Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Road to Total Isolation: Reflections on Hamas’ Response to 17 April Tel Aviv Attack

In the wake of Monday’s terror attack in Tel Aviv in which nine people were killed and dozens more wounded, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority seized the opportunity to further alienate itself. In the hours after the bombing, myriad news sources quoted Hamas officials asserting that the strike, carried out by the militant Islamic Jihad movement, was undertaken in “self defense” and staunchly refused to issue any condemnation. In doing so, Hamas made it increasingly difficult for those who defend the democratic processes that yielded Hamas’ victory to continue arguing on their behalf.

During my time working as a news editor in the West Bank, I learned that the Hamas movement came closer to abiding by the Cairo Declaration (a multilateral peace treaty signed by Palestinian factions in March 2005) than any other signatory. While the movement did commit some infractions, most observers were surprised by its unprecendented level of restraint. During the summer of 2005, Hamas, which in previous years lead the way in terror attacks against Israel, stood by in the wake of two separate shooting incidents during which radical Israeli settlers murdered a total of nine Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line. Nor did Hamas retaliate when nearly 1,500 of its members were arrested during large scale arrest raids throughout the West Bank in September and October. The absence of Hamas’ militant activity seemed to indicate that the movement sought to bolster legitimacy and credibility and demonstrate its willingness to act as a political movement capable of disavowing violence. At that point, Hamas appeared to be focused on the parliamentary elections, which it won by a substantial margin in January.

While I feel no practical or ideological affinity for Hamas and its agenda, I believe that movement’s recent ascendance was in line with democratic principals. Palestinians, fed up with years of Fatah’s corruption and ineptitude, turned out en masse to cast votes for something different. Hamas, while notorious in Israeli and international eyes for its egregious terror attacks, concurrently provided a wealth of social services to the poorest elements of Palestinian society.

Feeling abandoned and manipulated by Fatah, Palestinians came to respect Hamas, the leadership of which lived alongside refugees in camps throughout the territories. Fatah officials lived in the house on the hill, driving luxury cars and sending their children to European boarding schools while average Palestinians lived in squalor. Considering this, I believe that Hamas’ victory had little to do with increased fundamentalism and militance among average Palestinians and everything to do with the common person’s frustration with Fatah’s corruption and inability to procure peace and prosperity. Palestinians did not view Hamas as a God send, but the lesser of two evils.

In a recent piece about Hamas’ electoral victory I argued that the movement would moderate its anti-Israeli positions as a result of the broader Palestinian desire for peace. My view in the article was that owing to Hamas’ popular mandate, the strong desire for stability among Palestinians would force the movement to modify its charter and negotiate with Israel. While I maintain that this prediction is accurate, I could not help but lament over Hamas’ reaction to Monday’s attack.

I support Hamas’ right to rule on the basis of democratic idealism, not because of agreement with its ideology or practices. I would argue that any party, in any county has the right to rule if the populous elects it democratically. In recent months, I’ve argued with people contest this assertion and insist that Hamas is nothing more than a terrorist organization that has no business in the political sphere. During such exchanges, I’ve touted Hamas’ record in abiding by the Cairo Declaration and its unrivaled restraint on occasions at which many armed brigades, including those affiliated with Fatah, would have reacted. The remarks of Hamas officials in the wake of Monday’s attack made it increasingly difficult to continue arguing on the movement’s behalf.

Bombing civilians, let alone those who reside dozens of miles from the combat zone is never an act of “self-defense.” In fact, in the context of Israeli-Palestinian violence, such actions are anything but defensive considering that they almost always provoke an Israeli military response. I am well aware of the conditions that lead young Palestinians to bomb themselves in marketplaces. At times, I’ve felt as though I could empathize with their complete and utter desperation. The acts, however, are no way to win wars. Hamas’ willingness to condone the murder of innocents only negates the few legitimate credentials it earned over the last thirteen months. The reaction of senior officials after the bombing made me question my own commitment to democratic ideals. I expected more from an organization that is known throughout the territories for their unrelenting pragmatism.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Gathering Storm: The Cost and Consequences of Isolating Hamas

Washington D.C. – It seems reasonable to conclude that the punitive starvation of tens of thousands of Palestinians does not bode well for progress and security in the Near East. As Israel and the international community ignore warnings that a continued aid freeze will prompt economic catastrophe in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), it seems clear that top decision makers do not share this view. The Israeli leadership and its allies are so mired in the oversimplified rhetoric of fighting terrorism that they fail to see how their provincial outlooks and misguided policies will only stoke the phenomenon that they strive to abolish.

