Gaza: a city-state in waiting?

Straws in the wind

When I first started writing this blog my ‘mission statement’ was to take a sideways look at World events and find connections that journalists seem to miss. To be fair to the fourth estate, journalists are required to produce tightly-focused copy and are rarely encouraged to speculate. That they rarely these days seem to check their facts is another matter and possibly the subject of a future article. Be that as it may what follows is pure speculation and unashamed crystal-ball gazing. Some might well say it’s pure wishful thinking but I’ll leave you and history to decide.

Hamas, a potted history

Much has been written about Hamas and information is readily available for those interested and willing to brave the attention of the security services of their respective countries. Australian Intelligence must be scratching their heads at some of the lines of Internet research that I follow. Don’t worry chaps, I’m leaving your fair but expensive shores on the 27th of this month however I am going to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. Surely this must confirm their worst suspicions? Moving swiftly on.

Hamas, a Sunni-Islamist organisation, was formed in 1987 and is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organisation that from time to time has been banned in most Arab countries, most notably Egypt of which more later. Hamas published what they are pleased to call their charter in 1988, which called for the liberation of Palestine and the establishment of an Islamic State in what since 1948 is Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. An uncompromising statement of intent that ignored both those Palestinians who were of a more secular persuasion and those who favoured some sort of compromise with Israel. Hamas did not and has not agreed to the Oslo Accords which paved the way for peace-talks between Fatah (the political wing of the PLO and latterly the Palestinian Authority) and Israel. It is worth pointing out that Hamas has in the years since its formation, from time to time vaguely distanced itself from the aims of the original charter but refuses to repudiate or alter it, stating that it is an historical document. They have several times offered Israel a long-term ceasefire agreement but have always hedged their bets by saying that this would be to allow them time to militarily strengthen themselves and so eventually overcome Israel. Presumably this would then enable them to establish their Islamic state as outlined in the 1988 charter but this is never explicitly stated. Similarly, from time to time they imply that they have moved away from the aims of the original charter and have stated, with what degree of sincerity is open to question, that they would accept the existence of Israel if a Palestinian state were established inside the 1948 ceasefire lines (which they refer to as the 1967 borders but to be pedantic there were no borders because the Arab states refused to recognise Israel. The Western media continually talks about the 1967 borders but there ain’t no such animal) with East Jerusalem as it’s capital and the right of return to Israel of all Palestinians. They surely realise that these conditions are basically unacceptable to Israel although successive Israeli Governments have indicated that they would at least be a starting point for negotiations.

In 2006, somewhat to their surprise, Hamas won outright an election in the Gaza Strip and ousted Fatah. In 2007 there was what amounted to a civil war in Gaza with Hamas murdering Fatah officials and supporters whilst Fatah retaliated in the West Bank. In 2012 there was an agreement that Fatah and Hamas should form a joint caretaker government in the West Bank prior to negotiations with Israel but this has not materialised and today Hamas and Fatah remain, fraternally of course, at each others throats. So much for history.

Palestinian support for Hamas

Initially Hamas was viewed as a more trustworthy organisation than Fatah, due to their Islamic credentials, which accounted for the election results. Fatah was and is riddled with corruption and more numbered Swiss bank accounts than you can shake a stick at but woe betide any Palestinian journalist who points this out. There is no ‘midnight knock’ at the door, it’s kicked in and numerous Palestinian journalists have become rather silent of late.

Support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been falling. There was recent research done by Israel  which might well be regarded as slightly suspect but in fact more or less echoes a straw poll carried out late last year by AL-Jazeera. This showed support for Hamas at around the 20% level. Not enough to form a new administration should they ever decide to hold now overdue elections. Somewhat interestingly this doesn’t appear to mean that Fatah now enjoy 80% support amongst Gazans but rather perhaps indicates an attitude of ‘a plague on both your houses’. It’s not that Hamas are seen as any more corrupt than they were, although some very suspect property deals have been taking place in Gaza and it’s not really the case that there has been an outbreak of common sense regarding military action against Israel. Having said that, support for military action has apparently fallen from 50% to 31%, with 38% supporting the firing of rockets into Israel. Presumably these figures indicate a drop in support for suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks inside Israel which might trigger an Israeli incursion into Gaza whilst firing rockets into Israel invariably triggers a more targeted response against those who launch the rockets. And yes, it is a more targeted response. Hamas were caught recycling old photos of a distraught father carrying his wounded daughter after a recent Israeli response to rocket attacks. It eventually came out that the unfortunate child had not been injured by Israeli military action. That’s not to say that the innocent don’t sometimes get caught up in the response but does suggest that there’s a shortage of eye-catching photos.

Gaza is a bit of a mess in that Hamas form the administration, the armed wing of Hamas and other ‘players’ launch attacks against Israel and then there are the smugglers, essentially a half a dozen criminal families. Hamas claims on the one hand that they have no control over the various armed factions but in the next breath claim that their organisation is united and nothing happens without central approval. The idea that Hamas have no control over the armed factions is publicly rejected by Israel however members of the political wing of Hamas rarely attract Israeli retaliation. Being pragmatic about it, something that Israeli Governments of all political persuasions have got off to a fine art, Hamas don’t have full control over the more radical factions and there have been discrete but of course fraternal firefights when Hamas would really rather have some peace and quiet. These same radical factions were also responsible for attacks on Egyptian troops, even during the time of the Morsi administration which one would have thought supported, albeit quietly, attacks against Israel. Now that the Islamist government in Egypt is no more, Hamas may well be feeling a bit friendless. The Egyptian military government and most likely its civilian successor do not and will not take kindly to attacks on their troops which originate from Gaza. I dare say the Egyptian military are not overly keen on an armed confrontation with Israel and any civilian government with any sense would realise that such a confrontation would not be in their long, or even short, term interests. It would be difficult to retain popular support with the Israeli army camped on the Sinai bank of the Suez Canal, which is the most likely result of any Egyptian military adventurism.

