Gaza has become the Sarajevo of the Middle East. Israel, in an action similar to that of the Serbs in Bosnia, has surrounded and cut off nearly a million and a half Palestinians in the Gaza Strip since the Islamic militant group Hamas took control in June. Electric fences and watch towers manned by Israeli soldiers keep the Palestinians trapped inside the strip. The land and sea blockade, the halting of all but minimal humanitarian aid and the refusal to allow Gaza to receive financial support are crushing Gaza’s industry, farming and infrastructure.
The tactic is clear: Israel and the United States will strangle Gaza by cutting off all money and goods, including fuel and most food, to reduce one of the most densely populated places on the planet to an impoverished ghetto. Hunger and anarchy, they hope, will motivate Gazans to turn on Hamas, and the anarchy will perhaps be used to justify a reoccupation by the Israeli military and see the return of the quisling President Mahmoud Abbas, who was ousted after he led an abortive coup to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government. He is now in the West Bank.
The Bush administration has, in an effort to bolster the credibility of Abbas, promised to provide his government with $190 million in aid and $80 million in security assistance. And the Israeli prime minister has traveled to Jericho to tout Abbas as a partner for peace.
The effects of the siege are disastrous. Palestinians in Gaza are not allowed to travel abroad. They cannot enter Israel for work. They do not fish off the coast because Israeli gunboats open fire at any vessels that are more than a mile offshore. Gaza has seen 75 percent of its factories closed since June, with the loss of 68,000 jobs, according to the World Bank. There is a 70 percent unemployment rate, and 1.1 million of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza depend on U.N. assistance to survive. The boycott has forced the United Nations to suspend $93 million worth of construction projects for homes, schools and sewage treatment in Gaza because cement and other building supplies have run out. These U.N. projects once employed 121,000 people. About 80 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza survive on $2 a day. Basic foodstuffs such as milk powder, baby formula, vegetable oil and medical supplies are running out. Families, unable to get food or find work, are living on little more than tea and bread.
The instability is compounded by the internecine violence among Palestinian factions, gangs, clans, militias and criminals, as well as the Israeli warplanes that bomb refugee camps in an effort to strike at militants and Israeli patrols that make incursions into the strip to round up suspects. It is impossible for nearly all Palestinians to enter or leave Gaza. The only connection the trapped population has with the outside comes through deep tunnels that Palestinians dig across the border into Egypt. These tunnels are used to smuggle goods, weapons and people, as a tunnel under the airport in Sarajevo was during the war in Bosnia.
The looming humanitarian crisis, manufactured and orchestrated by the Israeli government, in violation of international law, is a brutal form of collective punishment. It has, however, the support of the compliant Abbas government. Abbas has ordered all government officials in Gaza, including the police, to refuse to go to work and government offices to shut their doors. Those who do go to work, he says, will no longer receive their salaries. He suspended the Gaza Strip attorney general’s office and, in order to keep money out of the hands of the Hamas government, led by Ismael Haniyah, he told government-run hospitals not to collect fees. Abbas has even threatened not to recognize high school exam results in Gaza because the education system is being administered by what he called an illegitimate government.
On the public relations front, Abbas, knowing what buttons to push in Washington, has linked the Hamas government with al-Qaida and branded its military wing “a terrorist organization.”
“Yes, through Hamas, al-Qaida has entered Gaza and through Hamas, al-Qaida is protected,” he told Italian RAI TV in Rome on July 10.
The decision by Israel and the United States to widen the schism and increase tensions between Hamas and Abbas is a blunder of catastrophic proportions. The hatred for Israel and the United States, which already runs deep among Palestinians, will only grow the longer the siege continues. Abbas, by dancing to the tune of those seen by the Palestinians as the enemy, is becoming a reviled, weak and discredited figure. The schism makes a peace agreement and future cooperation only more elusive. Hamas is an unsavory organization, but as long as it has broad support among the Palestinians, and it does, it is going to have to be included in any eventual settlement if civility and peace are to be restored in Gaza and the West Bank. The ham-fisted attempt to make Hamas go away by meting out draconian punishments on the Palestinians in Gaza will radicalize more Palestinians and see the civil war spill into the West Bank. Despite all the aid Abbas gets, he may soon be battling Hamas militants in Ramallah.
Violence begets violence. Iraq should have taught us that. The road chosen by the Bush administration and the Israeli government is one that failed in Iraq, failed in Lebanon and will fail in the Palestinian territories. It will only increase the chaos, suffering and death. Hamas is not going to vanish because of Israeli repression. Radical organizations, on the contrary, count on this repression to build a militant base and silence the voices of reason within their own societies. These two apocalyptic extremes — represented by Hamas and the Israeli right wing — need each other to further their frightening visions. The Israeli right wing dreams of a broken and compliant Palestinian population living on impoverished reservations surrounded by the Israeli military. Hamas dreams of destroying the Jewish state. Neither dream is based on reality. Neither dream will work. But a lot of people will suffer and die to find this out.