According to a World Bank study released in March, the pseudo-sanctions against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) will cause the economy in the OPT to shrink by over 27 percent in 2006. A New York Times article on 16 March indicated that a decline of such magnitude would be comparable to America’s Great Depression. Citing the World Bank survey, the Times added that Palestinian unemployment will double by the year’s end, reaching nearly 40 percent, and that two thirds of the population in the OPT will find themselves living under the poverty line by 2007. At present, 56 percent of Palestinians live in poverty, a marked increase from 22 percent in 2000, the year in which Palestinian frustration reached critical mass and erupted into the second intifada.

If the above figures fail to generate concern, an array of ranking United Nations officials recently warned that border closures, and the withholding of aid and monthly tax revenues are exacerbating extreme poverty conditions in the Gaza Strip. During a meeting with Israeli Foreign Ministry officials on 3 April, David Shearer, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicated that Gaza faces a humanitarian crisis the likes of Kosovo if the present course persists. Shearer’s remarks came days after the release of a United Nations Relief Works Association (UNRWA) survey that reported a “significant” increase in the number of hungry people since the halting of financial aid to the Hamas-led PA in January. Speaking to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, UNRWA Commission General Karen Koning Abu Zayd shared her expectation that the agency would add some 25,000 Palestinian families to the food distribution list as a result Israel withholding monthly tax revenues.

The taxes, collected by Israel on behalf of the PA, amount to nearly USD 55 million per month. Prior to Hamas’ victory in the parliamentary elections, Israel transferred the money to the Palestinian Finance Ministry, which then used it to pay the salaries of some 140,000 Palestinian civil servants. Despite vague PA announcements on 5 April that three Gulf States would provide USD 80 million to help cover the Authority’s salary expenses, the figure still falls significantly short of the USD 118 million owed for March salaries alone. The additional backlog of lost earnings has greatly affected thousands of Palestinian families.

The drastic deterioration of economic conditions, coupled with continued and costly Israeli military operations throughout the OPT, contributes to increased Palestinian resentment and volatility on the ground. James Wolfensohn, the envoy of the so-called Quartet, a negotiation group comprised of Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, expressed concern over this issue during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March. "If you don't pay the civil servants, who themselves support 900,000 people," Wolfsensohn said, "I'm afraid the frustration would reach a level where you couldn't contain it." The envoy added that continuation of the current circumstances would result in the “increased radicalization of Palestinian society.”

On the ground, “increased radicalization” translates into a deterioration of security in the region, a situation which has, by and large, been comparatively calm since the signing of a multilateral ceasefire in March 2005. When Palestinians begin to starve, which recent data and remarks indicate they have, the Israeli respite from bus bombings and other acts of terror will soon be at an end.

Unfortunately, ranking Israeli officials appear to exhibit a see-no-evil stance on the concerns outlined by the various agencies and institutions. Speaking to Haaretz on 4 April, an unnamed, senior source in Jerusalem citied Major General Yosef Mishlab, Israel’s policy chief for the Occupied Territories, as denying the existence of any humanitarian crisis in the OPT. During a briefing in Jerusalem on 6 April, senior Israeli officials accused the PA of disseminating “atrocious propaganda,” claiming that the Authority’s talk of an imminent humanitarian crisis in the OPT exists only to win back foreign aid. Such attitudes make it difficult to obtain the compromises necessary to build trust and stability and prolong the current lull in violence.

Perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the present situation is that the punitive measures in place against the Palestinian people came in direct response to their democratic expression. During a zeitgeist in which the promotion of democratic ideals in the Middle East dominates American policy and international discussion, the punishment of a people in response their embracement of democracy seems egregiously hypocritical. Few disagree that Hamas must modify its stance on numerous issues if it is to successfully govern the Palestinians and negotiate with Israel. This moderation will occur as a result of the fact that Hamas was democratically elected by a Palestinian population that longs for peace and stability. If Hamas is unwilling or unable to procure the desired ends, the movement will quickly find itself out in the cold. Hamas will moderate not as a result of outside pressure and punitive measures, but for the sake of its own political viability.

In recent weeks, Hamas leaders have suggested that their willingness to moderate will correlate with that of their Israeli counterparts. Hamas’ declared framework for progress includes the cessation of settlement construction, an Israeli withdrawal to the 4 June 1967 borders, the recognition of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and other concessions that enjoy the support of international law and UN resolutions. The leaders of Hamas have repeatedly offered a “long term truce” with Israel upon the fulfillment of these internationally endorsed criteria. Instead of gradually and conditionally engaging Hamas, an organization that now holds a popular mandate among Palestinians, Israel and its allies appear intent on subverting democracy and punishing the Palestinian people for their attempt to embrace what the West claims to want.