Exodus to catastrophe?
New Indian Express, Chennai, Feb 12, 2008
THE massive humanitarian catastrophe along the Gaza-Egypt border underscores the shortsighted attitude of various Middle Eastern leaders and the apathy of the international community. Literally over half a million Palestinians broke into Egypt, something many had not anticipated. Cornered by prolonged Israeli economic blockade, international isolation and Arab indifference, there were no option before the people of the impoverished the Gaza Strip.
For months the Gaza Strip was like a tightly sealed pressure cooker waiting to explode. The intensification of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in mid-January was followed by severe shortage of fuel and food supplies.
Recognising the internal tensions, Hamas literally broke down the fragile barriers with Egypt north of the Rafah crossing and opened the floodgate.
Thousands of Gazans moved into the Sinai Peninsula to buy and stock up basic necessities such as bread.
However, given the magnitude of the human exodus, restoring status quo ante along the Gaza-Egypt border will be easier said than done. With none of the major players having any viable option, "stabilisation" is perhaps the best anyone could hope for, if that is possible.
The crisis once again underscored the limitations of Israel's skewed policy following its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. While pulling out from the Strip enjoyed widespread domestic support, it did not lead to an overall reshaping of Israel's foreign policy priorities. The Gaza pullout should have been followed by a similar withdrawal from large portions of the West Bank. While unilateralism was feasible in the Gaza Strip, any Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank would have to be a negotiated arrangement. The tragic stroke suffered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and inept leadership of Ehud Olmert meant that the Gaza withdrawal became an end in itself. It failed to become a part of a larger Israeli arrangement with the Palestin ian leadership.
Furthermore, as highlighted by the second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 and the ongoing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, Israel has not developed an effective response to militant groups. At one level, Israel cannot afford to expose its citizens to the constant barrage of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip but at the same time, it is unable to go beyond retaliatory strikes that are ineffective.
The electoral victory of Hamas in January 2006 and its taking full control of the Gaza Strip in the summer of last year, meant Israel imposing a virtual embargo upon the nearly million and half Palestinians. When Israel tightened the restrictions, Palestinians broke through the barrier. As some Hamas leaders have warned, next time around Palestinians will flood into Israel, with ominous consequences.
Egypt is equally in a precarious situation. No country could accept such a large-scale uncontrolled movement of foreigners into its territory. What happened in Sinai was a virtual invasion.
Already fighting domestic militants, President Hosni Mubarak does not need another militant-related humanitarian crisis. Having sided with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority over the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, Mubarak has no option but to deal with the Islamic movements to re-establish border control. Even though success cannot be guaranteed, Egypt has very little option other than to re-engage with Hamas.
Progress on border control will heavily depend upon Cairo's ability to offer significant political concessions to Hamas and its preparedness to be a mediator between rival Palestinian factions. Though Mubarak had played such a role in the past, this time around, he would be doing it under duress, necessitated by the Palestinian exodus into Egypt.
At third level, the crisis has undermined the position of Abbas and his extravagant claims of being the sole representative of all Palestinians. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, described by some as coup d'état, Abbas was unable to set foot in the Gaza Strip. Partly aimed at his western audience and supporters, he has scrupulously avoided any negotiations with Hamas.
In recent days Abbas has expressed his willingness to take ‘control' of the Gaza-Egypt border. This is a daydream. This will be possible only if Abbas is able to cooperate with Hamas. Otherwise the recognised Palestinian leadership will be a nonplayer in resolving the Gaza exodus.
Other players are also equally busy.
If the US is in the middle of an intense election campaign, the others have rarely changed anything in the Middle East for the better. As various other regional problems highlighted, the Arab League is reduced to being a talking shop.
Contrary to widespread perception, Hamas also has not come out well. By blowing up the fences, it was able to let go the internal tensions and provided a temporary air to the beleaguered peo ple of the Strip. By forcing Cairo to reengage with it, the group has also obtained some political mileage. The current crisis might also compel President Abbas to reevaluate his refusal to deal with Hamas. These are not insignificant.
But, if one takes a broader look, Hamas has also come out badly from the crisis. Ever since it's electoral victory in January 2006, the organisation has brought more miseries to Palestinians than benefits. While Israeli intransigence and Arab indifferences are crucial, Hamas also cannot escape from its share. Since the Oslo accord of 1993, Hamas has consistently challenged the legitimacy and authority of the Palestinian Authority and its chairman Yasser Arafat. It did all it could to sabotage the peace process.
After the 2006 electoral victory, Hamas sang a different tune: total Palestinian acceptance of its legitimacy, especially on the peace process.
Even the Saudi mediation which resulted in the Mecca accord was insufficient to bridge the internal schisms. Rather than working in tandem with the other groups, especially Fatah, Hamas violently challenged the authority of Abbas and took full control of the Gaza Strip.
Not many would have forgotten masked Hamas militants stamping over the portraits of Arafat when they took over Palestinian offices.
Not only has it refused to negotiate with Israel, Hamas has been continuously launching rockets into Israel, especially at the western Negev town of Sderot. Its refusal to reign in rocket attacks has resulted in Israeli retaliations and economic sanctions, which in turn ended in the Gaza-Egypt crisis. Hamas can divert the attention and blame Israel and others for the problem. But in the long run, it cannot escape the inevitable question: Is Hamas ready to take responsibility and start governing? Without serious soul searching by all major players, the current crisis is a step closer to catastrophe for Palestinian national aspirations.