Just in case people forget, there is a territory in the Middle East called the Gaza Strip, where nearly 2 million Palestinians live in a politically instigated economic deprivation. I am stressing the political angle because there is no reason to why the Gaza Strip, on the Mediterranean coast, cannot be enjoying tourism income and a robust export economy to Europe and the rest of the world.
The politics is created by an illegal and unjust siege that has spanned over a decade, with no end in sight. The official reason given for this illegal siege is the fact that the Islamist movement, Hamas, is in control of Gaza. For its part, Hamas says that it won free and fair elections in 2006 but was never allowed to govern. The problem, of course, intensified in June 2007, when Hamas rejected the rule of the also elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and kicked out the presidential guards from Gaza, centralising both administrative and security power in the tiny strip. Efforts at reconciliation have failed largely because of the refusal of Hamas to adhere to new elections, but also due to the fact that the Palestine Leadership Organisation’s (PLO) leadership in Ramallah has not been willing to find any compromise that includes sharing power with Hamas.
The situation has further escalated in recent months as the Ramallah leadership has decided to take on Hamas directly, with the only offer on the table a total Hamas capitulation. President Abbas has made it clear that the PLO would only cooperate if Hamas lays down its arms and allow Abbas’s administration to take over both administrative and security control. This pressure has included stopping paying the electrical bill for Gaza and stopping to pay salaries to both Hamas-appointed employees, as well as employees who have been working in Gaza well before the 2006 elections that brought to power pro-Hamas members of parliament.
The Ramallah leadership has also announced recently a decision by the constitutional court to dissolve the 2006 elected Palestinian Legislative Council, with the call for legislative, not presidential, elections to take place within six months.
Gazans are part of the Palestinian people, and the dire economic situation has turned Gaza with among the highest unemployment rates in the world and a total collapse of any sign of hope for a population that had already suffered from the decade-long Israeli siege. President Abbas might be looking at the long term by refusing to accept a partial solution that would turn Gaza into a Lebanon-like complicated governance, where the Hizbollah militias yield exaggerated powers over the civilian political leadership.
The Palestinian Central Council and the Palestine National Council have called on President Abbas not to punish the people of Gaza to renew support for the electric company and to reinstate the salaries of public workers, but Abbas has refused and instead has escalated the pressure on Gaza by withdrawing the presidential guards manning the Rafah crossing point, thus making an already difficult crossing point even more difficult.
Abbas’s policy has not succeeded and is unlikely to succeed. The situation has been so difficult that Israel is concerned about the potential of a people explosion in Gaza and as a result, has agreed to transfer funds from Qatar to Hamas in order to pay government employees.
The international community has totally acquiesced with the Israeli and the Abbas policies against Hamas, and has done little to help break up the siege or help find a shared internal solution. One obstacle that needs to be overcome is the fact that the world community considers Hamas a terrorist organisation and has done little to help them get recognised by the international community. Hamas has sent clear signals of agreeing to accept many of the demands of the international community, including support for the two-state solution, but few international governments have agreed to engage with Hamas. Many remember the days when the PLO was similarly declared a terrorist organisation but at that time, many world powers were willing to help break the isolation of the PLO until Israel and the PLO exchanged letters of recognition. The time might be right now for the world community to help rehabilitate Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian organisation. With such engagement, it might be possible to work on ending the siege and also help bring about a serious reconciliation mechanism that includes new legislative and presidential elections.
The Palestinian people, not Hamas or Fateh, are the source of the power in Palestine and it is important to give the people their right to choose and to remove the monopoly of power that has been restricted to two movements that have not been legitimised by any elections in over a decade.