Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The challenge that is Gaza

The following is from an Arab point of view:

Gaza Strip is proving to be a rare geopolitical anomaly. Home to over 1.4 million Palestinians, the majority of whom are refugees, it is neither an independent country nor is it, at least technically, under occupation. It is not a protectorate of a regional or global power, nor is it a rogue state that threatens world peace.

Gaza is an anachronistic entity, lost in time and space, a desert strip that is part of historical Palestine, but is so distanced from the urban centres of the West Bank, with which it has no contiguous borders, that, theoretically speaking, the future Palestinian state can be created without it.

It is separated from it by hundreds of square miles of Israeli territory and although it borders Egypt, Cairo is a continent away.
Since June Gaza's peculiar situation took another twist to the bizarre. Hamas, the Islamist movement, which was founded in the Strip's refugee camps in the 1980s, overwhelmed the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority forces and drove them out.

Instead of the Palestinian flag that hovered over official buildings since the jubilant return of Yasser Arafat to the strip in 1994, now flew the unmistakable green banner of Hamas.

Since a new government was sworn in Ramallah about two months ago, the 360 square mile strip became an even more isolated outpost.

Cut off by Israel from the rest of the world, Gaza became, yet again, a mass concentration camp tucked away between the desert and the sea.

The PNA, wounded and humiliated by the outcome of June's "battle for Gaza", looked on as approximately one third of its subjects suffered a humanitarian crisis of dire proportions. In the absence of political dialogue between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas, Gaza was left out to rot.
The latest affront to its stranded population was the decision by the EU to suspend the flow of money to pay for fuel that is needed to run the Strip's electricity generators.

For two nights Gaza was engulfed in darkness while aid agencies warned of catastrophic consequences as Gaza's water pumps, sewage treatment plants and essential services came to a halt.

Hospitals switched to emergency generators but as fuel supplies dried up health workers prepared for impending disaster.

Since then the EU has agreed to resume funding, but the incident underlined the humanitarian aspects of the Gaza stalemate.

Gazans are punished indiscriminately because Hamas is being chastised by the international community for carrying out its June putsch. To add to the Strip's woes, Israel has resumed its assassination programme of alleged jihadists with innocent bystanders, including children, blown away in the process.

The same international community has failed to take action, as it has repeatedly done so in the past, to quell Israeli attacks.

The Gaza impasse serves Israeli objectives of punishing Hamas and putting pressure on the Salam Fayyad government in Ramallah to prevent possible political reconciliation with the Gaza leadership.

Since the rift took place, Mahmoud Abbas has received new backing from key players, especially the US, EU and Israel. Money is flowing back into the West Bank and, for the time-being, Palestinians in these territories are spared further deterioration in their living conditions.

The new government, which replaced the coalition that governed under Esmail Haniya, is yet to deliver on other promises including the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

The future of the peace process is still in doubt as parties are said to explore options in preparation for the US-sponsored peace conference to be held in the coming two months.

There is still doubt over Abbas's decision to hold early presidential and legislative elections in an effort to undermine Hamas's control of the latter. How will the elections, which Hamas opposes, be held in Gaza remains an open issue.

Abbas still enjoys access to most Arab leaders even though it is said that relations with the Saudis have cooled considerably after the Gaza events which shattered the Makkah accord.

The Arab League, which had decided to investigate the Gaza coup, seems to have succumbed to pressure not to go any further with its fact-finding efforts.

Nothing is normal when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Gaza is isolated and subdued but it is far from the control of the PNA.

The humanitarian portion of the standoff will continue to challenge Abbas and his government as well as the international community.

Meanwhile, the political aspect is getting more complicated with no breakthrough in sight. The question on everyone's lips is simple and complicated: What to do about Gaza?

So far the choice of talking to Hamas, by the US, EU and even the PNA, has not been taken seriously. There seems to be a feeling that if Gazans are left to suffer for a while they will eventually turn against the Islamist movement. That is a far-fetched scenario.

When the EU suspended funding for oil shipments, public sentiment in Gaza turned against the Fayyad government and the international community.

Hamas cried foul, accusing the Europeans of adopting Israel's decades-old policy of collective punishment. The same happened when Israel refused to allow thousands of stranded Palestinians in Sinai from crossing into Gaza for weeks. Many died at the shuttered border crossing.

The realities in Gaza are stark and disturbing. It is shameful that Arab political paralysis has again failed the Palestinian people. When Gaza's electric generators went silent the Arab world looked on as millions spent their night without power.

Throughout the course of the Palestinian tragedy, Gaza presented a special case for Israel, as it does now, and for the PLO. It was in Gaza that the first Intifada was ignited in 1988.

Hamas may be viewed as the problem today in Gaza, but the Strip has always been a troubled zone. The geopolitical anomaly that is the Gaza Strip will continue to challenge our conscience, as well as our political will, as it has done over the past months and years. Isolating it and looking the other way as its problems compound is not the solution.

* Published in UAE's GULF NEWS on August 26, 2007. Osama Al Sharif is a Jordanian journalist based in Amman.

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