Divided brothers

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

Hamas supporters in a rally marking the 21st anniversary of the Islamist movement, in Gaza City on December 14, 2008.-SAID KHATIB /AFP

Hamas supporters in a rally marking the 21st anniversary of the Islamist movement, in Gaza City on December 14, 2008.-SAID KHATIB /AFP

THE courageous people of Gaza perhaps knew what was in store for them when they voted overwhelmingly for the Hamas party in the 2006 elections. The victory of Hamas, an abbreviation in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was never acknowledged by Israel and its main benefactor, the United States. The elections, according to international observers such as Jimmy Carter, were completely free and fair. They touted the election exercise as a model for the rest of the Arab world. But the election results came as a shock to Israel and the U.S., whose preference for the ruling Fatah, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, was well known.

After the death of Yasser Arafat, the Fatah started to fast lose credibility and popularity among the Palestinian people. The major reasons were its failure to govern effectively and its inability to stop the Israeli state from converting the two-state solution envisaged in the Oslo accords into a farce.

The Israeli government, supported by the West, never accorded the legitimacy the Hamas-led government deserved. Instead, conspiracies were hatched to divest Hamas of power. The partys adherence to a populist Islamist ideology, coupled with its steadfast refusal to give up on the hallowed principles of the Palestinian liberation struggle, has made it the Jewish states main enemy today.

Political observers, however, note that the Zionist state has always invented enemies in order to justify its expansionist policies and ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. Until the 1990s, it was the secular Fatah that was the reviled enemy of Israel. Palestinians stood solidly behind the Fatah or the more radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Yasser Arafat, it should be remembered, died a lonely and disillusioned man, betrayed by the Israeli state at every turn. Some reports suggest that he was poisoned by Israeli agents. His presidential quarters in Ramallah were bombed by the Israelis, and the veteran guerilla leader spent the last months of his life confined to a couple of rooms.

His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was one of the main Palestinian negotiators of the flawed Oslo accords. The accords had left the West Bank pockmarked with Israeli settlements. In the years following the accords, not only did these Jewish settlements grow in size, but more settlements cropped up. The roads and bypasses dissecting the West Bank, which were meant only for Jewish settlers, multiplied, gobbling up large tracts of land.

Adding insult to the injury already inflicted on the Palestinian psyche, Israel started building a separation wall on Palestinian land, encroaching upon more territory in the process. The aim was to divide up the West Bank into Bantustans of the kind that existed in apartheid South Africa. People such as Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu have criticised Israels policies as being no different from the policies practised under apartheid. Israel was one of the staunchest backers of the apartheid regime.

The last straw for many Palestinians, as far as the ruling Fatah was concerned, was the issue of rampant corruption. Senior Fatah officials in the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) were enriching themselves while Palestinians, especially the 1.5 million people holed up in Gaza, were reeling under poverty. The aid-driven Palestinian economy, dependent on the whims of the Israeli government, was already floundering when elections were held in the occupied territories in 2006.

Hamas, on the other hand, had built up a reputation for efficiency and honesty. The party focussed on the deprived areas in the occupied territories. Hamas-run charities have, since the 1980s, played a key role in setting up hospitals, schools and soup kitchens in these areas, particularly in Gaza. The Gaza Strip, which is the most densely populated place on earth (with 4,500 people per 2.5 sq km), has never seen good times since the creation of Israel. Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed by the Jewish state were pushed into the 360 sq km area of Gaza.

Many of them live in squalid camps. Today the situation in Gaza, according to United Nations agencies and international aid workers, is worse than that prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa. Israel initially tolerated the activities of Hamas as it was viewed as a counter-balance to the Fatah. Hamas, founded in 1987, had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that wields a lot of influence in Egypt despite a government ban on it. Recent events have proved that Egypt is not averse to seeing the fall of the Hamas government in Gaza. The Egyptian government has refused to open the Rafah crossing on its border with Gaza, despite the humanitarian crisis faced by Gazans. Gaza was once under Egyptian administration and most Gazans hold Egyptian citizenship. Hamas made a name for itself as a committed resistance movement at the start of the first intifada in 1987. The main goal of Hamas is to end the Israeli occupation. Although its charter talks of a unified Palestinian state that would include Israel, in recent times its leaders have said that they are open to a dialogue on the issue provided the Jewish state withdraws to the pre-1967 borders. Israel annexed the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sheba Farms after that war. Egypt has got back the land it lost, under the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

Hamas has opposed the peace treaties signed with Israel although it has offered many short-term truce agreements. According to Professor Avi Shlaim of Cambridge University, Israels occupation of Gaza and the West Bank had nothing to do with security but was a grand plan to consolidate its territorial expansion. Shlaim, who served in the Israeli army, recalled in an article he wrote recently in Guardian the correspondence between senior British bureaucrat Sir John Troutbeck and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in 1948 on the creation of Israel. Sir John told Bevin that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by an unscrupulous set of leaders.

