Monday, October 24, 2011

Gaza Could Be an Independent Palestinian State Right Away

David Eshel

After the young Sergeant Major Gilad Shalit was released from his sixty-five months long captive ordeal, against over a thousand notorious terrorists, many of them with horrendous acts of brutality on their pallet, there are mixed feelings among many Israelis and Arabs alike. History reminds us that earlier mass exchanges have produced increased violence, as many of the liberated returned to the ranks of terror against Israelis, some of them even becoming ruthless leaders of terror cells.

After the somewhat exaggerated rejoycings both in Israel and Gaza, a more sober assessment of the future should be in place. And there are mostly negative repercussions in sight, based on a realistic outlook. The abhorrent display in Gaza City, while pinning medals for "bravery" onto the chests of those brutal murderers during a mass parade, turned them into national stars for the youngsters watching the scene. It must have encouraged them to become such future "heroes" or even follow in the footsteps of the Hamas “Shahid” martyrs, who, alas, were not present at this heinous occasion. These unfortunate prospects are the most appropriate expectations in any future foregathering between Israelis and Palestinians, and not only with Hamas in Gaza.

Ismail Haniyeh
Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari, the notorious leader of the ruthless Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, already stated: "We will continue to abduct Israeli soldiers and officers as long as there are Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails." This inflammatory statement by Hamas should not come as a surprise to any thinking rationale in Israel and elsewhere. Israel's willingness to repeatedly exchange thousands of Palestinian prisoners, legally accused, sentenced and incarcerated with several lifelong terms, against single or even deceased soldiers, is giving clear signals to future abductions as a modus operandi by Islamic terrorists. With the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, unremittingly trying to receive backing for statehood by the United Nations, which, alas, so far has not achieved results, the situation in the West Bank could soon escalate once more into violence, if the upsurge in the popularity of a militant Hamas, particularily among the youngsters will burst into a Third Intifada. The trigger for such a dangerous turn could become violent provocations between Jewish settlers and Hamas, or Tanzim activists. Should such clashes get out of control, it will become inevitable that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will have to intervene and then an armed engagement with the Palestinian police might not be far away, probably inflaming the entire region.

But there might be another way, one, which could be, regarded utopian by many sceptics with only doomsday scenarios in their future perception. That plan, which may still be regarded somewhat illusory, judging by painful past experiences, could concern a “different Gaza”, which to the surprise of many of those very sceptics seems already in the making, In fact, while Mr Abbas seeks a virtual state at the UN, Hamas already controls a real one.

Gaza City, 2011
Hamas has certainly boosted its popularity, stealing the show from Mahmoud Abbas, which he has ardently been trying to display around the world. Hamas' has wrestled the headlines from the PLO again, after securing the freedom of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single returning Israeli soldier. This places its leadership in an unprecedented position of strength.
For the first time, Hamas and Israel negotiated, although still not face-to-face, in achieving positive results, in common interest. While officially Israel and Hamas do not speak to each other, there is already a wide-ranging economic and logistical coordination handled by mediators going on on daily basis, providing the the living requirements in the Strip. In fact, an undeclared status quo governs relations between Israel and Hamas, and this convergence of interests seems to suit both sides. Hamas is busily engaged with its effort to beef up its rule in the Strip, and to gradually establish an independent entity - one that would compete with the regime established by the PA in the West Bank.
There exists a strange and vitually-forgotten document entitled "A Proposal for Governance of the Gaza Strip in the Context of the Announced Israeli Withdrawal." This document, produced in 2004 was the result of workshops and deliberations held jointly by Israelis and Palestinians with the participation of experts from Canada, Ireland and Spain, under the auspices of the Madrid-based Toledo International Center for Peace. The so-called Toledo plan  ( aimed "to facilitate the development of a reliable Palestinian structure of governance in the Gaza Strip, following the planned Israeli withdrawal. That structure was meant to take the form of a temporary Palestinian Authority for Gaza, known as the Palestinian Transitional Administration (PTA. An International security task force should be deployed and the significant role that Egypt, as key player should ensure that extremist Islamic Jihad insurgents be prevented to derail the plan. According to this scenario, the Toledo plan states, "PTA in its entirety would be entirely legally separate from the PA. The Toledo plan never materialized, but a different version could possibly be reconsidered, under the new circumstances now prevailing in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, since its forced takeover in 2007 and especially following the present prisoner exchange, which could provide an unprecedented and perhaps even positive atmosphere in both Hamas and Israel relations. However the precondition for any implementation of such a plan, will be wise, unorthodox statesmanship and first and foremost, bold and courageous “thinking out of the box” by political leaders on both sides. Do such leaders exist these days and if so, would they be politically ready to act and take chances, without flinching?

Many ask the question if Hamas, a radical Islamic organization could change its attitude towards the Jewish state. But, strangely as it may sound highly extremist organizations did have transformed. According to an article in the book that cited a Rand Corporation study analyzing 648 terrorist groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, and discovered that 43 percent of the groups stopped pursuing violence when they chose the political path instead. Although Hamas might not change its radical ideology, its leaders could eventually be leaning towards making some sort of arrangement with Israel in order to exploit the growing prosperity in the Gaza strip, which is clearly making remarkable headway.

