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The Palestinian Political Situation

Gaza in the grip of Hamas

Saleh Al-Naami
Al-Ahram Weekly
June 21-27, 2007

While temporary security in Gaza might have been restored under the control of Hamas, the economic conditions continue to deteriorate and the future for all and sundry remains under threat, writes Saleh Al-Naami in Gaza.

Ismail Al-Hamsi had another reason to rejoice over the fall of Gaza into Hamas's hands. The Palestinian security people who used to extort money from his father, a fruit importer, were out of commission. "The official in charge of the Mintar crossing point would take 110 Shekels ($25) for every tonne of apples my father brought in from Israel," the 23-year-old Palestinian said.

He was sitting outside the entrance of his father's store in Souq Al-Faras, the largest market district in Gaza. The sense of relief over Hamas's gaining control was palpable throughout the market, which is frequented by thousands of shoppers every day, and for very much the same reasons that the young Al-Hamsi mentioned. People had long been subjected to the financial bribery of the security officers.

Salim Abu Murshid, 54, a farmer from the agricultural district to the east of the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza, planned to celebrate. He was going to distribute all the melons he'd harvested to his neighbours and to all those who showed up at next Friday's prayers in his neighbourhood mosque. "From now on, the security people won't be able to steal the sand from my fields and sell it to construction contractors," he said.

Certainly not all Gazans were similarly affected. But if there is a general unanimity over any issue, it is that Hamas's control will put an end to one of Gaza's worst nightmares: the breakdown in security and the chaos resulting from the infighting of rival militias. Ali Ibrahimi, 35, works as a civil engineer for a construction company. He is a Fatah supporter, but he believes that Gaza will become much safer than it had been before the recent events. Gamal Nassar, 29, a taxi driver from the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, agrees. He attributed the anarchy which had prevailed primarily to a government at odds with itself, with the cabinet dominated by Hamas and the security agencies controlled by Fatah.

Some Palestinians, however, see the clouds rather than their silver lining. Specifically, they predict further economic deterioration and humanitarian suffering. Much as he supports the Hamas movement, Mahmoud Darwish, 48, a school teacher from the Maghazi refugee camp believes that Hamas will never be able to run Gaza in a way that fulfils the needs of the people. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's recent statement that his government would continue with its duties made Mahmoud laugh. "Sure Abdul-Abd, [Haniyeh's nickname] we'll wait until you open up the borders to let food in, so people don't starve to death," he said caustically.

Interestingly, many of those who fear that economic and humanitarian conditions will worsen following Hamas's take over hail from the youth leaders and intellectual elites associated with the movement. Hamas field leader Ali Abu Nusseir, 47, urged Hamas officials to back down on their refusal to relinquish in power and to try to strike an agreement with the new emergency government formed by Salam Fayyad. "Under the current conditions, this is the only way that the people's basic needs will ever be met." Abu Nusseir described Hamas's situation as follows: "Hamas is like a starving man who grabs a loaf of bread. But the bread has come right out of the oven, so all he can do is toss it from one hand to the other, because it is too hot to eat."

Nahad Al-Sheikh Khalil, an academic with ties to Hamas, put it another way: "Because of the limited margin for manoeuvrability, Hamas must find a way to come to terms with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. If they do not, people here will be without the bare minimum for survival."

It is clear from the reactions of people in Gaza that their greatest hope is for law and order to prevail, which will be quite an undertaking. According to figures released by the Mizan Centre for Human Rights, 655 people died between 2002 and the beginning of June 2007 as a consequence of the security breakdown in Gaza. Of these, 81 were children. During the same period, 127 people were kidnapped, among whom 30 foreigners. The source of optimism for Gazans lies in their hope that there will be a turnaround in this tragic situation and that the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah will cease.

It was obvious to all that the reason why the national unity government's security plan had not been put into effect, in the period before the recent outbreak in hostilities between Fatah and Hamas, was that security officials loyal to Abu Mazen had refused to cooperate with Hamas as part of a power struggle against it.

