan Tel Aviv. Second, it could set the stage for Hamas's complete takeover of a still under-developed Palestinian polity, dislodging the comparatively moderate Fatah government now in the West Bank. (Indeed, this week's visit to Gaza by Arab League chief Amr Moussa was viewed with consternation by Fatah officials in Ramallah.) Third, and massively important to the West, it could undermine the stability of Egypt – just over the Gaza border -- by providing an infusion of energy and succor to Hamas's beleaguered parent-body, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Gaza blockade is too often portrayed as an arbitrary exercise in Israeli power. History argues otherwise. Ariel Sharon's government, finding no Palestinian peace partner, unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in the summer of 2005 thus presenting the Palestinians with the opportunity to create a Singapore on the Mediterranean. In January 2006, however, Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian elections. Within six months, Gaza gunmen raided Israel killing two IDF soldiers and capturing Gilad Schalit. Israel also came under accelerated bombardment from Gaza. All the while, Arab states sought -- and failed-- to heal the Fatah-Hamas rift. Instead, Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in an orgy of violence. To halt the onslaught of rockets that had traumatized Sderot, Ehud Olmert was obliged to launch Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009). That unfairly-maligned military campaign has mostly deterred further Hamas aggression.

If The New York Times is correct that Israel's efforts to weaken Hamas and drive it from power have failed, it is precisely because the international community has worked so diligently to undermine Israel's labors. The Economist complains that Israel's policy of isolation is responsible for the fact that the Islamists are creating a Gaza in their own image. But precipitously opening up Gaza now would more likely spread the Islamist toxin to the West Bank than relative Fatah moderation to Gaza.
With the Quartet and EU apparently poised to buckle, Hamas is already relishing an end to the blockade. Yet officials in Israel maintain that Hamas is in fact on the brink of political and economic collapse; its popularity among Palestinians faltering. According to a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll released Tuesday, if presidential elections were held today, Abbas would defeat Hamas premier Ismail Haniyeh 54 percent to 39%.

In short, contrary to accepted wisdom, the blockade may well be working.
Israelis are aware that Europeans unfairly view them as paranoid – supposedly suffering from a "siege mentality." Yet a devil-may-care approach to ending Gaza's isolation could permanently implant an empowered Hamas to menace not just the Jewish state and moderate Arabs, but to challenge Western interests for years to come.

-- June 2010

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