The battle in Gaza is a humanitarian and security nightmare-and an opportunity for anti-Hamas Palestinians to start fresh
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Life in Gaza has never been easy, and Abu Nada weathered the storms despite hostile gunfire and threatening text messages sent to his phone courtesy of Hamas. But when the militant group took over the coastal territory on June 14 and seized the Fatah-controlled television station where Nada was general manager, he had seen enough.
Without risking a trip home to pack his belongings, Nada joined the exodus of hundreds of Gazans seeking passage into Israel, traversing the back roads to avoid Hamas checkpoints and even crawling at times to reach the border. Thanks to contacts in Israel, Nada was able to cross. Others weren't as fortunate.
After five days of intense factional fighting and more than a year of attempting a coalition government, Hamas gained the upper hand over Fatah forces in Gaza, and two Palestinian mini-states emerged: Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip and the secular Fatah party rules the West Bank. In a move Hamas leaders called a coup, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promptly fired Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, and a new government was formed.
Israelis-concerned about the humanitarian and security crises ensuing just yards away-have been patrolling their borders while playing a limited role in the Palestinian shakedown.
Security was everyone's top concern in the days surrounding the quasi-civil war. In a multi-faceted lockdown, Israel and Egypt immediately closed their border crossings while Hamas militia set up checkpoints on their end, trying to prevent a mass exodus and hunt down Fatah leaders wanted by the terrorist group.
As many as 600 Gazans set up camp in the stench-filled passage into Israel, caught between Israeli tanks on the one side and Hamas forces and public executions on the other. A select number of injured civilians, humanitarian cases, and Fatah officials were allowed to pass through the tightened borders, but the rest were turned away by Israeli forces concerned about terrorist infiltration.
"When you see your friends being killed in front of your eyes, when you see Hamas fighters killing the wounded, stopping ambulances, storming houses and security officers, this leads you to one thing: to get away," Preventative Security officer Ahmed Sawan said.
Almost two years have passed since 8,000 Israeli settlers packed their belongings and bid Gaza farewell. In a controversial "land for peace" initiative, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, entrusting the small piece of land to the Palestinians with hopes of propelling forward the stalled peace process. Things did not go as planned.
Hamas emerged as the victor in parliamentary elections at the beginning of 2006, earning the right to form the coalition government but still refusing to acknowledge past peace initiatives or Israel's right to exist. Although Israel maintains control over Gaza airspace and monitors the border crossing with Egypt via video link, weapons and explosives are frequently smuggled into the territory, and Qassam rockets are common intrusions in Israeli towns nearby.
Shlomo Dror, the Israeli Defense Forces Coordinator for Activities in the Territories, told WORLD he expects an increase of illegal activity under Hamas rule in Gaza: "We have to remember that we have a force now that is actually connected to Iran and connected to Islamic terror organizations all over the Middle East."
But border closings mean Gazans have limited access to basic supplies already scarce in the impoverished state, and some fear a humanitarian crisis is on the horizon. Prior to the hostile takeover, Israelis transferred necessities through Fatah leaders at the borders, refusing to deal with Hamas. Dror says the government is addressing this new scenario, searching for a way to help Gazans without aiding Hamas: "Hamas is calling to destroy us. It's not in our interest to assist the government."
Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, says al-Qaeda does not appear to be a major player in the recent strife, but cautions that further deterioration in Gaza's crowded and poverty-stricken core could result in al-Qaeda influence down the road: "The petri dishes that give rise to popular support for the Salafist jihadist movement and the al-Qaeda phenomenon are these pockets of extreme over-population and extreme poverty in and around numerous Arab cities."
Since fighting subsided, Israel has allowed crucial medical supplies to be sent into Gaza, and a June 19 food shipment helped ease concerns about the 1.4 million Palestinians trying to survive with a lackluster economy and international isolation.
While Gaza has retreated into further seclusion, the prospects for the Palestinian government in the West Bank may be looking a bit brighter. "This is a very dark cloud," Ibish said, "but if there is an opportunity, it certainly has to do with rebuilding ties to the outside world, including to the Arabs."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was immediately surrounded by international efforts to embolden his newly invented Hamas-free government. During their June 19 meeting in Washington, both President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert affirmed Abbas as the legitimate ruler of the Palestinian people. The United States and the European Union pledged to end a 15-month embargo and restore vital aid, and Israel promised to hand over hundreds of millions of tax dollars withheld since Hamas gained power in the territories.
Abbas didn't waste any time proving the legitimacy of his government: After firing Hamas leader and Prime Minister Haniyeh, he promptly replaced him with economist Salam Fayyad, a favorite in the international arena and a leader Ibish describes as one of the "cleanest and most honest figures in Palestine." Fayyad formed an emergency government on June 17, and Abbas called President Bush the following day to tell him it was time to restart Mideast peace talks.
But with militants in Gaza straying far from current peace initiatives, the "road map" to peace may need to be redrawn. A myriad of options are being thrown on the table from all sides, including calls from the Israeli right to retake and occupy the Gaza Strip. While Dror doesn't deny the possibility of Israeli forces entering Gaza to cripple militant activities, a full-scale occupation is highly unlikely, he said: "We didn't get out of Gaza in order to go back into Gaza. It's in the Israeli interests to stay out of Gaza."
Other options circulating in the fringes include returning the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt or absorbing the West Bank and all its citizens into Israel proper (both highly unlikely).
Despite the rebellion in Gaza, Ibish still exalts the two-state solution as the only option for Palestinians and believes Hamas will eventually realize the folly of its ways: "This moment of Hamas triumph in Gaza I think is ultimately going to be short-lived. In the end, Gaza does not have an independent future, and I think that's going to be clear sooner or later."
But from the Israeli Defense Forces' perspective, Dror sees a division between Gazans and West Bank residents that runs deeper than politics. West Bank residents are more educated and have a higher economic and family status than their counterparts. Most West Bank residents, he says, are also willing to disavow violence and engage in dialogue, while Gazans have chosen the road less peaceful: "We knew before how violent [Hamas] could be. Now we've seen what he can do to his brother. Think what he can do to other people."
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