The message delivered to Condoleezza Rice this
week by Israeli officials is that the humanitarian and economic disaster befalling
Gaza has a single, reversible cause: the capture by Palestinian fighters of
an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in late June from a perimeter artillery position
that had been shelling Gaza.
When Shalit is returned, negotiations can start, or so Rice was told by Israel's
defense minister, Amir Peretz.
If Peretz and others are to be believed, the gunmen could have done themselves
and the 1.4 million people of Gaza a favor and simply executed Shalit weeks
ago. Israel doubtless would have inflicted terrible retribution, such as the
bombing of the Strip's only power station except, of course, it had already
done that to avenge Shalit's capture. But, with the Israeli soldier dead, there
would have been no obstacle to sitting down and talking.
Yet, as we all know, there would have been. Because Israel's refusal to negotiate
and its crushing of Gaza long predates the capture of Shalit.
The international community's economic blockade of the Strip, for example,
has nothing to do with the seizing of the soldier; that was because Gazans had
the temerity to cast their vote for the politicians of Hamas in January. The
Palestinians' exercise of their democratic rights is also the reason why Palestinians
with American and European passports are being torn from their families in the
occupied territories and expelled.
The recent unremitting Palestinian death toll, of hundreds of civilians, is
also unrelated to Shalit. That is apparently the necessary response to the homemade
Qassam rockets fired from the Strip into Israel. As are the sonic booms of Israeli
warplanes in the middle of the night that traumatize Gaza's children.
And what about Israel's refusal last year to coordinate its disengagement
from Gaza with the Palestinian security forces? That was because Israel had
"no partner for peace," even though the supine President Mahmoud Abbas,
of Fatah, was then in sole charge.
Israel's bulldozing of large sections of the densely crowded refugee camp
of Rafah, making thousands homeless, had nothing to do with Shalit either. That
was related to weapons smuggling tunnels. And the extra-judicial executions
of Palestinian political and military leaders, with the inevitable "collateral
damage" to bystanders, began before Shalit attended his first school. That
is supposedly an essential component in the never-ending war against Palestinian
In other words, Israel has always found reasons for oppressing, destroying
and killing in Gaza, whatever the circumstances. Let us not forget that Israel's
occupation began four decades ago, long before anyone had heard, or dreamt,
of Hamas. Israel's rampages through Gaza have continued unabated, even though
Hamas' military wing refrained from retaliating to Israeli provocations and
maintained a ceasefire for more than a year and a half.
Shalit is the current pretext, but there are a host of others that can be
adopted should the need arise. And that is because as far as Israel and its
American patron are concerned, any Palestinian resistance to the illegal occupation
of Gaza and the West Bank is unacceptable. Whatever the Palestinians do
apart from submitting willingly to occupation and permanently renouncing their
right to statehood is justification for Israeli "retaliation."
Absolute political and military inactivity is the only approved option for
the Palestinians, both because it implies acceptance of the occupation and because
then the world can quietly forget about the suffering in Gaza and the West Bank.
On the other hand, Palestinian activity of any kind and especially in
pursuit of goals like national liberation must be punished.
Heads I win, tails you lose.
All this provides the context for decoding the latest events unfolding in
Gaza, as rival fighters from Fatah and Hamas confront each other violently on
This is the moment Israel has long been waiting for, from the moment a Likud
government that included Ariel Sharon began seriously meddling in internal Palestinian
politics by helping to establish the Muslim Brotherhood organization that later
became Hamas. Israel hoped that an Islamist party would be a bulwark to the
growing popularity of Yasser Arafat's exiled Fatah party and its secular Palestinian
Things, of course, did not go quite to plan. In the first intifada that erupted
in 1987, Hamas adopted the same assertive agenda of Palestinian national liberation
(with added Islamic trimmings) as Fatah. The two groups' goals complemented
each other rather than conflicted.
Later, after Israel finally allowed Arafat to return to the occupied territories
under the terms of the Oslo accords, the Palestinian president avoided as far
as possible carrying out Israeli demands to crack down on Hamas, understanding
that this would risk a civil war that would damage Palestinian society and weaken
the chances of eventual statehood.
Similarly, Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, resisted confronting Hamas almost
as studiously as he has avoided challenging Israeli diktats. Instead, until
recently at least, we saw fighters from Hamas and Fatah in Gaza cooperating
on several attacks on military positions.
But this week's clashes in Gaza are the first signs that Israel may be succeeding
in its designs to deflect the Palestinian resistance from its common goal of
national liberation to achieve a state by redirecting its energies
into fratricidal war.
Or as Zeev Schiff, a veteran Haaretz commentator with exceptional contacts
in the military, observed: "Lesson number 1 is that the international financial
and economic siege of the Hamas government, which is being led by the United
States, is succeeding."
Certainly the economic blockade has nothing to do with securing the return
of Shailt, as even a senior Israeli army officer and self-styled "counter-terrorism
expert" warned this week. "Due to the disagreements between the two
sides [Hamas and Fatah], the soldier's release is not in sight," Col. Moshe
Marzouk told the website of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.
