Foreign Policy

Don't Forget Gaza

Two years have just passed since Israel's Operation Cast Lead, which aimed to stop rocket fire from Gaza and arms imports into the territory. Since then, only the efforts of international activists to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010, most famously the Turkish boat Mavi Marmara in May 2010, created any urgency to address the plight of the impoverished Palestinian territory. Those events did lead Israel's security cabinet, under concerted international pressure, to announce a set of measures to ease its land blockade, though a coalition of international humanitarian NGOs has criticized the move as inadequate. Rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel and its communities has also risen alarmingly over the past few weeks. Faced with banner headlines about the "Palestine Papers," the people's uprising in Tunisia, protests in Egypt, and escalating political tensions in Lebanon, Western observers are hardly focused on Gaza under Hamas rule. But the recent rise in hostilities between the Israeli military and Gaza's militants as well as the plight of Gazans themselves should be a timely reminder of the danger of ignoring the Gaza situation for too long.

Before Hamas forcefully took over the territory in June 2007, I had lived and worked in Gaza as an official for the United Nations. On my recent trip there to assess current socioeconomic conditions and Hamas's efforts at governance and institution-building, I found that Gaza had changed dramatically in the intervening years, and not necessarily for the better.

First, Israel's partial lifting of the blockade in the summer of 2010 has not noticeably improved the lives of most of Gaza's residents. According to international NGOs and the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the population still depends on international aid; the unemployment rate hovers around 45 percent, one of the world's highest. Nearly 80 percent of the homes and businesses that were destroyed in Operation Cast Lead have not been rebuilt, and 90 percent of the water supply is unsuitable for drinking. Although shops are well stocked with food and consumer goods, very few Gazans can afford anything but the basics. Meanwhile, according to local economists and bankers in Gaza, the tunnel economy, a direct beneficiary of the blockade, is still estimated to be generating between $150 million to $180 million per year, or half a million dollars a day, for the Hamas government in Gaza.

Second, Hamas is too entrenched in Gaza to be forced out by anyone, including the Palestinian Authority (PA). Following Hamas's forced takeover of the territory in June 2007, the militant group has been busy consolidating and institutionalizing its governing control. The PA has unwittingly helped Hamas by instructing its 77,000 personnel in Gaza not to show up for work, while still paying their salaries. The result is that, through trial and error, the Hamas government has established a relatively efficient and cost-effective public administration structure. Hamas-run ministries are now functioning, backed up by 20,000 civil servants and 15,000 well-organized and disciplined police and internal security personnel. Very few people in Gaza, according to my conversations there, believe that Hamas control can be challenged. In fact, the main criticism of Hamas is its reflex to tighten control on all aspects of Gazans' lives.

In consolidating its rule, the Hamas government has embarked on a fairly ambitious infrastructure development program, which includes the construction of 61 kilometers of asphalt-paved roads, a 245-km water network, and a 125-km sewage disposal network. As several senior Hamas government officials with whom I spoke acknowledge, much more infrastructure development is urgently needed, including the building of some 140 schools, medical clinics, and thousands of homes. New water, sewage, sanitation, and electricity networks are also required.

While the Hamas government has faced cash squeezes in meeting its $25 million monthly bill, most notably in the first half of 2010, it has been amply supported by the broader Hamas movement, donations from Iran -- which is widely believed to be providing the bulk of donations -- and the Muslim Brotherhood international. Other foreign governments, including those of Libya and Algeria, as well as Arab charitable organizations, mainly from the Persian Gulf states, also provide regular funding. The bottom line is that Hamas is no more likely to run out of money than is the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Third, as Hamas balances the practicalities of paving roads and building sewers with the ideology of resistance, there are clear differences within the movement on its future direction in Gaza. For pragmatists, the task is good governance and ensuring stability and security to consolidate its rule in Gaza; for those intent on pursuing resistance, the fear is that the burdens of governance will continue to blunt the movement's raison d'être: armed struggle against the Israeli occupation. For now, the pragmatists seem to have the upper hand: Under Israeli threats of a renewed large-scale military operation in Gaza, the movement is working to halt the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, which has risen sharply in the past few weeks. It has also sought to recruit respected and qualified independent figures to serve in the government, people who have been critical of Hamas but would strengthen the competence of its administration. What is clear to many analysts in Gaza, including some senior figures in Hamas, is that it cannot effectively rule the territory without ensuring stability and security. For that reason, the movement will have to choose between the two -- armed resistance or good, effective governance.

Equally clear is that cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza is urgently needed. Gaza's citizens, while less supportive of Hamas rule today than in 2007, largely blame Israel and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority for their blighted existence. Independent Palestinian figures and ordinary Gazans told me repeatedly that they believed the Palestinian Authority had forgotten them.

Senior Hamas representatives stated their readiness to cooperate with Ramallah. Most recognize that without greater cooperation with the Palestinian Authority and through it, the outside world, the relative isolation of the Hamas government will continue to undermine its genuine efforts to govern. Greater long-term cooperation with the West Bank may also encourage the pragmatists within Hamas to persuade the movement in Gaza and the exiled leadership in Damascus to concentrate their energies on political dialogue and governance, not rockets and suicide bombs.

There is some reason to hope: Hamas and the PA have in some cases sought to cooperate, albeit out of necessity and with some difficulty. In June 2010, the education ministries of the PA and Hamas cooperated to enable some 87,000 secondary-school students to sit simultaneous final exams in Gaza and the West Bank. After nearly six months of talks in the first half of 2010, the two sides collaborated to open seven sports clubs in Gaza, directly benefiting thousands of young people; and more recently, in early November the PA worked with Hamas to arrange for some 5,000 Gazans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca for the first time in three years. (They have had less success, however, in agreeing on how best to supply electricity and medicine to suffering Gazans.)

Salam Fayyad, the technocratic Palestinian Authority prime minister, could be a powerful unifying force. He has described the blockade of Gaza as "wrong and wrongheaded," but has also been criticized by those in Gaza who feel that he has not done enough to alleviate their plight. Some Hamas representatives go as far as to accuse him of being America's man and colluding with the Israelis. There are, however, at least some in Gaza, including senior Hamas representatives, who think that Fayyad can deliver further cooperation and that if he decides to work on this, it will have a positive impact on relations between him and Hamas as well as on ordinary people.

One point on which all Gazans can agree -- be they community figures, independents, and representatives of Fatah or Hamas -- is that the Israeli siege has to end. It has proved spectacularly counterproductive in its aim of weakening Hamas rule in Gaza. Instead, it has guaranteed Hamas rule. It is time to try a different approach before the current strategy leads to more suffering and Gaza's permanent division from the West Bank -- and with that, the fading prospect of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.