THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Robert Malley

Defusing the Gaza time bomb

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Robert Malley
January 20, 2008

THE GAZA STRIP suffers from sky-rocketing unemployment and poverty, and lacks medicine, fuel, electricity, food, and other essential commodities. It is virtually cut off. It also is the most likely trigger for the next Arab-Israeli war.

In the past few weeks, Palestinian militant groups have fired rockets and mortars into Israel. Israeli incursions and aerial attacks have resulted in Palestinian casualties, including one that killed the son of one of Hamas's senior leaders. The situation is untenable, and both sides know it. Israel is unlikely to stand idly by as Hamas's arsenal grows and attacks continue. Hamas undoubtedly will retaliate for the deaths. Neither can afford to back down.

Over recent weeks, Hamas officials in Gaza made clear they were prepared for a mutual cease-fire, entailing an end to rocket launches, a cessation of Israeli military attacks, and an opening of Gaza's crossings. Since Hamas's takeover of Gaza last June and the Islamists' intensified conflict with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, their principal goals have been to consolidate their hold over the territory, reestablish law and order, and prove that they can govern. A severe conflict with Israel would threaten the first two objectives; maintenance of the border closures imperils the third.

Israeli officials appear torn. They are not eager to reenter a territory from which they recently withdrew; know the risks of a ground operation; and are unsure that even an extensive military campaign can stop the rockets. But they see another side. To reach a cease-fire with Hamas and loosen the siege could bolster a movement they are determined to weaken; to deal with the Islamists could undercut Abbas, increase the pressure he feels to reconcile with Hamas, and thus jeopardize the fragile peace process recently revived at Annapolis, Md.; and to halt operations in Gaza could give Hamas a free hand to improve its military capacity.

A cease-fire goes against today's prevailing theory. But it is the theory itself that goes against logic. Gazans, grateful to Hamas for having significantly improved their security, will say they are distressed by the economic hardships and angry at the Islamists' brutal behavior. To the extent the movement has lost popularity the attempt to enfeeble Hamas by squeezing Gaza is working. Yet the success is meaningless. Hamas's losses are not necessarily Fatah's gains; Gazans blame the Islamists for being unable to end the siege but they also blame Israel (for imposing it), the West (for supporting it), and Fatah (for acquiescing in it).

Nor is there evidence that Hamas's grip on power is loosening. To the contrary: as elsewhere, economic punishment is hurting the population far more than its leaders. The private sector is collapsing, increasing the dependence of ordinary citizens on those who govern. Hamas finds ways to finance its rule and invokes the siege to justify its practices. The situation may be catastrophic but is far from unsustainable. Far less popular regimes have survived far more onerous conditions.

As for a cease-fire's impact on Abbas and the Annapolis process, conventional wisdom has it backward. The more the siege continues and the pressure on Hamas intensifies, the more the Islamists will be tempted to heighten the confrontation with Israel. When that happens, how long before the peace process - whatever of it there is - collapses? Israel will be unable to continue negotiating with Abbas while its citizens are under assault. Abbas will be unable to keep negotiating with Israel while its counteroffensive in Gaza leaves a trail of death and destruction. The gravest threat to diplomatic progress comes not from Palestinian unity but division; it comes not when Hamas has something to gain, but when Hamas concludes it has nothing to lose.

The most persuasive argument is that Hamas will use a cease-fire to bolster its firepower. Admittedly, the quasi-blockade and Israel's military operations have hardly stemmed the flow of arms, as Israeli anxieties about the Islamists' rising power attest. But things could get worse. A cease-fire deal therefore should be accompanied by Israeli red lines as to what might enter Gaza combined with more effective arrangements with Cairo - perhaps involving a third party presence - to minimize the flow of arms across Egypt's border.

In conversations with Israeli and Hamas leaders, it becomes apparent that all-out military confrontation is neither side's first choice. But events, inexorably, are fast leading there. The cost will be measured in enormous loss of life, a generation of radicalized and embittered Gazans, and another bankrupt peace process. On humanitarian grounds alone, reaching a cease-fire and lifting the collective punishment imposed on Gaza's population would be the right thing to achieve. If humanitarian considerations have no place, perhaps common sense will do.

Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.

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