Instead, the economic strangulation of Gaza has been the catalyst for internal
Palestinian conflict. Inevitably, social bonds grow weak and fragile, even tear,
when nearly half the population is unemployed and more than three-quarters are
living in poverty. If children are hungry, parents will contemplate opposing
their government even if they agree with its goals to put food
on the table.
But the immiseration of Gaza does not, of itself, explain why the clashes
are taking place, or what is motivating the factions. This is not just about
who will get the scraps from the master's table, or even a struggle between
two parties Hamas and Fatah for control of the government. It
is now no less than a battle for the very soul of Palestinian nationalism.
It is no coincidence that the international community, at Israel's behest,
has been making three demands of the Hamas government that supposedly justify
the throttling of Gaza's economy. The conditions are now well-known: recognizing
Israel, renouncing violence, and abiding by previous agreements.
Let us put aside Israel's worse failure as the stronger party
to honor any of these conditions. Observers rarely note that Israel has never
recognized the Palestinians' right to statehood, not even in the Oslo accords,
nor has it defined the extent of its own borders; it has not for one moment
renounced violence against Palestinian resistance to occupation; and it has
consistently broken its agreements, including by expanding its illegal settlement
program and by annexing Palestinian land under cover of building the West Bank
But more strangely, observers have also failed to note both that Fatah, first
under Arafat and then Abbas, agreed to all three conditions years ago and that
Fatah's compliance to Israeli demands never helped advance the struggle for
statehood by one inch.
Arafat and the PLO recognized Israel back in the late 1980s, and the Palestinian
leader put his signature to this recognition again in the Oslo accords. In returning
to the occupied territories as head of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat also
renounced violence against Israel. He headed the new security forces whose job
was to crack down on Palestinian dissent, not respond to Israel's many military
provocations or fight the occupation. And of course, Arafat and Fatah, unlike
Israel, had every reason to want previous agreements honored: they mistakenly
believed that they were their best hope of winning statehood. They did not factor
in Israel's bad faith, and its continuation and intensification of the settlement
So the lesson learned by Hamas from the Fatah years of rule is that these
conditions were and are only a trap, and that they were imposed by Israel to
win Palestinian obeisance to the occupation, not national liberation. During
the Oslo years, the benefits of accepting Israeli conditions accrued not in
a peace dividend that led to Palestinian statehood but in rewards that flowed
from collaboration with the occupation, a stealthly corruption that enriched
many of Fatah's leaders and kept its followers in the large government bureaucracy
at a basic standard of living.
Following the outbreak of the second intifada, a majority of ordinary Palestinian
voters began to understand how terminally damaging Fatah's complicity with the
occupation had become. For example, as Palestinian, Israeli and international
activists tried to demonstrate against the building of Israel's wall across
the West Bank, and the subsequent annexation of large swaths of Palestinian
land to Israel, the protesters found obstacles placed in their way at every
turn by the ruling Fatah party. Its leaders did not want to jeopardize their
cement and building contracts with Israel by ending the wall's progress. Liberation
was delayed for the more immediate prize of remuneration.
By signing up to the same conditions as Fatah, Hamas would be as good as abandoning
its goal of national liberation, as well as forsaking the majority of voters
who realized that Fatah's corrupt relationship with Israel had to end. Hamas
would self-destruct, which is reason enough why Israel is making such strenuous
demands of the international community to force Hamas to comply.
"The Palestinians need a government that can provide for their needs
and meet the conditions of the Quartet," Rice said this week, adding that
she wanted to strengthen the "moderates" like Abbas.
The struggle on the streets of Gaza is a defining moment, one that may eventually
decide whether a real national unity government one seeking Palestinian
statehood is possible.
The question is: will Fatah force Hamas to cave in to Israeli demands and
co-opt it, or will Hamas force Fatah to abandon its collaboration and return
to the original path of national liberation?
The stakes could not be higher. If Hamas wins, then the Palestinians will
have the chance to re-energize the intifada, launch a proper, consensual fight
to end the occupation, one that unites the secular and religious, and try to
face down the bullying of the international community. As with most national
liberation struggles, the price in lives and suffering is likely to be steep.
If Fatah wins and Hamas falls, we will be back to the Oslo process of official
Palestinian collaboration with Israel and consent to the ghettoization of the
population this time behind walls. Such an arrangement may be done under
Fatah rule or, more likely, under the favored international option of government
by Palestinian technocrats, presumably vetted by Israel and the United States.
The consequences are not difficult to divine. If the hopes of ordinary Palestinians
for national liberation are dashed again, if Hamas falters just as Fatah did
before it, these frustrated popular energies will resurface, finding a new release
and one likely to have a different agenda from either Hamas or Fatah.
If the goal of establishing a Palestinian state cannot be realized, then the
danger is that many Palestinians will look elsewhere for their liberation, not
necessarily in national but in wider, regional and religious terms. The Islamic
component of the struggle at the moment a gloss, even for Hamas, on what
is still a national liberation movement will grow and deepen. National
liberation will take a back seat to religious jihad.
Do Israel and the United States not understand this? Or maybe, like serial
felons who cannot de diverted from the path of crime, they are simply incapable
of changing their ways.