The West Bank – Gaza Divorce

The Knesset was frantic over the latest flotilla sailing toward Gaza, especially because Knesset Member Basel Ghattas of the Joint Arab List was on board. The purpose, he said, was to draw attention to the siege on the Gaza Strip and “the terrible suffering of its residents.” However, far from the spotlight, Israel is taking rapid steps to ease the siege, in close coordination with Qatar and through indirect talks with Hamas.

It is not by chance that we hear of another “hudna” (truce) taking shape, to last five years. If such an agreement does in fact come about, it will grant unofficial recognition to Hamas as the sovereign in Gaza and will thus put an end to the aspirations of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Strip. In fact, we are seeing the formation of two separate entities, one in the Strip and one in the West Bank, both under Israeli control. The PA in Ramallah sees this development as treason by Hamas, and this is why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has decided to break up the unity government with Hamas.

Israel’s links to Qatar are no secret. Already in March this year, Ynet reported on a meeting between the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Occupied Territories, Major-General Yoav Mordechai, and Ambassador Mohammed al-Amadi, head of the Qatari Committee to Rebuild Gaza. During this meeting it was agreed that the import of building materials to the Strip via the Kerem Shalom border crossing would be accelerated. The meeting marked the beginning of renewed warm relations between Israel and Qatar – relations which have been volatile over the years.

Just a year ago Israel went to war against Hamas, aiming to bring down the Palestinian unity government, which had managed to get Hamas in through a back door. During 50 days and nights of Operation Protective Edge, we were told endlessly that the Turkish-Qatari proposal for a ceasefire was dangerous to Israel: it called for lifting the blockade of Gaza and building a seaport. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s support for it was termed bizarre. Both the Israeli government and its opposition insisted rather on the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire without preconditions. After bombing Gaza for 50 days, killing 2251 Palestinians including 1462 civilians and destroying 18,000 homes, Israel managed to impose the Egyptian proposal.

Ironically, the PA’s unity government with Hamas has collapsed not because Israel insisted on the Egyptian proposal, but because it changed its tune and adopted the Qatari alternative. The truth is, the Egyptian proposal was never realistic. The Fascist Egyptian regime had dreamed of asphyxiating the Gaza Strip to the point where Hamas would vanish and the PA take over. This was also the dream of opposition leader Isaac Herzog and other Israeli fantasists.

However, a few things happened last year to shake up the situation, including the death of Saudi King Abdullah, who was the patron of el-Sisi’s military coup in Egypt; Abdullah was replaced by King Salman. Abdullah had decided that the Muslim Brotherhood was a critical strategic threat to the Arab regimes, particularly the Saudi regime, and declared war on it. Iran then took advantage of the internal struggle within the Sunni camp to creep into Yemen and support the uprising against the legal government there. On assuming power in Saudi Arabia, King Salman changed course: he improved ties with Qatar and Turkey, extended a hand to the Muslim Brotherhood, and called on Egypt’s President el-Sisi to close ranks. As a result, the Egyptian notion of strangling Hamas lost its main supporter.

Israel’s Qatar-mediated links with Hamas stem from a common political interest. Although the flotilla is aimed against Israel, the siege on Gaza has many participants. The Strip shares a border with Egypt, and when Hamas took it over in 2007 it wanted to reduce its dependency on the Israeli border crossings, instead opening up to Egypt via Rafah. However, Mubarak conditioned this on Hamas’ cooperating with the PA over control of the Rafah crossing. Together, Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood tried to get Mubarak to back down.

When the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian elections, it seemed for a moment that Hamas had succeeded in achieving its dreams. After Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, which lasted just a week, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal declared victory, and the ceasefire was achieved with the mediation of Egypt’s new president Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the military coup in Egypt and the death sentence handed down to Morsi and others made it clear to Hamas that their dream had faded. Abu Mazen, for his part, was actively involved in squeezing the Gaza Strip: his unity government with Hamas, led by Rami Hamdallah, declared that Hamas-appointed officials would receive their wages only if Abu Mazen were granted full authority there. Hamas had little choice but to seek a lifeline through the Erez crossing with Israel, instead of the Rafah crossing, which was now hermetically sealed.

Israel knows full well that if the Strip is not rebuilt, a new war is just a question of time. In the meantime it is of course possible to continue to bomb the grand towers in which Gaza’s wealthy live, and to kill another 2000, as demanded by Yair Farjun, who heads the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. It is even possible to destroy Hamas. The problem is that the alternative to Hamas is no longer the PA and has not been for a long time. The alternative is now those who follow Bin Laden’s way, who are active in the Sinai Peninsula and who send occasional rockets that so far have landed in Israel’s “open areas.”

Israel has little time. Sisi’s policy remains that of squeezing Gaza. Abu Mazen seeks to shake Gaza off. The billions promised for rebuilding the Strip have not reached their destination, largely because the PA was appointed to manage them. Thus Israel has no choice but to accept the Qatari representative. Politically, an unwritten truce with Hamas would be the ideal solution for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is marginalizing Abu Mazen even further, and in return he gets a Gaza policeman willing to maintain quiet if Israel eases the siege, even permitting Gaza, perhaps, to obtain a “floating dock” which can be destroyed with a single rocket, as Israeli military experts put it.

This situation has left Palestinians, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in dire straits. The future of the Palestinian people is bleak, and its faith in its leaders is at a nadir. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research headed by Dr. Halil Shikaki (quoted in Al-Hayat on 24 June), some 80% of Palestinians do not believe it is possible to reach an agreement with Netanyahu. Abu Mazen has the support of just 29.3%, while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has 21.1%. Moreover, 54.1% are opposed to a third intifada while 28.7% are in favor.

These data do not lie. The Palestinians as a people do not believe that negotiation will bring an end to the Occupation, nor do they think that an uprising will help. The reason is reflected in the survey’s results regarding leadership. Not only is there no across-the-board support for the current leadership, but the separation between Gaza and the West Bank prevents any progress towards ending the Occupation through negotiation or uprising. The leaders of the two territories are fortifying their positions separately, one in the West Bank through “sacred” security cooperation with Israel, and the other in the Gaza Strip through a long-term truce.

The Israeli Right can celebrate. The Palestinian people is in tatters, there is no partner for dialogue, the status quo emerges victorious, and Netanyahu with just the narrowest of majorities can continue to rule without any problems from the opposition. Gaza and the West Bank may be administered by two separate entities, but their links to Israel are growing ever stronger. For the Strip, the border crossings to Israel have become a lifeline. Not only do cement and consumer goods pass through, but also water, electricity, and health goods and services. The situation in the West Bank is not very different. If we do not want an explosion, water must be supplied to the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, work permits must be distributed to thousands of Palestinians, and the wellbeing of the population must be ensured. This population expects the occupier to solve urgent problems, given its own leaders’ glaring failure.

If this does not happen, if Israel continues to make life unbearable for Gazans, it will find itself facing al-Qaeda. In the West Bank, the PA will fall into al-Qaeda’s hands like a ripe fruit. Netanyahu, Abu Mazen and Haniyeh are walking on ice that could break any moment. If it does, we will face the abyss – and it seems that in their political blindness, each on his own and all together, they are leading us to the edge.

Translated by Yonatan Preminger

About Yacov Ben Efrat