Israel accepted the truce offered by Hamas six months ago. Under the terms of the truce, Hamas was to stop firing the rudimentary Qassam rockets, and Israel was supposed to ease up on its total blockade of the Gaza Strip so that essential supplies could reach Gazans. But Israel did not keep its word. By November it restarted its military incursions into Gaza and the killing of Palestinian activists and militants. Hamas started firing its rockets again, but only in retaliation.

Not a single Israeli was killed in these rocket attacks before the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) embarked on a full-scale massacre on December 28. But even before Israel started its campaign, Gazans were dying in their hundreds because Israel deprived them of food and medicine. They were not even allowed to travel outside Gaza, which is described as the worlds biggest open-air prison, for treatment. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak had personally ordered that medicines should not be allowed inside Gaza.

Israel started targeting senior Hamas leaders in 2004. That year, the IDF bombed the residences of Sheikh Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, the seniormost leaders of the organisation, killing both of them. Khalid Meshal, the leader of Hamas who lives in exile in Damascus, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in the late 1990s by the agents of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, in Amman. The U.S. and its European allies branded Hamas as a terrorist organisation and were quick to impose economic sanctions when the Hamas-led government under Ismail Haniyeh took office in 2006. Israel withheld millions of tax dollars that it had collected on behalf of the P.A. The Hamas-led government was faced with empty coffers as the Palestinian economy depends almost completely on foreign aid. They had also to contend with the unremitting hostility of die-hard Fatah elements. There have been credible reports in Palestinian and Arab media that Israel and the U.S. have supplied the Abbas-led P.A. arms to crush Hamas and keep its grip on power. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah militants became a frequent occurrence. In June 2007, events came to a head after the Hamas militia thwarted a Fatah bid, inspired by the U.S. and Israel, to take over Gaza militarily.

The rift between the two groups became unbridgeable as the Fatah cracked down on Hamas activists in the West Bank. The Hamas leaders had offered to set up a coalition government giving equal representation to the Fatah. They had also pledged to commit themselves to any decision that Abbas took on behalf of the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel. But their olive branch was rejected by the Fatah leadership in Ramallah. Forty-five Hamas members of Parliament are incarcerated in Israeli jails.

The Israeli killing machine took full advantage of the internecine strife. Although Gaza bore the brunt of the Israeli attacks, the West Bank was not spared. Continuing its extrajudicial executions, Israel demolished Palestinian houses and confiscated Palestinian land on the West Bank. In this context, the unfortunate statement of President Abbas in Cairo when Israel launched its aerial blitz on Gaza that Hamas was to blame for the turn of events has angered many in the Arab world. Later Abbas strongly condemned the Israeli bombing raids.

Reports in the Arab media allege that the P.A. gave intelligence inputs to the IDF on Hamas before the Israeli army embarked on its killing spree. The reports also assert that the P.A. has ordered its elite forces to get re-deployed in Gaza if Israel succeeds in accomplishing its goals. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Western aid has started flowing into the West Bank again, raising the standard of living of its 2.5 million residents. Cars of the latest model are sold in Ramallah, while in Gaza there are donkey carts on the roads because of the acute fuel scarcity and general poverty.

It has been a long-term Israeli plan to separate Gaza permanently from the West Bank and, in the process, make the proposed Palestinian state unviable. For the last couple of years, it has been impossible for people from the two territories to visit each other, although they are divided by only 70 kilometres of land, as Israel has placed restrictions on their movement. Israel would like Egypt to once again take responsibility for Gaza and its impoverished citizens. Cairo, on the other hand, is taking all precautions not to fall prey to Israeli machinations, while at the same time hoping that the hold of Hamas on Gaza would end. The call for an urgent Arab summit before the Israeli attack began was sabotaged by Egyptian officials who demanded that Arab Foreign Ministers first meet to determine the agenda.

A new generation of Palestinians will emerge from the rubble of Gaza. Steeled by the horrific events, they will no longer be willing to offer any more concessions to the Zionist state. The region seems destined to be sucked into a new cycle of violence, revenge and war. Palestinians have decided that it is better to die fighting than be crushed under the Zionist jackboot.

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