Gershon Baskin cites Prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage unilaterally and not as part of an agreement with the PA as the reason that led directly to the election of Hamas.
For anyone who follows developments in Gaza, the selection of Yahya Sinwar as the new top leader in Gaza is no surprise. Sinwar was the most important prisoner released by Israel in 2006, a key Hamas leader who had been in prison for 22 years.
His presence in Gaza was felt immediately, but most notably after Israel assassinated Hamas strongman Ahmad Jabari in November 2012. He was the most distinct military leader on the Hamas side during the summer war of 2014 and since then has been the most powerful Hamas leader on the ground.
The military wing of Hamas, Izzadin Kassam, has been effectively running Gaza since the Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2006, and its power has increased with each Gaza war (2008-9, 2012, 2014).
While Israel does not control everything that happens in Gaza or in Hamas, its failed policies over the past decade have had a direct connection to the empowerment of Hamas and the strengthening of the most radical extreme elements within it.
Israel’s first major mistake in this context concerns the Gaza disengagement. Prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage unilaterally and not as part of an agreement with the PA led directly to the election of Hamas. Sharon called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “a chick without feathers” and declared that he was not a partner, and that was after Abbas inherited the Palestinian leadership following the death of Yasser Arafat. Abbas became president with an electoral victory of 63% on a ticket which campaigned against the militarization of the conflict with Israel, against the second intifada and against terrorism.
Abbas was committed to rebuilding the PA based on the Bush administration’s Road Map, which included dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism. The international community appointed former World Bank president Dr. James Wolfensohn as a special envoy to coordinate Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and to help ensure its economic success.
The PA created 12 technical committees to coordinate disengagement with Israel under the direction of then national security adviser Muhammad Dahlan. Nonetheless Sharon refused to coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian technical committees remained orphans.
Israel decided to demolish all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza rather than leaving them for the PA to house refugees; the PA had begun planning a raffle among Gaza’s poorest to get a jump-start on a new beginning. A very senior official in Sharon’s office told me “off the record” that Sharon’s intention was that the Palestinians would fail in taking over Gaza and international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank would be significantly lessened. That is in fact what happened.
The classic example given of the PA’s failure in running the affairs of Gaza is the hothouses that produced $250 million of income when Israel was running the show and went bankrupt after two seasons of PA management.
The truth of the matter is of the 5,000 sq.m. of hothouses that existed in Gush Katif, about 500 were dismantled by settlers themselves. Another 500 were dismantled by Palestinian vandalism before the PA security forces took over the area.
Four thousand square meters of hothouses were put under the management of a private Palestinian company established for this purpose that employed the very same workers and technologies used by the settlers. But after the disengagement Israel closed the borders and the goods rotted before ever getting to the Israeli markets. During the first 100 days after disengagement, the border crossing to Israel was open 17 days.
When Palestinians went to the polls in 2006 they were faced with two narratives – the Fatah narrative of failed negotiations and corruption and the Hamas narrative of victory in forcing Israel out of Gaza, clean government and determination to get free all of Palestine.
Hamas claimed victory for kicking Israel out of Gaza by using violence and in addition to party discipline, Hamas did not actually run in the elections – the Party of Change and Reform essentially ran without the Hamas Covenant ever appearing. Hamas swept the elections, taking control of the PA (but with only one third of the vote).
Then, after elections, with a Hamas victory in the parliament, Israel froze the transfers of tax money to the PA and the employees of the PA security forces were not paid, even though Hamas had no control over the security forces. Those people later saw little reason to risk their lives defending the PA when Hamas’s military forces began attacking them to take control of Gaza. When Hamas finalized its bloody takeover, President Abbas disbanded the Hamas-controlled parliament and declared the Gaza government illegal, but he still remained a non-partner for Israel.
Hamas successfully attacked Israel in June 2006 at Kerem Shalom, killing two soldiers and kidnapping another in the first tunnel attack. Israel knew about the presence of tunnels (in 1995 I was told by a Palestinian general of the existence of 35 tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. He asked me to report it to the Israeli authorities, and I did) yet in 2006 Hamas was able to launch a surprise attack against Israel.
Israel then devised its failed policy of “isolation” of Gaza under the premise that engagement with the PA under the leadership of prime minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank would create a new economic and political reality, which would clearly demonstrate that supporting peace and moderation would pay off.
While at the same time by leaving Hamas in power in Gaza, the people of Gaza would suffer and understand that they needed to get rid of the organization. Only the shift to a positive reality in the West Bank was very slow and very non-strategic, and the harshness of the closure of Gaza angered Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as other nations of the world, especially in the Middle East.
When it became clear that the Israeli policies were limiting the importation of basic foods into Gaza, calculated on an average needed intake of calories, people were furious – at Israel, not Hamas. Support for Hamas increased and anger against the PA that was cooperating with Israel also increased. And then came Cast Lead.
