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.

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