The Bigger Picture
Published on July 1st 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Last week I closed my column by noting the inanity of attempting to censor information that some people consider religiously offensive. By cutting off access to facebook for the two and a half million Pakistani facebook users because of a religiously offensive caricature page, the Pakistan government and its citizens also missed seeing that a facebook page called “Against Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” had drawn 106,300 fans versus only 105,000 for the caricature page.
But the governments of Muslim nations have by no means cornered the market when it comes to idiotic actions made in the name of ‘defending’ their citizens against supposedly ‘hostile’ actions by non-governmental groups. A case in point is the Israeli government’s decision to intercept and board the six naval vessels that were a part of a multi-national aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip. Whether the pro-Palestinian activists and or the Israeli commandos were responsible for the subsequent violence on the Turkish pleasure ship Mavi Marmara, which left nine activists dead and many other Israeli commandos and Palestinian activists wounded, is beside the point. The Israelis never should have stopped the aid flotilla.
In fact, the Israeli policy of blockading Gaza has been an abject failure because it has only served to entrench Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza rather than undermine popular support for Hamas. When Israel first undertook this blockade of Gaza, it did so in an internationally supported attempt to weaken the democratically elected Hamas regime by isolating Gaza and its Palestinian residents from the rest of the world. As such, Israel was not alone in its belief that such sanctions would work because the United States and many European countries also provided tacit government support for Israel’s blockade.
But while the Israeli’s and their western allies have been wrong about the effect the blockade would have on Hamas, the Israelis were right regarding their fears about Hamas in Gaza. Prior to the 2005 Palestinian elections in Gaza, the Israelis had been justifiably concerned that democratic elections would benefit Hamas rather than the more moderate Palestinian Fatah organization. But the neo-conservatives President Bush had put in charge of his administration’s foreign policy strategies following the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on New York City and Washington DC were staunch proponents of democratic elections in Gaza.
President Bush’s foreign policy mavens dismissed Israel’s objections because they believed that democracy was the answer to America and the western world’s problems with Islamic countries. These international relations neophytes foolishly thought they could use democratic elections to remake first Iraq and then Gaza into American versions of democratic Muslim states whose citizens would then naturally eschew Islamic extremism in favor of the benefits of American led pro-western economic development. When the subsequent 2005 democratic elections were won by Hamas thus proving the neo-conservatives wrong, their response was to punish them and force the citizens of Gaza to see the error of their ways by withholding the American economic development aid the citizens of Gaza so badly needed.
But instead of undermining popular support for Hamas, the blockade has only served to harm the Palestinian residents of Gaza, many of whom were once supporters of Hamas’ Palestinian opponent, Fatah. The economic deprivation, which was initially felt by virtually all Gaza residents in the initial years of the Israeli blockade, has now largely disappeared thanks to the myriad webs of tunnels dug by Hamas’ engineers under Gaza’s border with Egypt. The larger harm for Gaza residents has been the relentless subornation of political debates and the systematic annihilation of any political dissent aimed at the Hamas regime.
The Israeli blockade has instead actually proven to be quite a fortuitous boon for the Hamas militants and I believe it is the main reason why Hamas has been able to tighten its grip on society throughout Gaza. Hamas made a number of mistakes after they took control of Gaza following the 2005 elections and a subsequent bloody civil war with the Palestinian Fatah organization, which lost its mandate to govern Gaza in the 2005 elections.
The Hamas militants initially responded to the western backed Israeli blockade by ratcheting up its cross border missile attacks on innocent Israeli citizens culminating in a devastating Israeli war of reprisal in 2009. But the destruction wrought by this ruinous 2009 conflict led to a change in strategy by Hamas. Hamas had fired almost 1800 rockets at Israel in 2008 but following the January 2009 war with Israel Hamas not only stopped hurling projectiles at Israel, it also forced other Palestinian militants to do likewise. So far in 2010 only 34 rockets have been fired at Israel and none of them were from Hamas militants.
Hamas has in effect become a defender of Israel and has instead turned its focus on consolidating its hold on Gaza society. The Israeli blockade has shielded Hamas from outside scrutiny and given its internal security forces free rein to bend dissident Palestinians to its will. Hamas has reinstituted the death penalty and has also bulldozed the homes of Gaza residents who built homes on land that had once been Jewish settlements. When leftist Palestinians protested that the taxes imposed by Hamas were adding to the burden of citizens most affected by the blockade they were rounded up and hauled off to jail.
By keeping its borders with Gaza closed, Israel doesn’t permit people in Gaza to travel to other countries and bring back ideas that would serve as a counterweight to Hamas’ absolutist political control. Nor is the blockade working to prevent economic development. Hamas is using its network of tunnels to create an economy it then takes a big share of the profits from in order to finance its regime. So the economic blockade doesn’t undermine Hamas but instead reinforces Hamas’s control over Gaza and the Palestinians who are unfortunate enough to be trapped there.
Ending the Gaza blockade won’t force Hamas from power, but it just might prevent Hamas from transforming Gaza into another authoritarian state.