The anxiety over further economic deterioration, too, is not without grounds. Gaza is the most densely-populated area on earth (one and a half million people living on 360 square kilometres) which does not have economic resources of its own. Not only is this small area penned in by Israel from the land, air and sea, but, as well, the Paris Protocol that the PA and Israel concluded in 1995 has inextricablly tied the Palestinian economy to that of Israel: Gaza gets all of its water, electricity and fuel from Israel, and all of Gaza's imports and exports have to pass through Israeli ports.

To top all of this, the PA has to pay the salaries of some 150,000 government and security service employees at the end of every month from taxes withheld by Israel and donations from the international community which ceased following the economic embargo. Even before the recent crisis, these employees had been receiving only a portion of their salaries and only intermittently at that. Now it appears that the situation for them could get even more drastic.

The signal to this effect came from the Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh who announced on Friday that the US administration and Israel had agreed to take action to double the economic pressure on Gaza, while easing conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank so that the people in Gaza would realise that their situation would only get worse under Hamas's rule.

The intent is clearly to foment popular discord in Gaza against Hamas, and the chances of this happening are not remote. According to Palestinian economic analyst Hani Habib, the recent US and EU decision, after the Fayyad emergency government was formed, to re-open the flow of financial aid to the PA would have little impact on the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. "Even supposing that the emergency government could pay civil servants their salaries, they still won't be able to get the basic necessities because of the Israeli blockade. What's the use of having money if there's nothing you can buy with it?"

As though this prognosis was not already gloomy enough, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared that Israel would not hesitate to cut off water, electricity and fuel to Gaza if Palestinian resistance movements continued to fire missiles at Jewish settlements across the border from Gaza. In a television interview with Israel's Channel 10 on Sunday morning, the head of the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party said, "why should we give them the electricity to run the machines which produce the crude missiles they fire at us?"

Talal Okal, writer and political commentator for the Palestinian Al-Ayam newspaper, also wondered whether the emergency government would be able to improve the situation for the people in Gaza. With the Hamas takeover in Gaza, this government no longer possesses the means to function as a ruling authority and to fulfil its responsibilities, he said. He then raised another problematic issue, which is that the emergency government has only a one month remit. "This division and this perverse situation cannot be expected to come to an end in such a short time. So is there a way to overcome the challenges that have arisen?" Okal asked.

To Hamas parliamentary spokesman Salah Al-Bardawil, many of the abovementioned problems fall under the heading of alarmism. He feels confident that neither Israel, the Americans nor the Arabs want to tighten the blockade against the Palestinians in Gaza. Such a blockade would not be in their interests because of the repercussions this would have throughout the region.

The dramatic turn of events which led to Hamas's seizure of control in Gaza is an unprecedented turning point in the history of the Palestinian people. Beyond optimism in regard to an improvement in the security situation, nobody, whether in Hamas, Fatah including Abu Mazen's inner circle, Israel or the Arab countries -- which are deeply disturbed by these developments -- has a clear idea where events will lead.

Still, it may be useful here to recall the words of Israeli writer, B Mikhael when he cautioned his government against depending on the exertion of economic pressure to topple the Hamas government. The experience so far, he said, demonstrates that the more Israel pressures the Palestinians to turn against Hamas, the more they cling to it. Conversely, the closer the Americans and Israelis embrace the Abu Mazen government the more this government appears, in Palestinian eyes, like the Vichy government in France during World War II.

Other Israelis have warned their government against taking any military action in Gaza or the West Bank. Hamas could take advantage of any Israeli aggression to mobilise Palestinian support as it mounts attacks against Israel, creating a scenario that would throw everything into further confusion, they argue.

The Hamas leadership has shown itself savvy to where the possible ends and the impossible begins. For this reason, it is important for Hamas to reach some compromise with Abu Mazen. Even now, the movement might not reject the idea of holding early elections, which Abu Mazen would find difficult to reject, having himself decided earlier to call for these before putting this decision on hold after the Mecca Accord was reached.

On the other hand, if Hamas feels that the other parties intend to drive it into a corner, it may be moved to act desperately. In this case, we cannot rule out more attempts to attack Israel, which in turn could lead to the Israeli re-occupation or partial re- occupation of Gaza. Such a development would prove deeply embarrassing to Abu Mazen and many Arab governments and it would do more than anything else to unite the Palestinian factions, once again, behind the option of armed resistance, probably under Hamas's leadership.

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