For anyone who follows developments in Gaza, the selection of Yahya Sinwar as the new top leader in Gaza is no surprise. Sinwar was the most important prisoner released by Israel in 2006, a key Hamas leader who had been in prison for 22 years.
His presence in Gaza was felt immediately, but most notably after Israel assassinated Hamas strongman Ahmad Jabari in November 2012. He was the most distinct military leader on the Hamas side during the summer war of 2014 and since then has been the most powerful Hamas leader on the ground.
The military wing of Hamas, Izzadin Kassam, has been effectively running Gaza since the Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2006, and its power has increased with each Gaza war (2008-9, 2012, 2014).
While Israel does not control everything that happens in Gaza or in Hamas, its failed policies over the past decade have had a direct connection to the empowerment of Hamas and the strengthening of the most radical extreme elements within it.
Israel’s first major mistake in this context concerns the Gaza disengagement. Prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage unilaterally and not as part of an agreement with the PA led directly to the election of Hamas. Sharon called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “a chick without feathers” and declared that he was not a partner, and that was after Abbas inherited the Palestinian leadership following the death of Yasser Arafat. Abbas became president with an electoral victory of 63% on a ticket which campaigned against the militarization of the conflict with Israel, against the second intifada and against terrorism.
Abbas was committed to rebuilding the PA based on the Bush administration’s Road Map, which included dismantling the infrastructure of terrorism. The international community appointed former World Bank president Dr. James Wolfensohn as a special envoy to coordinate Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and to help ensure its economic success.
The PA created 12 technical committees to coordinate disengagement with Israel under the direction of then national security adviser Muhammad Dahlan. Nonetheless Sharon refused to coordinate the disengagement with the Palestinians.
The Palestinian technical committees remained orphans.
Israel decided to demolish all of the Israeli settlements in Gaza rather than leaving them for the PA to house refugees; the PA had begun planning a raffle among Gaza’s poorest to get a jump-start on a new beginning. A very senior official in Sharon’s office told me “off the record” that Sharon’s intention was that the Palestinians would fail in taking over Gaza and international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank would be significantly lessened. That is in fact what happened.
The classic example given of the PA’s failure in running the affairs of Gaza is the hothouses that produced $250 million of income when Israel was running the show and went bankrupt after two seasons of PA management.
The truth of the matter is of the 5,000 sq.m. of hothouses that existed in Gush Katif, about 500 were dismantled by settlers themselves. Another 500 were dismantled by Palestinian vandalism before the PA security forces took over the area.
Four thousand square meters of hothouses were put under the management of a private Palestinian company established for this purpose that employed the very same workers and technologies used by the settlers. But after the disengagement Israel closed the borders and the goods rotted before ever getting to the Israeli markets. During the first 100 days after disengagement, the border crossing to Israel was open 17 days.
When Palestinians went to the polls in 2006 they were faced with two narratives – the Fatah narrative of failed negotiations and corruption and the Hamas narrative of victory in forcing Israel out of Gaza, clean government and determination to get free all of Palestine.
Hamas claimed victory for kicking Israel out of Gaza by using violence and in addition to party discipline, Hamas did not actually run in the elections – the Party of Change and Reform essentially ran without the Hamas Covenant ever appearing. Hamas swept the elections, taking control of the PA (but with only one third of the vote).
Then, after elections, with a Hamas victory in the parliament, Israel froze the transfers of tax money to the PA and the employees of the PA security forces were not paid, even though Hamas had no control over the security forces. Those people later saw little reason to risk their lives defending the PA when Hamas’s military forces began attacking them to take control of Gaza. When Hamas finalized its bloody takeover, President Abbas disbanded the Hamas-controlled parliament and declared the Gaza government illegal, but he still remained a non-partner for Israel.
Hamas successfully attacked Israel in June 2006 at Kerem Shalom, killing two soldiers and kidnapping another in the first tunnel attack. Israel knew about the presence of tunnels (in 1995 I was told by a Palestinian general of the existence of 35 tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. He asked me to report it to the Israeli authorities, and I did) yet in 2006 Hamas was able to launch a surprise attack against Israel.
Israel then devised its failed policy of “isolation” of Gaza under the premise that engagement with the PA under the leadership of prime minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank would create a new economic and political reality, which would clearly demonstrate that supporting peace and moderation would pay off.
While at the same time by leaving Hamas in power in Gaza, the people of Gaza would suffer and understand that they needed to get rid of the organization. Only the shift to a positive reality in the West Bank was very slow and very non-strategic, and the harshness of the closure of Gaza angered Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as other nations of the world, especially in the Middle East.
When it became clear that the Israeli policies were limiting the importation of basic foods into Gaza, calculated on an average needed intake of calories, people were furious – at Israel, not Hamas. Support for Hamas increased and anger against the PA that was cooperating with Israel also increased. And then came Cast Lead. (To be continued next week.)
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org.