Soon after the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel developed and implemented a policy it called “isolation” of Gaza to convince the Palestinian people that they had made a very bad choice. The basic idea was that Gaza would be cut off from the world under the guise of a military blockade, which was certainly justified, but moreover Gaza was essentially sealed off to the world.
In the years before the takeover of Egypt by President Abdel Fattah Sisi, the Gazan economy survived because of about 1,000 tunnels that enabled everything imaginable to get into the strip. Since Sisi came to power, the tunnels have been destroyed, the legal crossing point between Sinai and Gaza has been closed almost all the time, and the Israeli crossings into Gaza have been one-way only – going into Gaza.
While during the first years of the isolation policy there were very strict limitations on what got into and out of Gaza, in recent years the type and quantity of goods getting into Gaza has greatly increased, but still almost nothing gets out. The result of this policy is a destroyed Gazan economy, with over 40% unemployment (Over 60% in the under-30 age bracket), more than 100,000 university graduates with no jobs and no future, closed factories and broken dreams. The policy of isolation has not created a public revolt against Hamas mainly because the people of Gaza see no other viable option – especially when there is also no hope of a political settlement in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority cooperates with Israel on security issues, including the battle against Hamas.
Imagine living in a place which is so small and so densely populated, where you live in a large cage, closed on all sides, with no hope for any kind of decent future. Do you blame your leaders who stand up to your enemy, or do you blame those who hold the keys to the gates – those you believe stole your home and destroyed your future? In a reality where there is no viable peace process, no negotiations and continued foreign control of your economy, including water and electricity, as well as total control over movement and access – what would you do? I imagine you would not surrender.
To me the Israeli policy of isolation of Gaza makes no sense whatsoever. The military blockade that is preventing weapons from entering Gaza does makes sense and is also legal under international law, but the disconnection of Gaza from the world is senseless and only strengthens the most extreme elements within Gaza – as we continue to see. Israel controls not only what gets into Gaza, they also what gets out. There is no real security problem in allowing convoys of trucks to be inspected at the Gaza-Israel crossings and then escorted to the West Bank, or to the Allenby bridge for transit to Jordan. There is also no real security problem involved in allowing goods produced in Gaza to be sold in Israel, because every truck and box can be securely checked by Israel.
At the time of disengagement there were more than a million pieces of garments being sewed in Gaza for Israeli companies to be exported to Europe. There are many possibilities for enabling the Gaza economy to be reconnected with Israel, the West Bank and the rest of the world. This would help in rebuilding a moderate middle class, which has been totally destroyed in Gaza since the implementation of the isolation policy.
Gaza agricultural products used to flow freely into Israel and Gazan farmers bought Israeli seeds, fertilizers, irrigation equipment and used to export their goods via the Israeli export company Agrexco. Beit Hanun and Beit Lahiya in the north of Gaza were described in the past as villages of peace. My organization, IPCRI, conducted many joint training sessions for Gaza farmers together with the Israeli Volcani Agricultural Institute. We also conducted hundreds of meetings between Gazan businessmen and their Israeli counterparts. This can all be renewed, if the Israeli policy of isolation is reversed.
Last evening I spent a long time on the phone with a young woman university graduate from Gaza who wants to continue her studies in the West Bank. It is against the policy of isolation to allow this woman to study in the West Bank. Why? How does this convince her and her family to being against Hamas? It doesn’t – but as she said to me, “I support peace with Israel, but does Israel support peace with me?” There are many, many people like this one young woman from Gaza who never met an Israeli before, never visited Israel and is taught to see Israel as the wall, the fence and closed gate standing between her and her future.
If the situation in Gaza remains based on the same isolation policy, it will continue to deteriorate. If that is the case, then the next Gaza war really is a question of when and not if. From previous experiences we should know that the one unifying factor that increases support for Hamas in Gaza, the West Bank and throughout the Muslim world, is when Israel goes to war against Gaza. Three times since 2008 should provide us with enough knowledge to understand that the surest way to support Hamas is to wage war against it.
Hamas has less support today amongst Gazans than at any point since the summer war of 2014. Prior to that war Hamas was at a low point in public support as well. The people in Gaza need to understand that there are viable alternatives to Hamas, they need to know that moderation is worthwhile.
Israel needs an intelligent policy on Gaza that takes into account the fact that the people of Gaza will always be our neighbors, they are not going into the sea and they are not going to disappear. Their welfare and their future is an Israeli concern and Israel should use its power to enable the best possible future for those people, without having to take direct responsibility for them. It is time to dump the policy of isolation and to allow the people of Gaza to once again excersise their rights to freedom and a better life.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.