Now about these dodgy property deals

Here’s a curious thing. Speculators, mainly home-town Gazans, have decided that there is some mileage in owning beach-front properties in Gaza. Some members of Hamas have been involved in this and events go like this. Ahmad and his family are fishing folk and they’ve lived in a shack on the beach for several generations. They are bundled out of their property (oh, you have no planning permit for your shack and no title papers?) and a nice villa is constructed. Apparently some of these villas are million dollar properties so somebody is investing for the future. Couple this with the emergence of up-market coffee shops and boutiques and you start to get a different picture of Gaza to the one usually portrayed in the Western press. Of course it’s not 5th Avenue or Bond Street but neither is Gaza City a shanty town. Hamas  benefits from this situation, they impose a 14.5% tax on luxury items smuggled in through the tunnels which go from Gaza into Egyptian Sinai. A shame then that Morsi’s Islamist Government did its best to shut the tunnels down. With falling contributions from the Arab world and other supporters Hamas must be finding it difficult to pay the 30,000 strong civil service. That’s 30,000 out of a population of 1.7 million by the way. Buying support? Surely not.

Why would Hamas promote the learning of Hebrew?

A little while ago the BBC ran a report about schools in Gaza teaching Hebrew. Hamas spokesmen were quick to point out that this was to ensure that the Gazans knew what lies the Israelis were telling about the situation and did not indicate anything else. Right, Israeli governments never release statements in English or Arabic then. Of course it would be handy for those Gazans who work in Israel to be able to speak Hebrew. One slight flaw in that is very few if any Gazans do actually have jobs in Israel. They used to but after the second Intifada Israel sourced blue collar labour elsewhere if home-grown labour was not available or unwilling to do the work. Hence many Thai agricultural workers on three and five year work permits. Didn’t know that, did you?

With Hamas losing support in Gaza and not being flavour of the month elsewhere their options for remaining in power are limited. In the short term they can simply not hold elections, as indeed is presently the case but with upheavals in the Arab world and dictators being toppled that may not be a viable long-term strategy. The chances of delivering a military victory against Israel are, to put it mildly, similar to a snowball’s chance in hell and without Israel ending the blockade economic progress will be restricted. How to persuade Israel to lift the blockade then?

How about if we…

Stopped firing rockets into Israel? Might be difficult, 38% of the population support it. Presumably then 72% of the population of Gaza either doesn’t support it or are ambivalent about it. Hmm.

Hamas and Fatah are not able to be reconciled, despite many fine words. It could be argued that the Palestinian Authority has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of the folks in Gaza because the folks in Gaza threw them out of office in the last election and don’t appear to be inclined to vote them back in should further elections ever be held. Couple that with the fact that should Abbas and his merry band of Swiss-accounted  PA cohorts actually ever decide to make peace with Israel they would undoubtedly be assassinated by a disgruntled somebody then the chances of the economic blockade of Gaza being lifted are slim. Unless…..

Unless Hamas makes a separate peace with Israel. No way I hear you cry. Well, just hang on a minute. Hamas has lost a few allies recently. They support the Syrian Opposition against Assad and given that the Syrian Opposition have now started killing each other that might not have been a smart move. Mind you, America and the West are backing the same horse so I suppose you can’t altogether blame them for making that mistake. The Islamist Government in Egypt proved to be lukewarm friends and now the Egyptian Military is back in the saddle succour from that quarter seems unlikely. As things stand, in the event of a peace treaty between Israel and the PA, Hamas would attract support from the estimated near 50% of Palestinians on the West Bank who are having second thoughts about it. Yes you read that correctly. Of course in the event of peace that 50% might change dramatically but in the meantime Abbas et al are looking over their shoulders the whole time.

Would Israel go along with it?

Polls in Israel indicate that a clear majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution, despite loud cries from the Right Wing that the whole idea is dead in the water and some talk of a ‘one-state’ solution. Suffice it to say a one-state solution could not be a democratic state and Israelis are firmly wedded to democracy.  A lunatic fringe do talk about exchanging population and even propose Jordan as the Palestinian state but there is little appetite for unilateral Israeli action. Gaza is a case in point of the folly of simply pulling-out and leaving the Palestinians to it. So, could there be what in effect would be a three-state solution?

The talks with the PA, when they do occur, get nowhere fast despite the intervention of Tony Blair and the rest of the Quartet. The PA is simply not interested in making peace because they don’t have popular support for it. That in part is because they haven’t been able to ‘deliver the goods’, i.e. an independent Palestinian State and that hasn’t happened because they won’t compromise. Similarly Hamas is not able to ‘deliver the economic goods’ because of the blockade. The blockade will not be lifted until Hamas cease rocket attacks on Israel and by extension accept the right of Israel to actually exist. If they can hold their noses and take that step and they have danced around it, then there are no real obstacles on the Israeli side to a separate peace. There are no border disputes between Gaza and Israel, no historical Israeli claims on Gaza because even in biblical times Gaza was a separate state. In fact working on the principal of divide and conquer an independent Gaza, independent of any West Bank Palestinian state, might suit Israel very well. Any peace with the Palestinians would win the support of the majority of Israelis and might well suit those in Gaza who have started ‘investing in the future’.

So then, Gaza as an independent city state? It might just happen despite many apparent difficulties and then all those school kids could find a real use for their Hebrew language skills. I’ll whisper this quietly but just maybe somebody in Gaza has already figured this out as well.

 

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