Gaza Interlude: A Report

My friend Kathleen Peratis is a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP, and co-chair of the Middle East Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch.  She traveled to Gaza last week and wrote the following report for this blog. It will appear in the Nation, in slightly different form, in a forthcoming issue.  

It became clear to me that Fatah was no longer the reluctant partner in a potential reconciliation deal with Hamas. I was here in May when Hamas, at the behest of Egypt, was the reconciliation suitor while Fatah found pretexts (and was subjected to great pressure by the US and Israel) not to go forward. Hamas is stronger now, Fatah is relatively weaker, and both are ready to defy the US and Israel.

“The US told Abu Mazen to choose between the US and Hamas. But he now knows there is no hope that Israel will give him anything in the years to come,” said Hamas Huda Naim Naim, member of the Hamas Politburo and the Palestinian Legislative Council “Hamas is stronger now due to Bibi and, in wake of Shalit deal, is more popular,” said Fatah official Husam Zomlot.

According to most of the people I spoke to, both sides, for their separate reasons, have signaled that they are ready to accept the results of elections, win or lose. And Hamas’ price? For one thing, the unity government will reportedly be based in Gaza and not in Ramallah, which will significantly empower Hamas. Since the shoot-out between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, Fatah officials have rarely, until quite recently, come to Gaza. The Fatah officials I spoke to were pleasantly surprised that they had been in Gaza for a week and Hamas had not stormed their offices. “They are now using soft power,” said Mr. Zomlot, the Fatah official, “because they want to show good will.” He added, “They have implanted fear for so long that the people know the consequences of opposing them – they know that if they oppose Hamas, they will be crushed.”

Fatah officials based in Ramallah can’t go abroad or come home without Israel’s approval (which Israel usually gives, but still). Gazans, however, can now go to Egypt pretty easily whether Israel likes it or not and, from there, any country in the world that will let them in--Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, of late Scandinavia, so far (“Maybe because Hamas is on a blacklist,” according to Ms. Naim) but, in light of the Arab Awakening and the probable entry of Islamists into many Arab governments, Hamasniks expect that blacklist to become shorter.

“For Hamas, reconciliation will legalize its past, normalize it, and give it protection. The US will speak to the Brotherhood (in Egypt) and once Hamas is in the parliament, the US will speak to Hamas too,” said Omar Shaban of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink, who is attempting to form a secular democratic party in Gaza. Being able to travel is tantalizing to the Hamas officials I spoke to. 

“I remember the day—before ’67--when I used to be able to take a train from Cairo to Gaza. It was cheap—90 piasters. People used to go by car. Maybe that day will come again,” said Mahmoud El Zahhar, the co-founder of Hamas. “In two or three years, we will be able to drive from Gaza to Morocco. The era of the Arab people has started. We speak the same language, we are the same religion,” said Mohammad Al-Agha, Hamas Minister of Agriculture.

Economically, also, the Gaza base presents opportunities. “The West Bank is linked only to Israel whereas Gaza has managed to cut its cord with Israel and reestablish itself with other markets,” said Mr. Zomlot. Many Hamas officials implied that in a reconciliation deal, they would demand the dissolution of Palestinian Authority itself because “It is farcical to declare a state when you are under occupation,” said Yahya Moussa of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “The PA failed in its task to serve the political project,” agreed Fatah official Amal Tawofeeq Hamd, Deputy Secretary of the Revolutionary Council of the PLO, “and so what use is there for the PA?”

Such talk is for now mere polemic, thank god. It would not be good for Israel should it actually occur; who then would administer the Palestinian areas of the West Bank? Worse news: Reconciliation will not bring abolition of the “private” militias (Qassam, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Brigade), those who fire rockets into Israel. While many Hamas officials they say they are committed to a mutual cease-fire and are, to some extent, now restraining Islamic Jihad and others, they believe they drove Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and 2009 on account of their armed resistance and there is no possibility that their private militia will now be banned.

“It will take a long time to deal with these militias. After elections, security forces need to be unified but …armed resistance (remains) a strategic option,” said the reasonable, urbane and Western-oriented Fatah official Mr. Zomlot. I asked Mr. Zahhar, a founder of Hamas and a proponent of reconciliation and elections, “If you say Hamas to most Americans, they will not think the beautiful Islam you describe; they will think: Rockets and killing civilians.” He responded, “We tried all peaceful methods and we failed. Egyptians and Libyans and Tunisians will not accept the status quo and neither will we. When we use violence, they say, ‘Stop and we will negotiate.’ Then we stop but they don’t negotiate. They keep killing us.”

During the two weeks I was in the region, eight rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza causing injury to one foreign worker, and, according to a UN report, Israeli airstrikes and shelling launched in response to the firing of rockets killed five Palestinians in Gaza, of whom two were civilians, and injured and 15 others.

I asked Hamas official Mr. Moussa, “How can you succeed with arms against Israel? Isn’t non-violence the only way to win your struggle against an adversary that is so strong? “If everyone comes at the elephant with pins, the elephant will die,” he said. “Non- violence can work in an internal struggle but not a national liberation struggle against guns and tanks.”