Why the Gaza Calm Crashed
Many have asked in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza, how Hamas, if it saw the consequences of ending the ceasefire — and Hamas did foresee the likelihood of disproportionate Israeli military action — nonetheless could have acquiesced to the inevitable bloodshed — bloodshed that an Israeli army, fixated on restoring its deterrence after its failed 2006 war with Hesballah, would visit on the citizens of Gaza. Some may read into this decision the cynicism of a movement that prioritises resistance; but to do so would be to misread how Hamas analyses their situation and understands the nature of resistance.
At one level, the six month ceasefire simply had failed to satisfy two key litmus tests: The circumstances of life of the Gazan people continually had deteriorated, and the ceasefire was not seen to be taking the Palestinian people any closer to a political solution. On the contrary, Hamas saw a settlement receding further into the distance.
In short, Israel — abetted by the US and Europe — had used the six month ‘ceasefire’ not as a building-block towards doing serious politics and real negotiation, but to squeeze the pips out of the people of Gaza in the hope that a desperate people would turn on their own representatives, leaving Hamas discredited and marginalised. No Israeli had died during this ceasefire, but instead of alleviating the conditions in Gaza, as agreed at the outset, Israel incrementally aggravated them. Not surprisingly, the calm eroded — and finally unravelled — following Israel’s military incursion and breach of the ceasefire with its armed incursion into Gaza on 5 November, in which six Hamas members were killed.
The Israeli objective to dismantle the movement that overwhelmingly won the 2006 Parliamentary elections in Palestine stands naked in the face of the explicit admission from Israeli officials that that Israel had begun preparing the current attacks on Gaza (cited in Haaretz 28 Dec 08)– even as the last ceasefire was being agreed. Hamas was to be either to be eviscerated by a ‘ceasefire slow-death’; or alternatively, be eliminated by massive military action.
European leaders bought into this strategy, hoping to pull-off a quickie, under-the-table deal with western protégé President Abbas that could be imposed on the Palestinians through a multi-national ‘peacekeeping’ force. This was to be achieved with the collaboration of Egypt and Saudi Arabia governments who were becoming increasingly fearful of the growing challenge to their own legitimacy in the region, and who were not adverse to seeing Hamas cornered in Gaza and ‘punished’ by the Israelis.
Any psychologist however might have advised the European and US policy-makers that putting one-and-a-half million Palestinians ‘on a diet’, as an earlier chief-of-staff to the Israeli Prime Minister described it, and shredding any plans or hopes that they may have had for their futures, does not make humans more docile or more moderate. After a while in the Gaza pressure-cooker, anger and despair boil-up: Gaza ultimately was set to explode — one way or another.
If this was not discerned by western policy-makers, it was well understood by Hamas. In other words, what is happening in Gaza was all too foreseeable. A few Israelis saw this too, but their ‘grand narrative’ of the global struggle between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ overrode their instincts in respect to the local Palestinian conflict.
The thesis that literally ‘everything’ must be done either to lever ‘moderates’ into power or prevent them from losing power — euphemistically called ‘supporting moderation’ — lies at the heart of the Gaza crisis.
It is a narrative that has served Israeli wider interests in garnering legitimacy for their policies toward Iran, and in dichotomising the region into ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s proselytising around the world on this theme has been a huge asset; but his, and other Quartet members’ espousal of this doctrine, in practice has only pushed the prospect of a political solution to the Israeli – Palestine conflict beyond reach — by branding a mainstream Palestinian national liberation movement such as Hamas ‘extreme’ — despite it having won national and local elections.
Britain and the US have instead busied themselves in training a Palestinian ‘special forces’ militia around Mahmoud Abbas, which has been used to suppress political activity by Hamas, and to close-down welfare and social organisations that are not aligned directly with Abbas. A policy of political ‘cleansing’ of the West Bank, cloaked in the rhetoric of ‘building security institutions’, predictably has been met with an equivalent counter-reaction in Gaza. The paradoxical consequence of this has been to create such a schism within the Palestinian body politic that no Palestinian leader now enjoys the legitimacy to bring a political solution before the people: The West has sacrificed its wish for a political solution to its ideology of ‘moderation’ versus ‘extremism’.
Security officials have made clear that Israel will not permit fresh elections in Palestine — for fear that Hamas will win; and whereas the West probably will continue to bestow Mahmoud Abbas with the trappings of legitimacy after his term in office expires on 9 January 2009, he will enjoy no such legitimacy amongst Palestinians. Indeed the very effort to leverage such spurious legitimacy will discredit him further.
This then is the backdrop against which Hamas elected to decline a renewed ceasefire: To stand passive and cornered whilst Palestinians in Gaza were made destitute and hopeless in an extended ceasefire and to watch — acquiescent — as the Anglo-American political cleansing in the West Bank proceeded, simply was not feasible. An explosion at some point was inevitable.
The only option was to break the mould of a Gaza left ‘stewing’ in its isolated misery, and a West Bank frozen in a pattern of Israeli total control, but providing the all-important illusion of a ‘political process’ that western leaders could extol back home. This represented a formula that Israel could happily sustain for years to come, in Hamas’ view. The Israeli election campaign seemed to confirm an electorate relapsing back into ‘security’ mode — having interpreted the Annapolis ‘process’ to have demonstrated a hardening of Palestinian negotiating positions: again there was an Israeli consensus forming that there was ‘no partner for peace’.
In making such a decision, Hamas knew it could not defeat Israel’s military strength; but the ‘war’ already is shuffling the cards of both Palestinian and regional politics. If it extends, and if the resistance is perceived by Palestinians and Muslims to acquit itself well, then the structure of Palestinian leadership may fall ripe to major re-structuring. Equally the regional anger being generated by graphic scenes of death in Gaza possesses a potential for the conflict to widen geographically and is coalescing Arab and Islamic resistance against certain Arab leaderships. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of Hesballah has pointed to this prospect in two recent key speeches: Were such a broadening-out of the conflict to occur, it will carry important consequences. These are all big and significant ‘ifs’. But Hamas’ decision should be placed against this backdrop — rather than be painted as the callous disregard of Palestinian lives.
Alastair Crooke is a former European Union mediator with Hamas and is currently director of Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut.