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Remember Gaza?

A visit to Gaza City, for the latest from Hamas, Fatah, Benjamin Netanyahu—and Marine Le Pen

Matthew Duss
May 08, 2015
A Palestinian youth practices his Parkour skills in the ruins of buildings on April 28, 2015, in the eastern Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, which was destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth practices his Parkour skills in the ruins of buildings on April 28, 2015, in the eastern Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, which was destroyed during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the summer of 2014. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago saw the latest blow to the on-again-but-mostly-off-again reconciliation between the two leading Palestinian political factions, Hamas and Fatah. A Fatah delegation from the West Bank entered Gaza for what was planned as a weeklong visit to address the sticky issue of payment to some 40,000 Hamas government employees, which was one of the main drivers of Hamas’ decision to accept a reconciliation agreement in April 2014, largely on Fatah’s terms. Instead, the Fatah delegation stayed only one day, departing after claiming that Hamas had prohibited it from traveling from their beachfront hotel to their offices. Hamas, for its part, responded that the makeup of the delegation had not been appropriately cleared in advance.

A few days later, as Israelis celebrated their Independence Day, the first rocket was fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in four months. An Israeli tank barrage into Gaza followed shortly after.

It was not the first rocket launched since the August cease-fire that ended Operation Protective Edge, the summer of 2014’s hugely destructive Israeli assault on Gaza that lasted 52 days. Back in February, Hamas lobbed two rockets into the Mediterranean, ostensibly to test their launch system and intimidate Israel. Omar Shaban, a Palestinian analyst who runs the small think tank, PalThink, in Gaza, had a different interpretation. “They’re sending you a message,” he told me. “You should be wise enough to hear it.”

The message is that Gaza is creeping toward another explosion. It’s a depressingly similar pattern. Just like after previous conflicts, Israel’s cease-fire demands have been met. Hamas has prevented rocket fire, while the group’s demand for an end to the blockade that has suffocated Gaza for nearly a decade has not. Last month I visited the coastal strip to view the damage from the summer’s war, assess the state of reconstruction, and explore the possibilities of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

I’d last been to Gaza in February 2012. There have been two wars since then, in addition to a number of smaller incursions and exchanges of fire. In February 2012, much of Gaza City remained in rubble from December 2008-January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. This time, there was rubble lying atop the rubble.

Shaban pulled up next to a huge pile of broken cinder block and twisted metal. “Here’s the Finance Ministry.”

Despite Hamas’ role in the escalation that led to the war, however, polls have shown that the group retains a significant measure of public support. One poll taken immediately after Operation Protective Edge found, for the first time since 2006, Hamas would best its rival Fatah in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Part of this has to do with Hamas being seen, unlike Fatah, as a party willing to fight the status quo. Part of it has to do with Hamas’ strategic distribution of resources to activists and supporters. But it’s also related to the fact that their civil servants are actually respected for the work that they continue to do in hugely difficult circumstances.

“You see that policeman? He shows up for work every day. He hasn’t been paid in over a year,” Shaban said as he drove us through Gaza City’s clogged arteries. He was pointing out a traffic cop, standing in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, smiling, in a smartly pressed uniform. “Yet Fatah people in Ramallah aren’t paid for two weeks and they complain. People in Gaza see this; they appreciate the commitment.”

In the wake of Protective Edge, there was widespread recognition that the status quo could not continue. Then, as after previous rounds, it did. While Israel has recently begun to slightly loosen its blockade, allowing more laborers into Israel, and allowing exports of produce into both the West Bank and Israel, this is not nearly enough to address the real economic and humanitarian needs in the Strip.

“There have been some baby steps in the right direction: for example, limited ability to sell goods from Gaza in Israel and the West Bank and more travel permits issued to senior traders,” said Tania Hary, deputy director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that monitors Gaza. “These small adjustments to policy aren’t being felt by most people in Gaza, where unemployment and poverty remain high. Real change requires a shift in the concept that access restrictions are bargaining chips and that civilians can and should pay for lack of political progress.”

In March, the Swiss government put forth a plan to deal with the issues of salaries for civil servants, in hopes that it would in turn enable the transfer of security control at Gaza’s crossing points to Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, which would then be able to kick-start the economic development and reconstruction process in Gaza. As of now, the plan lies dormant. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is an obstacle to the plan’s implementation, demanding complete capitulation from Hamas, and denying them any sort of fig leaf—such as a small official presence at the crossing points over which the P.A. would control security—that would enable them to save face. While this is the sort of thing that one expects to hear in Gaza, what surprised me was how it was affirmed in Ramallah—including by people close to Abbas.

It’s understandable why Abbas would be hesitant to move back into Gaza. He already has a situation in the West Bank where he shoulders a great deal of security responsibility with vanishingly little concomitant power. Were he to attempt to re-establish power in Gaza, he would also face a situation where Hamas has spent almost a decade solidifying its influence and embedding its loyalists within Gaza’s governing institutions. And he’s quite aware that Hamas wants the P.A. essentially to serve as its ATM while giving up the barest minimum of authority necessary to increase the flow of humanitarian and reconstruction aid. It’s a recipe for continued dysfunction and struggle.

