Thursday, November 13, 2008

A fresh round of violence?

Egypt has seen the writing on the wall: today they gave up on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the representatives of whom were supposed to meet in Cairo this week with the Egyptian government and the Arab League, having concluded that the rifts were too deep and wide to heal.

Many Arab countries are now convinced that the split between the West Bank and Gaza will be a long-term reality. And after the failures of the Mecca Agreement, the Yemini plan, and now the Egyptian effort, many residents seem to agree. One Egyptian diplomat was quoted as saying, “the war between Fatah and Hamas is likely to continue for a long time.”

A power struggle between the two parties, who are vying for control over the territories and a potential state, has led to a rise in tension over the past week as Fatah supporters living in Gaza have been forced into not marking the death of Yasser Arafat, their movement’s fallen ideological leader. In fact, a major confrontation does not seem too far away considering Abu Mazen’s positioning to keep his presidency after the January elections even though the Palestinian Authority constitution does not permit it, and Hamas’ intention to name one of its own to take Mazen’s seat.

When Israel disengaged from Gaza in the summer of 2005, the Palestinian Authority was given the chance to construct the area into what it wanted, making it the prototype of what an eventual Palestinian state might look like. Instead, the PA under Mazen wasted the chance. Two years later, when Hamas ousted Fatah and took control of Gaza, Olmert and Barak and the West pursued a strategy that aimed to turn Gaza’s population against Hamas through international isolation.

This strategy failed to recognize that Hamas was cheered in the streets upon its coup victory and then elected democratically. The priority of Hamas is to make war with Israel regardless of the damage it causes to Palestinian society, as read between the lines in its own charter. In fact, there is a train of thought among Israeli politicians that is pointless to topple Hamas because the population is Hamas, that there are no ordinary Palestinians in Gaza to win over.

Israel and Hamas accepted the Egyptian inspired six-month truce in June, though it too looks to be unraveling. Hamas has been using the break in the action to prepare for the next round of violence. On 4 November the IDF destroyed a tunnel that it believed was going to be used to kidnap soldiers. Since then Hamas has fired 120 rockets at Israel.

In response to the rocket fire Israel temporarily closed the crossing points used to deliver humanitarian goods and fuel, yet on any given day dozens of trucks carrying food, fuel, and medicine are allowed in. Hamas then ordered Gaza’s only power plant closed and brought thousands of children into the streets for a candlelight protest. The plant, however, provides just a quarter of Gaza’s electricity. Israel provides 70% and Egypt the rest, none of it interrupted. So much diesel fuel has been piped into Gaza that there is now more supply than demand.

Neither side claims to want the ceasefire to end. Yet at the same time Israel is not willing to allow an escalation of Hamas violence and armament, and simply cannot allow an Islamist government in either Gaza or the West Bank. However, ceasefires are never enough because the Palestinians treat them as political and strategic opportunities to continue their war against Israel by other means.

Given an impending violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and an impending violent conflict between Hamas and Israel, one has to wonder just how much support Hamas has received from Iran and Syria and Qatar that it feels comfortable fighting on both fronts, and whether Israel might be attacked along other borders. Iran’s latest missile exercise tested missiles that have the range to strike Israel. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been under increased domestic pressure following his unpopular letter of congratulations to President-elect Obama, and with his re-election coming up quickly and the terrible state of the Iranian economy, he may be looking to implement his favorite strategy of deflecting domestic criticism with a fresh war on Israel.

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