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Gaza Strip

Gaza Descends Under Hamas

Only Israeli Response To Qassam Attacks Abates Internal Fighting

By Steve Schippert | May 21, 2007

In February 2005, the Israeli Knesset passed the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law, setting into motion then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial plan to withdraw Israeli troops, uproot Israeli civilians from their homes and businesses and hand complete control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians.

Sharon’s intent was to give the Palestinians what they desired: An end to Israeli occupation. In the eyes of Sharon and many others, it was an opportunity for peace through a unilateral withdrawal and disengagement. For others who objected, the plan was little more than a futile gesture toward those who seek not peace, but the destruction of the Jewish state. But Sharon and his supporters persisted understanding the risk but acknowledging that the Palestinians in Gaza needed to be afforded the opportunity to succeed and thrive – or not – of their own accord. And with that, Gaza was handed to the Palestinians to make of it what they would and what they desired. For better or worse, the future of Gaza would be of Palestinian design. By September, the withdrawal and withdrawal was complete and the Palestinians began to take full and unrestricted control and governance of the territory.

But if the will of the Palestinian people ever included peace and prosperity within their own territory, that will was ceded when they swept the terrorist group Hamas into power in the Palestinian Authority elections four short months after their Gaza gains. Some have said that the elections were a rejection of pervasive Fatah corruption, in place since the days of Yasser Arafat. Others asserted that it was rather an open embrace of fundamentalism. Neither view can be applied universally, as the truth collectively lies between both, with individuals split. But regardless of the aim, the effect has been inarguably detrimental to the Palestinian people, as Gaza has spent its two years since in turmoil, and bloody internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah there has recently reached a crescendo described this week by some Palestinians as “a point of no return.”

Gaza Today: Freefall Under Hamas

But after a full week of Hamas and Fatah forces fighting each other in Gaza, with numerous truces declared and ignored and over 50 killed, both sides have perhaps begun the ‘climb-down’ from what could scarcely be called anything but an interlude into civil war. For, as Hamas set to raining Qassam rockets on Israeli towns within range of the Gaza border, Israel has begun offensive operations against Hamas’ rocket crews and metal shops suspected of being Qassam manufacturing plants. And, as Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum put it, “No one would accept to fight one another while the Israelis are shelling Gaza.”

It remains to be seen if there would ever realistically be an internal Palestinian “point of no return” so long as the unifying factor of Israeli response to terrorist attacks on its towns and people – i.e. Israeli aggression - exists.

Israelis demanded an IDF response to the Hamas attacks on their towns and kibbutz collectives, many of them largely vacated as residents flee the rocket volleys, most of which have been launched by Hamas. Israel’s Minister for Strategic Threats Avigdor Lieberman has demanded that the Israeli government decisively and unequivocally set out to dismantle the Hamas terror network. In speaking to the Israeli government via Israeli radio, Lieberman: said, “The current coalition has reached the moment of truth. Either we take apart Hamas, or we take apart the government.” He later added, “I am speaking of a specific operation, I am speaking of dismantling Hamas totally and absolutely, the creation of an entirely new situation. It is time to stop making declarations and threats. It is time to carry out operations, tough operations, daring, non-routine operations, and I hope that this is what will be.”

Israeli Op Tempo Debated In Response

This is unlikely to occur, as Israel in response has thus far limited its operations to primarily airstrikes. While Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has again warned Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), he is reluctant to use heavy force against the terrorists bombarding Israeli towns. Once again, world attention has focused more intently on the Israeli defensive response thus far than the Hamas and Islamic Jihad attacks. A Reuters report aptly captured this reality when it published, “In an apparent bow to pressure from world leaders to rein in the violence, the Israeli decision stopped short of expanding its military operations into a ground offensive.”

However, Israel has left the door open while limiting their response for now. In a Sunday security cabinet meeting, Israeli ministers agreed to "upgrade" their response, one still short of ground troops on the offensive. Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, "If that does not reduce the fire, then the security cabinet will reconvene to decide on additional, more drastic steps."

