It is difficult to believe, in the aftermath of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza, that the summer began with some optimism for Palestinians. On 2 June, Fatah and Hamas formed a new unity ‘technical’ government to end a bitter seven-year split following Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006.
The new government was sworn in during a five-week visit I made to Gaza in May and June and I was surprised to find informed civil society activists in agreement that this time the agreement could stick. They knew that previous deals agreed in Cairo (2011) and Doha (2012) had collapsed in acrimony and self-interest amid the fresh memories of the factional violence that accompanied the split in 2006-7. So, why would or could this agreement work where others have failed?
It appeared that both sides were responding to the changed regional realities that prevailed in the Middle East. Hamas had been severely weakened by the Israeli siege of Gaza, which was ramped up in the aftermath of the 2006 election, and reduced to a trickle the amount of food, fuel, medicines and other essential resources entering the territory.
The siege has strangled the life out of Gaza’s economy, which can neither import nor export to any meaningful level and has an unemployment rate of over 50 percent. An already impoverished population of 1.8 million, most of whom are refugees and nearly half of whom are children, found itself even more dependent on United Nations’ food aid as the economy flat-lined.
New regime in Egypt
This desperate scenario was exacerbated by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, a key Hamas ally, in a military coup last June led by Field Marshal – now president – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. As early as July 2013, al-Sisi ordered the destruction of smuggling tunnels between Egypt’s southern border at Rafah and Gaza, which were a lifeline for the territory bringing in much needed supplies of food, fuel and other basic necessities.
The border was also closed to human traffic, save for one or two days a month, which has created a huge backlog of people waiting to cross. My planned two-week visit was extended to five as I waited for the Rafah crossing to open. The cruel operation of the border has become a litany of human tragedy as Palestinians in need of health treatment, seeking work, wanting to take up scholarships or visit loved ones are denied freedom of movement. The flotsam and jetsam of human life are crammed into conditions approximating a cattle pen at Rafah, where Palestinians patiently wait in hope of crossing into Egypt; another terrible privation visited on Gazans.
The closure of the border and tunnels has choked off significant levels of income for Hamas. They have struggled to pay their 40,000 civil servants who have been living on reduced wages while the Palestinian Authority’s 70,000 strong workforce in Gaza have been receiving full pay despite not working since the factional split in 2006. Gaza’s public servants have gone on strike demanding to be added to the PA’s payroll, and Hamas temporarily closed banks in June to force the new unity government to address this issue with urgency. Given the growing internal pressure on Hamas and worsening economic crisis in Gaza, it possibly eyed the unity government as an opportunity to retreat from frontline politics.
For his part, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to join the unity government followed the collapse of a nine-month period of shuttle diplomacy led by US Secretary of State John Kerry that barely raised itself to the level of ‘peace negotiations’. Seeing no progress in the Kerry-led initiative, Abbas turned instead toward an agreement with Hamas.
For the PA the formation of the unity government was a calculated risk given that the EU and US deem its partner, Hamas, a terrorist organisation. This could have resulted in a suspension of US financial assistance to the PA amounting to roughly $500m per annum. But the US State Department and EU surprised the Israeli government by announcing that they would recognise the new government, with the proviso that it recognised the state of Israel, respected previous agreements and renounced violence.
By appointing technocrats in a government without ministers affiliated to Hamas, the PA managed to persuade the EU and US to back the new administration. The US’ decision may have been borne out of frustration at Israeli intransigence during the peace talks with John Kerry, who made off-the-record remarks that Israel was at risk of becoming "an apartheid state" if it could not reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians; remarks that he later retracted but which suggested deep frustration with Tel Aviv.
In the context of a generally favourable response to the unity government by key international players, a truculent Israel announced the construction of 1,500 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and refused entry into the West Bank for three ministers in the new government from the Gaza Strip. Israel’s bitter rejection of the unity government appeared self-defeating, as fresh elections would create a unified government with the mandate to enter negotiations and speak on behalf of all Palestinians. But Israel instead set out to maintain the divisions that have physically and politically separated Palestinians for so long.
