The elephant in the strip
K.S. - 03/05/2012
It was a marriage that didn’t last, or at least, the honeymoon is over. For the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt promised to open a new chapter with its neighbouring Arab country, not least the prospects of breaking the crippling siege, now in its fifth year.
On the night of Mubarak’s fall, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the main boulevard of Gaza City in celebration, complete with car cades and militant factions’ parading on the streets as people waved the Egyptian flag.
Gaza seemed like infected with the revolutionary change that was sweeping across the Arab neighbours, starting with Tunisia, and that would later change Libya and Yemen, and the Syrian uprising that rages on to this day.
But a year later, the reality is that little has changed for the besieged enclave in the year since the revolution. While it is true that Palestinians from Gaza today enjoy more freedom to move through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, the expectations of Palestinians remain largely unmet. Imports through Egypt remain through the dangerous underground smuggling tunnels, with no possibility of exports for Gaza’s once thriving manufacturing and agricultural industries.
Most disappointed of all is Hamas, which was banking on the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to reposition itself on the international chessboard, but barely a year had passed since Mubarak’s overthrow that the Palestinian Islamist movement found itself in acerbic disputes with the new powers.
So far, the power that matters has been taken over by the Egyptian generals, who are now running the country and ensuring some kind of status quo, not least through the military intelligence apparatus that keeps managing Egypt’s foreign policy while enraging the Egyptians themselves.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood to parliament, which gave an initial boost of morale to its fellow Islamists in Gaza – Hamas is itself an offshoot of the brotherhood – was not met with a real opening for Hamas on the regional and international stage. For the heavily US-funded Egyptian military, the policies towards the movement considered a terrorist organisation by the American and European governments remain lukewarm, especially given the establishment’s support for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Hamas’s rival.
To its credit, post-Mubarak Egypt led to the dramatic Shalit swap last October, which led to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners brokered by Cairo, although Israel did not remove any of its restrictions on Gaza, which remains under total blockade. The Islamist movement’s failure to adhere to a reconciliation agreement signed between the Hamas and Fatah leaders has also been a source of anger for Egypt, which has been trying to broker the deal ever since the Islamists’ coup that saw them take complete control of the Gaza Strip.
In the latest episode of bitterness between Egypt and Gaza, both sides have been trading accusations as a fuel crisis has left the enclave in darkness, while Qatar has stepped in to help the Islamist government in what analysts see as Doha confirming its regional aspirations as a broker, sidestepping Egypt.
Nevertheless, Hamas keeps hoping things will turn in its favour as it eyes May’s presidential elections as it craves for international recognition and legitimacy. In any case, Hamas’s internal problems are unlikely to be solved by any external factors, short of a real reconciliation with Fatah.
The most pressing question for Hamas in government remains an existential one: Hamas has had to adapt from resistance to government, while trying to keep a semblance of both. After years of rhetoric, it found itself policing the very Palestinians it had incited to Jihad and armed resistance. This has proved to be the Hamas’s constant nightmare since it won Palestinian elections with an overwhelming majority, against all expectations. It has been a steep learning curve for the movement that was once the equivalent of a Christian charity with a military wing that found itself at the seat of power on its own.
The Hamas project of governance, if there ever was one, was doomed to failure the moment the international community followed Israel’s request to isolate the movement, declaring Gaza an “enemy entity” and, in turn, submitting the civilian population of 1.6 million to collective punishment. Yet the surprise is that Hamas hasn’t failed – it has survived one blow after another and stood up back again to punch back.
Rather than a mortal knockout, Hamas has been suffering an internal haemorrhage of disgruntled hardliners that feel the movement has sold out on its mission of resistance. It is impossible to know exact figures, but scores of militants are reported to have defected from the Hamas armed brigade, Izz El Deen Al Qassam, to even more hard-line Salafi-Jihadist factions for whom the liberation of Palestine from the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an Islamic emirate go hand in hand. For these groups, the political route that Hamas courageously took in contesting the elections is ruled out, leaving only the path of armed resistance with a high dose of religious rhetoric.
To this end, for all the vilification it gets in the western press – partly of its own doing – Hamas emerges as a political force to be reckoned with, even though it is at its most divided within its internal structures. At the moment, Hamas’s leader in exile, Khaled Meshal, has been making enormous steps towards reconciliation with his long-term rival Abbas, while the Gaza leadership has been sabotaging all his efforts.
As the dynamics keep shifting, it will only be a matter of time until the international community will have to engage with Hamas in one way or another, either because it will be sitting on a unity government with its long-term rivals, or because the status quo with Israel will no longer be sustainable, as regional powers change loyalties.
The question would then be how strong Hamas is within Palestinian society to garner the support for re-election – a scenario that won’t happen anytime soon given the differences that keep deferring any inching towards agreement on general elections. Until then, it is the ordinary Palestinians, sick of both the political and religious rhetoric, who will keep shouldering the burden of the internal division.
More than half of the Palestinians of Gaza are children and youth, innocently caught in a violent spiral of violence and conflict while Israel, the occupying power has so far managed to get away with its gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The future, with the present as unstable as the peace process, is hard to predict, but neither Islamism nor the western-backed “secular” parties as we know them will be making any turnaround in Palestinian history in their present forms.