But Fatah and Hamas officials I spoke to recognize that the continuing division between the two groups and territories is a disaster for the Palestinian people. It also provides Israelis a decent pretext to question the value of any agreement with an Abbas-led PLO.

“This conflict [with Israel] is a political, not religious one,” insisted an official with the Hamas government as we sat in an office in downtown Gaza City. He was drinking tea. I was on coffee to beat the jet lag. The bare minimum that the Palestinians can accept is what is based in international law, he said. “The ’67 borders, minimum. Talks won’t work without that recognition.” If Abbas gets a two-state solution, and Palestinians agree with him, that’s OK with Hamas, he said. Yes, Hamas dreams of taking back all of Palestine. “But there are dreamers all over the world.”

Defending Hamas’ inclusion in Palestinian politics, he offered a comparison that surprised me: France’s National Front Party, led by Marine Le Pen. “Le Pen hates foreigners, but they’re a part of the political system.” He cited a comment from Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that Palestinian citizens of Israel who opposed Israeli policies should have their heads cut off. “Can you imagine the reaction if [Gaza Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh had said such a thing?”

But aren’t Israel’s and the United States’ concerns regarding Hamas’ continuing use of violence legitimate? I asked. “You can’t ask me to think peacefully while I’m imprisoned in Gaza, while my land is being taken in the West Bank, while my holy places are under attack. You are nourishing violence by maintaining a system of injustice.”

I asked him about Hamas’ notorious charter, which includes a reference to a Quranic exhortation to kill Jews. He appeared defensive about it, as if he recognizing it as a problem, which I took as a good sign, because, of course, it is. “Thousands of Hamas members never even see the charter,” he said. “But we are working to revise it.” But it’s difficult, he said, to make any moves toward moderation under conditions of siege. “I am a doctor,” he said. “The first step in dealing with an abscess is to relieve the tension.”

I raised the same question later with a younger Hamas analyst. He responded that Fatah had accommodated demands to a change its charter back in the 1990s, during the Oslo process, and received very little in return. “Hamas sees this,” he said, and it affirms the arguments of the group’s most militant elements that there’s little to be gained from a nonviolent approach.

One new factor that could potentially drive that moderation, however, is the new posture of Saudi Arabia under the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who acceded to the throne after the death of his half-brother Abdullah in January. Rumors abounded of a rapprochement between Hamas and the Saudi government, part of a broader strategy by the Saudis to try and bring the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist affiliates into the fold and contain rather than crush them. This represents not only a broader recognition that these groups will continue to be part of Sunni Arab politics, but also a more specific effort to draw Hamas, whose relationship with Iran has been rocky since the group withdrew its support for the Assad regime in 2012, further out of the Islamic Republic’s orbit. But this would bring Hamas’ political wing into increased tension with its military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, which has been the main beneficiary of Iranian support, and which has used that support to steadily increase its power vis-à-vis the political wing, which has struggled to find political support in the wake of its withdrawal from Syria.

Part of the new Saudi direction would involve pressure on Egypt’s Sissi regime to ease its crackdown on the Brotherhood and soften its posture toward Hamas, which could prove difficult, given that Sissi has invested a great deal in presenting himself as the bulwark against the Islamists, to an even greater extent than Hosni Mubarak did. Pushing such a shift would also put the Saudis at odds with its allies in the United Arab Emirates, which has strongly backed the crackdown. “We don’t really know what the bottom line is with the Saudi policy. I don’t think they know,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “The Emiratis are aware, but not sure how far it goes. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Saudis are really going to play hardball on the Brotherhood’s behalf.”

“They want to minimize the strains and put the Sunni house in order,” Hanna said. Salman’s government “is not as rigid as the Abdullah camp, but no one has a great sense yet of what that means in reality. And it will mean different things for different groups in different countries.”

Before I left Gaza, I stopped by one of several cemeteries for British Commonwealth soldiers from World Wars I and II. Beautifully maintained by the local arm of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, these gardens with their solemn headstones have become popular among young people seeking a quiet escape. Carved with Christian crosses and Jewish stars, these monuments challenge Netanyahu’s claim that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” When ISIS takes control of an area, its Christian cemeteries are destroyed. Since taking control of Gaza, on the other hand, Hamas has continued to allow their preservation. Recent reports that the Israeli government is holding secret talks with Hamas indicate that Netanyahu knows the comparison is a false one. But even a long-term ceasefire would only manage the conflict and not solve it, likely empowering Hamas vis-à-vis the P.A. and further delaying the Palestinian reconciliation that’s necessary for any conflict-ending agreement. If one’s goal is avoiding such an agreement, as it should be clear by now that Netanyahu’s is, that’s not a bad thing. For those who want a Palestinian leadership able to make credible commitments on behalf of Palestinians as a whole, it is.


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Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.

Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, based in Washington, DC.