Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hamas now rules Gaza, but as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Hamas wished to be masters of their own destiny, and now they are. However, they are also masters of the destiny of about 1.5 million people living in an area slightly less than twice the size of Washington, D.C.

With the change of administration in Gaza so do the responsibilities of Hamas change. The Islamic Resistance Movement, as it is officially known, has gone from being a guerrilla movement to administrator of one of the word’s toughest place to administer in the span of two weeks.

Apart from security issues, Hamas will have to grapple with less invigorating subjects such as trash collection, importing enough food to feed the territory’s population, water treatment facilities, maintaining law and order, providing electricity and sewage and all the other daily headaches a municipality of that size puts up with on a daily basis.

Except Gaza is no ordinary municipality. It suffers from some of the worst socioeconomic systems on the planet. It’s an area with closed borders; with Israel on one side and Egypt on the other and with both countries hostile to the coup d’etat Hamas staged against President Mahmoud Abbas’ authority. Furthermore, Hamas knows it will be placed under a microscope by Palestinians in Gaza who will compare through friends, family and the media what life in the West Bank is like under Fatah to what life is like in Gaza under its rule.

Hamas’ leaders no doubt are also aware they are not about to receive any free passes from either of their neighbors, the international community or the government in the West Bank. It is in no one’s interest to see them succeed and set a precedent in the region. Israel does not want to see a successful Gaza ruled by Hamas as that would only give the Islamists greater credibility among Palestinians. Egypt, for the same reason, is worried about its own Islamist faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, which despite government crackdowns continues to win strong support among the people, many of whom have tired of President Hosni Mubarak’s 26-year rule.

The international community, primarily the United States, the European Union and the majority of the Arab world, all share the same concerns of seeing an Islamist entity establish a foothold in the Middle East. Hamas’ only support therefore may come from Iran, only too happy to oblige, and to a lesser degree from Syria, where part of the Hamas leadership has found refuge.

In fact, Egypt’s Mr. Mubarak hosted yesterday a summit meeting at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik attended by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, King Abdullah of Jordan and Mr. Abbas. What to do about Hamas’ takeover in Gaza is likely to be the sole item on the agenda.

Mr. Abbas says a compromise with Hamas is out of the question. And while it may seem the Palestinians have woven themselves into a spider’s web, one observer seems to think there may be an opportunity for progress.

Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, in a commentary in Beirut’s Daily Star titled “A way out of the labyrinth in Palestine,” compares the consequences of Hamas’ “new political realities” to the consequences created by the June 1967 Six Day-War.

“The essence of the historic compromise for peace cannot be anything but a state of Palestine alongside Israel,” says Mr. Asali, who puts the blame for the status quo on “Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists,” who he says consistently frustrate the “realist” moderates by finding “ways to block their efforts to bridge the gap in search of a compromise.”

Mr. Asali opines that Israel’s right-wing militant rejectionists “have been aided greatly by the violent actions of Palestinian militants, by leftist nationalists in the past or Islamists more recently.”

Their actions have served “to justify and maintain the disasters that the occupation has inflicted on Palestinians.” he writes. Extremists on both sides believe time is on their side “in their exclusive claim to the whole land.”

Mr. Asali correctly sees the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute emerging through a political settlement. “Those Israelis who wanted to maintain the occupation, and to expropriate the land, could not think of better partners than violent Palestinian militants,” says Mr. Asali. “These militants provide the rationale for the facile argument that there is no Palestinian partner.”

Given that there can only be a political solution, Mr. Asali sees “winning the hearts and minds of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples for compromise” as a strategic tool for peace. “Scaring or alienating them is a recipe for continued conflict and occupation.”

As for Gaza, Asali finds that in the long run Gaza has no future by itself and has no choice but to be part of Palestine. Now if only the new rulers of Gaza were wise enough to heed Mr. Asali’s council.

In the meantime, notes Mr. Asali, a genuine partnership is needed. “Israel has to face its moment of truth.” No more excuses. Israel “has to decide whether it will partner with a moderate Palestinian state in words and in deeds or will face a religious militant movement that will drag it and the region into a holy war.” He states: “Avoiding this partnership now is political malpractice.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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