Abduction of settlers
The abduction and killing on 12 June of three young settlers while hitchhiking near Hebron created an opportunity for Israel to try to strangle the unity government at birth. The Israeli government immediately blamed Hamas for the abductions, though it failed to produce any evidence to that effect, and launched a massive crackdown in the West Bank that resulted in ten deaths, mass arrests, hundreds of house searches and military repression, before commencing its recent aggression in Gaza.
In fact, the Israeli government knew from the outset that the three settlers had been killed and suppressed this information for eighteen days to conduct a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. As Ian Black has suggested, “From the moment the Israelis went missing, Netanyahu stepped up his offensive against the Palestinian unity government agreed between the PLO and Hamas.”
Amid intemperate language – led by Israeli president Netanyahu who said the three settlers “were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts” – that incited public anger, violence and calls for revenge, Israel embarked on its third onslaught in Gaza in six years (following ‘Cast Lead’ in 2008-09 and ‘Pillar of Cloud’ in 2012). Although the settlers were killed in the West Bank, Israel started bombing Gaza on 8 July and the world has been aghast at the horror that has unfolded.
When, nine days later, Israel committed a ground force of tanks and troops into heavily populated civilian areas, the casualties started to multiply to a death toll almost four weeks later of 1,867, with nearly 10,000 injured. The infrastructural damage has been enormous as electricity supplies are down to a few hours a day and 490,000 displaced people are desperately short of food, water and shelter.
Meanwhile, the resistance mounted by Hamas during Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ in which they inflicted heavier than expected casualties on the Israeli military (64) compared to Cast Lead (ten) and were not defeated militarily, has arguably left them in a stronger position within the Palestinian family. President Abbas, on the other hand, deployed his security forces to co-operate with Israel’s search for those who kidnapped and killed the settlers, which drew criticism from the grassroots. As Noam Shaizaf suggests:
“The PA was facing a legitimacy crisis even before the abduction crisis, with more and more Palestinians - especially young activists - viewing it as a corrupt regime whose security collaboration with Israel has made it part of the infrastructure of the occupation rather than a vessel for liberation.”
Anger at the bombardment of Gaza has since spilled over on to the streets of the West Bank with a ‘Day of Rage’ on 25 July resulting in six dead Palestinians and some of the worst violence seen there in years.
Fallout from the conflict
If the operation in Gaza was intended by Israel as a strategy for demilitarising Hamas or hastening its political demise then this has clearly failed. In fact, it has succeeded in weakening the influence of the PA, its only acceptable negotiating partner in the Occupied Territories, and marginalising Mahmoud Abbas, who has appeared a weak and peripheral figure during the hostilities.
It may also have inadvertently enhanced the prospects for Palestinian unity as all of the political factions in the Occupied Territories are in agreement that the only acceptable outcome from the conflict in Gaza is the lifting of Israel’s siege and opening of all border crossings to allow the free movement of people and commodities. By lifting the blockade – thereby acceding to basic, fundamental rights – Israel is much more likely to stem missile attacks from Gaza and secure peace in the West Bank.
Ian Black has warned that “This is the first time since 1993 that there have been no negotiations of any kind between Israel and Palestinians,” which has created a significant political vacuum currently being filled by violence. The Palestinian unity government should be allowed to do its work in preparing the ground for elections in Gaza. This should be aided by the considerable international support needed by Gaza to restore its infrastructure and heal its people.
This is not to trivialise the massive challenges awaiting a future unity government, which will be sorely tested by the administration of territories that are physically divided and have been operating separate judicial, political and economic systems. However, both sides know that the alternative to political partnership is continued discord and a lack of agency and political direction that a weary, poverty-stricken populace can no longer tolerate. The potential reward for Palestinian unity, however, is a meaningful peace process that should be incentive enough for all sides to the conflict, particularly Israel, to give it the time and space to succeed.