Israel: The Common Enemy Among Gaza Combatants

The current Israeli tack includes targeting Hamas leadership, including elected officials. Sunday, Israel’s air force launched an airstrike on the home of senior Hamas politician Khalil al-Hayya. This past December al-Hayya threatened Abbas and Fatah, foreshadowing violence in response when the Palestinian president promised a referendum and early elections as Hamas' popularity waned in the West Bank and even their Gaza stronghold. Al-Hayya said “Let the media underline this: We will not agree about any referendum or any early elections! Those who take these one-sided steps must bear the responsibility.”

If the fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza continues to subside, it would be under the pretext of uniting against an Israeli counter-offensive of the Qassam rocket attacks of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of whom enjoy strong and direct support from Iran. While both groups have consistently launched rocket attacks against Israeli towns, the intensity of the fire grew during the Hamas-Fatah fighting. This could indicate that one of Hamas’ aims was not only to weaken Fatah further in Gaza, long a Hamas stronghold, but also to concurrently draw an Israeli military response, under which the media savvy Hamas terrorist group could draw Palestinian public support as Gaza’s defenders against the occupiers rather than collect immediate ire for potentially sparking civil war.

A Jordanian-Palestinian Confederation?

In an unexpected turn, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that "Jordanian officials" presented Israel a plan that reportedly proposed a potential Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Apparently under the Jordanian conceptual plan, the West Bank and Gaza would fall under the Hashemite banner, “headed by the Jordanian monarch, but both parts of the state will have considerable independence, as well as their own governments.”

On the same day as the report of the Jordanian plan, Jordan's King Abdullah II called for the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Speaking at the three-day World Economic Forum held in Jordan, King Abdullah said, "This suffocating situation has brought poverty, malnutrition, frustration and radicalization." He added that world economic leaders need to look to and prepare for a day when peace in the region exists, saying, “As we look to that day, we need to begin asking a new question: What about the day after peace?” The timing of his chosen words in the speech and the report of the Jordanian plan for a possible Jordanian-Palestinian confederacy is perhaps noteworthy.

While that day does not appear ‘just around the corner,’ King Abdullah’s observations on economic plight playing a roll in providing foot soldiers to radical movements is as true for terrorist groups in Gaza and the West Bank as it is for feeding the insurgency in Iraq, where 60 to 70 percent of Iraqis are unemployed or underemployed. But laying the blame for such Palestinian plight squarely at the foot of Israel is disingenuous, particularly within the context of the Israeli unilateral withdrawal and handover of Gaza to the Palestinians.

Futility Of Democracy Without Liberty

Since that time, the Palestinian people have effectively empowered Hamas terrorists by elevating them to governance through open and fair elections. And rather than capitalize on their newly ‘liberated’ territory, the economic plight spirals downward and internal debate evolves into internal armed conflict, with or without perceived Israeli ‘aggression.’ Such is the nature and futility of democracy without liberty and governance without responsibility. Economic prosperity requires liberty, and liberty requires security. The events within Gaza since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal have resulted in neither prerequisite.

Perhaps a confederacy with an established and reasonable Arab state such as Jordan could bring some measure of stability – and thus hope for prosperity – to the Palestinian people. The current leadership alone, whether Hamas or Fatah (dating back to Arafat’s PLO), has clearly been unable to secure for the Palestinian people any modicum of economic hope.

But, unfortunately, if reports of the Jordanian confederation plan are accurate, it arrives dead in the water, attached as it presumably is to the Palestinian ‘right of return,’ a condition which the State of Israel will never agree to. An exercise of a ‘right of return’ would flood the Jewish state with Arabs with land claims dating back to Israel’s creation. The demographic shift would destroy the democratic Jewish state from within, which is the design behind such exercise. Also speaking at the World Economic Forum, Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said that Israel would submit a counterproposal to the Saudi plan presented by the Arab League.

The events of this week will be a bell weather of the near term for the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. West Bank wings of Hamas and Fatah largely sat out last week's violence, which was pitched but isolated in Gaza where Hamas is strongest. The level of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacks into Israel will likely dictate the Israeli operational method and tempo, which is already hearing calls for restraint from the United States and others. To be sure, Israeli military operations against Hamas and PIJ terrorist operations and support structures will be widely covered with the occasional mention of rocket attacks on Israeli towns.