More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Gaza: Bargaining Chip in Political Game
week ago (May 18, 2010) it was reported that the government of Qatar had offered to renew diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for Israel permitting the entry of construction materials to the Gaza Strip, to rebuild what Israel had destroyed during “Operation Cast Lead.” Inside Israel, a debate rapidly developed between those in favor of accepting the offer and those against. After intense deliberation, Israel unsurprisingly refused.
A week later, it was Israel’s turn to make an offer, and Turkey’s turn to refuse. This time, Israel offered to allow the entry of construction materials, medicine and food products into the Strip, thus making redundant the well-publicized “Freedom Flotilla,” currently sailing towards Gaza with some 800 international activists. There seems to be some kind of competition to see who will win the honor of rebuilding Gaza.
Gaza is a clear humanitarian issue. For this reason, the Islamic Movement and leftwing groups can unite under a common banner: to lift the Gaza siege. But the Strip is also a political issue that lies at the heart of the internal Palestinian conflict which led to the civil war in June 2007. This war left Hamas in charge of the territory evacuated by Israel in 2005. Today, Hamas does not recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority or any of the agreements it signed with Israel. The PA, for its part, attempts to turn back time and regain control of the Gaza Strip. Thus the humanitarian issue becomes a political issue and the fate of the Strip’s residents is dependent on this wider political game.
The political game between Fatah and Hamas is not limited to PA territories, but spills over into neighboring states. The West Bank borders Jordan (which controlled it until 1967) and the Hashemite Kingdom struggles with a strong Islamic opposition based in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. On the other hand, the Gaza Strip borders Egypt, where the regime is battling the Islamic opposition and sees Hamas’ control of the Strip as a strategic threat. Thus both regimes, in Jordan and in Egypt, have an interest in returning the Gaza Strip to the relatively moderate PA.
But these power games don’t stop here. There’s also a geopolitical aspect. Gaza has become the meeting point of the Iranian axis: Turkey, Qatar and Syria have joined forces, while each hopes to gain something from Gaza. Iran, of course, wants to play the game of regional power in the Gulf and in the Middle East in general. Turkey, controlled by the Islamic Movement, has understood that it is not going to get into the European market and has done a U-turn in the hope of regaining some of the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Syria makes do with its influence in Lebanon and Qatar is conducting an old game of honor with its large neighbor, Saudi Arabia. It appears that Gaza is carrying an unbearably heavy load on its narrow, feeble shoulders.
These power struggles make things easier for Israel. And Israel is not alone – it has many partners who loathe Iran and its allies, and they will not accept the Hamas regime in Gaza. This may make things easier, but also more complicated, because Israel is perceived to be responsible for the humanitarian crisis. Israel’s strategic interests are not limited to what goes on in the occupied territories, but also tied to the fate of the neighboring Arab regimes – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. A few days ago, Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, came to Israel. Though the content of the meeting with his Israeli counterpart was not disclosed, it is safe to assume that the two coordinated their position on the aid flotilla to Gaza.
All Israel’s Arab partners, including the PA, perceive it to be responsible for what happens in Gaza. After all, Hamas’ control of the Strip was made possible due to Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” which led to the blockade of 1.5 million innocent Palestinians. Gaza remains an Israeli problem despite all of Israel’s efforts to rid itself of this problem. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave Gaza as a gift to Yasser Arafat, and Ariel Sharon’s government gave it to Hamas, but Gaza refuses to disappear because Israel continues to control it via its control of the border. The Gaza Strip has become a gigantic prison, cut off from the outside world. The siege didn’t begin yesterday – it began in 1994 when the PA took over and Israel tightened its policy of closure in the territories. Since Hamas took control, the siege has been tightened even further, and the humanitarian crisis has grown.
It must be recalled that the PA is also under various kinds of blockades. Not only the separation wall, but also border crossings, checkpoints and complete Israeli control continue despite the negotiations between the parties, which shows that the reason for the siege has nothing to do with the character of the regime; the siege is the result of Israel’s recalcitrant position and desire to continue the occupation in one form or another. Israel’s efforts to play the political game and interfere in internal Arab affairs only perpetuate its control over the Palestinians and contribute nothing to solving the conflict. The claim that “there’s no partner” for peace is exposed as yet another way to continue the siege, isolation and suppression of the Palestinian’s basic right to self-determination.
It’s doubtful whether the flotilla to Gaza will be able to cope with the challenges facing the Palestinians. It certainly serves the public relations campaign conducted by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad, while irritating Israel and its allies in the region. But it also joins a list of protests that raise awareness of the suffering of an innocent population and send a clear message to Israel and its citizens: As long as the occupation continues, the Jewish state increasingly becomes a leper state, slowly losing its legitimacy. Regardless of the character and efficacy of the flotilla, the time has come to put an end to the occupation and the unceasing cycle of operations and wars that have caused so much human suffering with no moral or legal justification whatsoever.