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Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Takeover of Gaza by Hamas


The Takeover of Gaza by Hamas

Shlomo Brom

Following the outbreak of the latest round of fighting between Fatah and Hamas, Hamas has taken complete control of Gaza and Fatah's presence as a functioning movement has virtually disappeared. In response, Fatah has launched a wave of arrests of Hamas activists in the West Bank and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared a state of emergency, dismantled the National Unity Government and nominated a new government of Fatah-associated technocrats headed by Salam Fayyad.

The main ramifications of these developments are:

  • The separation between Gaza and the West Bank has been entrenched. This separation existed before because Israel prevented free movement between the two regions, but they have now become two distinct political entities controlled by two rival movements. In these circumstances, there is no single Palestinian political address that can presume to represent the Palestinian people vis-א-vis Israel.

  • The Hamas government will now find itself, for the first time, in a situation in which it will have full control of a defined geographical area. Neither the first Hamas government, formed after Hamas' victory in the 2006 elections, nor the national unity government actually exercised effective control because of the ongoing rivalry between the two movements and their refusal to dismantle their armed militias or renounce control of the security agencies under their authority.

  • Although the sanctions imposed by international actors on Hamas may be reinforced, at least initially, those actors will probably continue to send assistance to the Gaza Strip in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

  • On the other hand, sanctions will be completely removed from the West Bank under the Fatah government.

  • The takeover of Gaza by Hamas will apparently be a source of great concern to the Egyptian regime because of its possible implications for the domestic situation in Egypt. That concern may well enhance Egypt's motivation to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and to tighten control over the movement of undesirable elements into and out of Gaza.

At this point, it is difficult to assess the implications for the security situation along the border with the Gaza Strip. On the one hand, the heady sense of success in Hamas' military echelon may increase the desire to demonstrate some military capability against Israel. Some elements in Hamas may also calculate that redirecting the attention of the Palestinian public to the confrontation with Israel could reduce the impact on Palestinian public opinion of the scenes of butchery and horror that accompanied Hamas' takeover of Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas needs some relative quiet to entrench its regime in Gaza and may therefore have no interest in any immediate escalation with Israel.

For the first time in many years, there is now one clear address with undeniable responsibility for what happens in Gaza. True, this is not Israel's preferred address given Hamas' ideology and its refusal to accept the three Quartet conditions – recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Nevertheless, the existence of a single address does provide some advantages, since the Palestinians will find it much harder to rely on the timeworn excuse that since actions launched against Israel are undertaken by forces that the government does not control, it cannot prevent them. Henceforth, there will be a single authority responsible for every operation originating in Gaza.

The transformation of Hamas into the sole ruler of the Gaza Strip also means that Hamas has more assets and therefore has more to lose. That, too, may be more convenient for Israel since it will have more options in deterring or responding to attacks originating from Gaza.

This situation will also become a primary test for Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian public. Will the government be able to assert control over all the groups and armed factions (such as the Durmush clan) operating private militias there? The split between Gaza and the West Bank may also strengthen Hamas' motivation to meet this test. It will need to prove to the bulk of the Palestinian population in the West Bank that its rule is preferable to that of Fatah and that it can provide a functioning, corruption-free regime that maintains a monopoly on the use of force and provides law and order. Concern about reactions in the West Bank may also lead it to refrain from imposing strict Islamic norms on the population of Gaza in matters such as dress codes and other facets of personal behavior.

Another central question relates to the long-term impact of this development. Is it the beginning of Fatah's demise and the Islamist movement's total takeover of the Palestinian national movement? Conversely, will it actually provide the stimulus that the secular national movement, represented by Fatah, needs in order to carry out the long-overdue reforms leading to its revival? And what will be the impact on the standing of other Islamist movements throughout the Arab world and on the readiness of incumbent regimes to take steps to block the Islamist movements? At this stage, the answers to all these questions remain unclear.

Finally, the chances for an effective political dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians as a whole, which were in any case minimal, have now practically disappeared unless Israel changes its approach to Hamas rule. Hamas' takeover of Gaza does make necessary some low-level communication between Israeli and Hamas-government representatives in order to maintain some semblance of normal life and provide basic services to the population of Gaza, which is almost completely dependent on Israel in matters such as electricity and water supply, imports and exports, etc. However, there appears to be no chance that such communication will deviate from that very limited agenda as long as Israel adheres to its policy of avoiding any political dialogue with Hamas unless the latter first makes fundamental changes in its policy. In any case, it will be necessary to establish some mechanism to transmit messages to Hamas, either to deter it or to clarify the significance of actions it takes and the nature of Israeli responses. The alternative to such a mechanism to restrain Hamas is military escalation. At the same time, the new situation may allow a more meaningful engagement with Abbas and the Fatah government in the West Bank than the futile dialogue in which the two sides were engaged before these recent developments


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