Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Slippery Slope of Blame in Gaza

The blame game surrounding Gaza’s current political and social crisis is too unilateral and simplistic. In the public sphere responsibility for the instability of Gaza and the general Palestinian political malaise is placed either on Fatah’s corruption in leadership or on Hamas’ violent tendencies while seizing control of the Gaza Strip and during its consequent rule. Such a stance is feeding into the dichotomous derision of the rival Palestinian parties’ rhetoric. Both Hamas and Fatah must bare responsibility for their action and inaction. Meanwhile, unless the International Community pressures Israel to put an end to human rights abuses carried out against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank the milieu for any compromise between Hamas and Fatah remains unattainable.

In mid-June of this year Hamas carried out a military takeover of the Gaza Strip that, although ruthless and shocking to many Gazans, can be argued to have been justified in political terms. Fatah, the sole representative of the Palestinian people since taking the helm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the late 60s had long gone too far; its time of reckoning had come.

After Arafat conceded to the recognition of Israel at Oslo, the PLO’s official framework shifted from one of Palestinian “liberation” through resistance to the acceptance of the status quo. It is hard to say if a dim glimmer of hope of ending the crisis or an uncontrollable desire for quick fix legitimacy caused the change of heart. What is certain is that the hope for any change of the conflict turned out to be nonexistent.

In exchange for the PLO’s transformation aid money poured in, a reward for consent or acquiescence. In a non-state some form of state institutionalization began to take place. Eventually this cash cow, requiring rare accountability, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Arafat and his compatriots transformed from leaders of a resistance to fat cats, became owners of fancy homes, factories and companies with the help of monies meant to relieve and somehow compensate Palestinian suffering. In the 70s Palestinian almost meant Fathawi. But over the course of the next 30 years disillusionment set in and the call for change grew increasingly.

While Fatah officials pocketed the cream of Palestinian aid, Hamas tended to the population’s growing needs and gained a following. Elections in early 2006 were the litmus test. To the world’s surprise, or so it seemed, Hamas, having finally entered the democratic process, ended up victorious in parliamentary elections. After forming a democratically elected government a test of another kind followed. The Palestinians had crossed the ‘democracy’ hurdle, a Western, modern requirement for a more integrated Middle East, yet the world would not recognize the results of the elections they had so vehemently called for. And here lies really the crux of the matter. It seems the inventors of a game can also change its rules, and the Palestinians have had to pay dearly for rejecting acquiescence, this time round to the evolving rules of democracy.

Following elections Fatah rejected entering into a coalition with Hamas. Instead they claimed that they would hand over the reigns of power, cede all responsibility to their rivals in order to reform their ailing party. Contrary to such statements, police, border guards and security forces remained under Fatah control. Further steps were taken to undermine the elected Hamas leadership.

Meanwhile with the boycott of the newly elected government donor funds were frozen, pulling the carpet out from beneath the Palestinian Authority structure. Government employees making up a third of Gaza’s workforce, who were largely Fatah affiliated, the party being the source of their paychecks, acted as a potentially defiant force against Hamas. Fatah continued to control the streets, prisons and borders, and more importantly quietly began covert efforts at organized chaos and violence in order to undermine Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip. The popular symbol of such efforts was Fatah activist Sameech Al-Madhoun, who lead an initiative to increase tension with Hamas in the Northern Gaza Strip by kidnapping and torturing its members and instigating a fierce rivalry. The brains of the operation was Mohamed Dahlan, a close advisor to Mahmoud Abbas and prior to June 14th the Fatah street’s future presidential hopeful.

June 10th marked a turning point; Hamas had had enough with policies to rid them of their legitimate control of Gaza. The so called Hamas takeover saw relatively limited blood shed, although accounts of torture were reported, they were not unlike those experienced by Hamas’ members throughout Fatah’s reign. Violence of this kind cannot be excused. Violence breeds violence and in this case it is the oppressive Israeli presence in the Palestinian midst for more than half a century that clearly served as its inspiration. Hamas’ political entitlement was mixed with an often blinding religious determination.

Hamas’ new-gained control changed the atmosphere of Gaza. Suddenly, it was safe to go out at night, no random assassinations took place, robberies were almost unheard of, Fatah and Hamas rivalries dissipated and inter-familial feuds began too be settled with words rather than weapons. The downside was the ever-increasing siege on Gaza, this entailed every sector, effecting every woman, man and child, both those celebrating their liberation from Fatah’s political failure and corruption and those living in fear of the new Hamas rulers. The one improvement lay in the fact that aid began pouring in to the new rather dubious and un-democratic government in the West Bank. Government employees swearing allegiance to this unrepresentative government receive their paycheck to this day under the condition they do not work. Within weeks of Hamas’ “liberation” of Gaza 65% of remaining local factories and businesses were forced shut because of the closure on vital imports. Chocolate wafers could not be manufactured without imported cocoa.

Bit by bit, the Gaza Strip has been bursting at the seams. When Fatah members decided to attend prayers beyond the confines of Hamas-run mosques they were brutally hindered by Hamas security. Fatah members, who uttered too fierce of criticisms during demonstrations in opposition of the overseeing Hamas security forces, were singled out and later confronted and often physically abused. Hamas cried wolf, pointing the finger at foul play by Fatah in the West Bank trying to disrupt the unity and peace of Gaza. On Sunday October 7th Rami Ayyad, director of a Christian bookstore was kidnapped and killed by unknown assailants. Promises were made but the gravity of the act was never addressed. Historically Gaza has demonstrated excellent Muslim-Christian relations; an apolitical Christian member of Gaza’s civil society had never before been kidnapped and murdered. Raji Sourani of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights told the Independent, "this ugly act has no support by any religious group here," in a sense echoing Hamas officials who again blamed outside forces seeking to strain Christian-Muslim relations in the Gaza Strip but taking no responsibility to tackle the growing malaise in their society.

In light of the gravity of Gaza’s situation there is much temptation to fall into a logically fallacious line of reasoning. The extent of Fatah’s corruption and misgovernment cannot justify the wrongdoings or incapability of Hamas, nor the undoing of Gaza’s society even when taking into account the vast odds placed against the ruling party.

The Hamas-Fatah blame game is in itself a slippery slope, which neglects the core of the issue. Gaza’s society has reached an unprecedented ethical valley. The kidnapping and killing of an innocent member of society would have been unacceptable and barely believable in Gaza just 20 years ago. Although Rami’s case is unique, today, sadly, political acts of violence for the sake of revenge are a common occurrence in Gaza. Is not this development really the heart of the matter? What has lead to the decay of a society, in recent history not much different than the communities along the Nile delta, the desert of Jordan or the coast of Syria? The disease of violence is a phenomenon widespread in Gaza today and rather than merely addressing the fruit and pointing the finger at the perpetrator of an act of violence, at the political party in control or vying for power, we must look beneath the surface at the social reality of the Gaza Strip. What can be expected of a 365km2 enclave with closed borders, insufficient resources to survive, a vibrant, growing population without enough work opportunities or future prospects of any sort? Has the world utterly lost its conscience or are we merely lead astray by an array of commentators with no grasp of history and a shallow either/ or capacity for reasoning?

Overarching political debates rarely take into account the common person whose reality it is addressing; the Hamas mother of seven who is not able to feed her children, The Fatah taxi driver beat down in his place of prayer, the wife of a murdered Palestinian Christian left in mourning. We must step out of the framework of political monologues and measure the wrongs carried out by all parties. Fatah’s critics need to also hold Hamas accountable for its shortcomings in Gaza despite the deep-rooted extent of Fatah’s wrongdoing.