So let us take a closer look at Hamas Gaza. It may well follow the footsteps on the ideology of the Egyptian Brotherhood, but it is little known that the real “creator” of Hamas was none other than Israel itself, at the time ruling the occupied Gaza Strip during the Eighties of the last Century. The idea was to form a powerful religious adversary to Israel's Number One Palestinian enemy-the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The Ministry of Defense under Moshe Dayan regarded the Imams of Gaza the most appropriate elements to place the PLO under stress- little did they realize that they were “sowing the wind and reaping a whirlwind” for the future! As unbelievingly it may sound Hamas spiritual leader the crippled Sheikh Ahmed Yassin actually continued receiving his tutoral monthly pension from Israel's Ministry of Education! Hamas ( Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah, "Islamic Resistance Movement") was the outcome of Israel's dangerous gamble and the immediate result was its manifesto “ The Charter of Allah” issued in 1988.

But there is more reason why Gazans would, under the right circumstances, like to create their own independence. Unlike Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority--scattered under Israel's settlements dispersed like inkspots on paper--Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, fully controls its territory, borders, security and trade. It has access to the Mediterranean Sea, even an airport (although temporarily inactive) and is situated on a highly strategic crossroads between Egypt and Israel. The fairy tales of Hamas over miserable life in Gaza, widely broadcast for years in all media channels, was recently questioned in a story published in Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper by journalist Ashraf Abu al-Houl. Describing his trip to Gaza. Totally surprised by what he saw, al-Houl wrote: “ "A sense of absolute prosperity prevails, as manifested by the grand resorts along and near Gaza's coast. Further, the site of the merchandise and luxuries filling the Gaza shops amazed me.” Gaza's markets are filled with a “plethora of goods,” he wrote. Prices on many items, particularly food, are much lower than they are in Egypt, he said. With goods entering Gaza from both smuggling tunnels to Egypt and humanitarian aid shipments coming in daily via the Israeli crossings, “supply is much greater than demand “ he stated. While the evident prosperity might not be enjoyed by all Gazans, neither are such luxury goods available to the majority in Egypt or even Israel. But al-Houl's report certainly denies the “official” clamour of widespread famine in “occupied” impoverished Gaza. In fact since 2005 there was not a single Israeli soldier in Gaza, except Gilad Shalit held captive by Hamas!

And there is more. Palestinian society, after all, has always been strongly characterized by tribalism, as well as strong regional differences that set apart hill dwellers from plainsmen, nomads from settled population, urbanites from villagers, and Easterners from Westerners. Most affected by this were always the strained relations between West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.

While the West Bank is only about thirty miles from Gaza, there is more separating the two territories than an expanse of the Israeli Negev Desert.
In the West Bank, only 27 percent of the population are refugees, as opposed to the 64 percent that inhabit the Gaza Strip. Residents of the two areas have for decades, developed a quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, animosity toward each other.
Khalil Shiqaqi, a prominent Palestinian sociologist, after conducting hundreds of interviews, notes the presence of "a psychological barrier between the inhabitants of the two territories and mutual suspicion" that cannot be "disregarded or ignored."

Gaza's stronger local families, while a clear minority to the “refugee” Gazans always expressed their misgivings over the patronizing West Bank PLO, which became much more dominant since Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip, chasing out the despised Ramallah rulers.
The notion of Palestinian regionalism is further reinforced by the varied Arabic dialects spoken throughout the territories. West Bank dialects are similar to the Jordanian dialect, while influences of Egyptian dialect are heard throughout Gaza.

Should Gaza (“Hamastan”) become an independent entity, there is additional wealth available at sea. Twenty miles from the beaches of Gaza, too far for the eye to see but still very much in Palestinian waters, lies a fortune in untapped, off-shore gas. Prospecting vessels sent down two probes seven years ago and what they found got the juices of executives from multinational fuel companies flowing. In one field alone, experts estimated a reserve of £2 billion worth of natural gas. And there is plenty of potential for other fields.

So why not create a Palestinian state in Gaza right now, when all the reasons speak for it, while Mahmoud Abbas continues to roam the world capitals begging for a state which might be a non starter?  Hamas in its 1988 Charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, which is complete nonsense. Hamas has neither the capability nor the military power to achieve its unreasonable goal. In fact, Hamas exists entirely on the mercy of Israel's armed might. If push comes to shove, the IDF can occupy the entire Gaza Strip within hours and destroy the Hamas leadership en route. Hamas can inflict substantial damage to parts of Israel within range of its rockets, but if the damage becomes unbearable, decisive action will inevitably follow to stop these attacks and with this would come the end of Hamas rule in Gaza, with all its newly gained wealth. During the last few years, Gaza has not only been rebuilt into a striving metropolis, but it can lose all this and return to misery and squalor if it choses war with Israel again.

On the other hand, Hamas has an option, which is not available to Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is strong enough to ignore Hamas' threats for its destruction. It could perhaps even ignore Hamas' “non recognition”- Israel being an established UN member for sixtythree years.  If the Hamas leadership will play its cards right and control the troublemakers still not following its orders, than peace could reign in the Gaza Strip and along Israel's border even without official agreements between the two countries. Then Gaza might become a new “Singapore”, which it could have been already, when Ariel Sharon decided to evancuate the IDF and seven thousand settlers from their homes at Gush Katif back in August 2005. The choice will depend on the wisdom or ignorance of the Hamas rulers in Gaza and the political courage of Israels leadership. 

Related Post:  24/01/2005 - Post Arafat: Two Palestine Entities?