The Hamas takeover of Gaza has upset the US plan to revive the peace process with the pliable Mahmoud Abbas in control of that region.
THE chaos and anarchy that characterised daily life in Gaza after the end of the Israeli occupation seems to have ended finally with Hamas-led militias defeating the security forces aligned to the Fatah group. Ever since Hamas won the elections in 2006, Fatah, which until then had a monopoly over power, refused to recognise the legitimacy of Hamas as the ruling party. The Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, pretended that he was still calling the shots in Palestinian affairs despite the humbling of his party in the ballot.
In recent months, plans were hatched to purge Hamas from the government by resorting to strong-arm methods. American and Israeli weapons were supplied to the Fatah forces as they began preparing for a final assault on the armed wing of Hamas.
In a last-ditch attempt to find an amicable solution, Hamas leaders made political concessions three months ago at the Mecca summit brokered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Hamas gave up key portfolios so that a "unity government" could be formed. But the Abbas-led Fatah, in no mood for a compromise, refused to concede even the minimum demands of Hamas, which included the integration of its militia into the PA security forces. Hamas had considerably moderated its political stance. Its leaders stated on many occasions that the party was willing to recognise the state of Israel provided it withdrew to the pre-1967 borders.
The West, led by the United States, continued its economic blockade of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip despite a coalition government being in office since March. The writing on the wall was clear for the Hamas leadership. Although democratically elected and representing the will of the Palestinian people, it would never be granted recognition or legitimacy by the West. Besides, Hamas was aware of the machinations under way to sideline it militarily. Also, Gaza was becoming increasingly ungovernable with various militias running illegal checkpoints and extorting money from hapless civilians.
According to figures released by a Palestinian Human Rights Organisation, 655 people were killed in Gaza between 2002 and 2007 as a consequence of the breakdown of security. Of these, 81 were children. During the same period, 127 people, including 30 foreigners, were kidnapped. In the weeks preceding the Hamas takeover of Gaza, fighting among Palestinian groups resulted in more than a hundred casualties. There were attacks on the houses of President Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (who belongs to Hamas) in Gaza. Both Abbas and Haniyeh said there had been assassination attempts against them in June. When the fighting was raging in Gaza, Israel tried to give a helping hand to Fatah by selectively targeting Hamas leaders and offices.
In the end, the Hamas victory over Fatah in Gaza seemed almost like a cakewalk. Most of the Fatah fighters chose to either melt away or to surrender. Ninety-odd Palestinians were killed in the five days of fighting preceding the Hamas takeover. There were reports that some Fatah fighters were executed. Hamas, however, has denied these, saying that they were killed in action. The only bloody battle was for the control of the Preventive Security Building.
During an earlier crackdown on Hamas in the mid-1990s, Fatah forces had incarcerated many prominent Hamas leaders there. During interrogation, the Central Intelligence Agency-trained Fatah intelligence service routinely used torture against Hamas leaders. Among those tortured in the notorious building was Mahmoud Zahar, who was Foreign Minister in the Hamas-led Palestinian government until March. According to reports, a huge arsenal of American weapons and documents detailing Fatah's cooperation with the CIA were found in the building. A former CIA official, Robert Baer, who had worked in the region, said the discovery of the documents was "a major blow to Fatah".
After seizing Gaza, the Hamas leadership was quick to reiterate its support for the "unity government" that had taken over after the "Mecca accords". Ismail Haniyeh said the national unity government would continue to perform "to the best of its abilities". However, Abbas, obviously reeling from the comprehensive military reverse in Gaza, was quick to dissolve the coalition government. He installed a new Cabinet consisting of his die-hard loyalists and favourites of the US State Department. Hamas has criticised the move and wants the unity government to be restored. The only precondition it has set is that the security forces should only report to the Interior Minister.
A Hamas spokesman said that its political goal in Gaza was not to seize power but to defend itself from a group within Fatah collaborating with Israel and the US. Haniyeh, speaking in the last week of June, said the only way out of the current impasse was to start a new Palestinian dialogue "without preconditions and on the basis of no loser and no winner and on the basis of no harm to anyone, and on the basis of a national unity government".
US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were quick to issue strong statements condemning Hamas. Concurrently, Israel has announced that it was selectively lifting sanctions against the Palestinians. The West Bank, which is now under the control of Fatah, will be the recipient of Palestinian tax money that Israel illegally held back after Hamas was elected to power.
The West has also decided to back the Fatah-led government in the West Bank while letting the million and a half residents of Gaza be starved into submission. Gaza remains inextricably linked with Israel. It gets its oil, energy and water from Israel. All of Gaza's imports and exports have to pass through Israel. Former US President Jimmy Carter, speaking after the recent events in Gaza, accused the US, the European Union and Israel of seeking to divide the Palestinian people by reopening aid to the West Bank while denying the same to Gaza. Carter went on to add that the Bush administration's refusal to accept Hamas' election victory was "criminal". The Nobel Peace Prize winner said Hamas had proved itself to be more capable of running the government than the Fatah group.
Hamas was voted to power by a populace that was fed up with the rampant corruption of the Fatah administration. Hamas leaders have themselves said they were surprised by the mandate they got in the elections. Carter, who was a poll observer, said that the 2006 elections were held in an "orderly and fair" manner. Hamas won partly because it chose good candidates, while a "divided, corrupt Fatah ran multiple candidates for a single seat", he maintained.
Carter said that the US, the EU and Israel had, from the very beginning, sought to subvert the outcome of the elections and were trying "to divide the Palestinians into two peoples". He described these actions as "criminal". Many observers of the region are of the view that it was the economic sanctions that exacerbated the military conflict between the two groups and led to the growth of militancy. Carter said the efforts of the international community should be focussed on reconciling Hamas and Fatah.
A "confidential" United Nations report prepared by Alvaro de Soto, who was the organisation's envoy to West Asia, said that American pressure "has pummelled into submission" the UN's role as an "impartial" negotiator in the conflict. The report, which was leaked to the media in the second week of June, also concluded that the international boycott of the Palestinians, put in place after the victory of Hamas, was "at best extremely short-sighted" and had "devastating consequences" for the Palestinian people. The report also underlined the fact that Israel had adopted an "essentially rejectionist" stand on the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now busy propagating a "three-state theory". He wants two Palestinian states, one in Gaza and the other in the West Bank, to cohabit with an ever-expanding Israel. The Israeli government was quick to make its first high-level diplomatic contact with the PA in more than 15 months. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the new "Prime Minister", Salaam Fayyed, installed by Abbas, that the establishment of the emergency Cabinet would facilitate "progress on various issues and help advance the political process". Gaza, meanwhile, will be left isolated and starving under an Israeli military blockade.
After a meeting in the third week of June in Washington, Bush and Olmert pledged to bolster Abbas and Fatah, at the same time promising to tighten the screws further on Gaza. Olmert said he wanted to make "every possible effort to cooperate with Abbas". But he also warned that cooperation would stop if Fatah signed any agreement with Hamas. Bush described Abbas as the President of all Palestinians and the "reasonable voice among the extremists in the neighbourhood". The Hamas leadership has accused Abbas of being part of an Israeli-Western "plot" to divide the Palestinian polity.
Media reports already talk about an imminent war against Hamas in Gaza. The Times, London, said the newly appointed Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, has assembled a 20,000-strong force to launch a full-scale attack on Gaza to destroy the military capability of Hamas.
According to many analysts, the recent developments in Gaza have short-circuited the American game plan for the region. Helping Abbas to regain control over Gaza was seen as the linchpin of the US policy to revive the peace process. Before Hamas took full control over Gaza, the Bush administration had sanctioned a $60 million programme to strengthen the elite Presidential Guards owing allegiance to Abbas. At Washington's insistence, Israel allowed arms and ammunition from some pro-Western Arab countries to reach the Presidential Guards. The weaponry is now in the hands of Hamas.
Neighbouring Arab countries are alarmed at the rise of Hamas. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has strong ties with Hamas, is a strong force. The Egyptian government is trying to cobble up an alliance of Arab states to bolster Abbas. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have already stated that the Abbas-led government on the West Bank is the sole, legitimate Palestinian government. A top Egyptian official was quoted as saying that it was not in Egypt's interest to have a religious state on its borders. Gaza shares a 15-km border with Egypt. It is the only land link the Palestinians in Gaza have with the rest of the Arab world.