Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post (Analysis)
October 30, 2012 - 12:00am

When the emir of Qatar paid the first visit by a head of state to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip last week, there were two different reactions from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

In one statement, Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the ministry, accused the emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, of backing a terrorist organization and having “thrown peace under the bus.”

But an Arabic-language spokesman for the ministry, Lior Ben Dor, told Radio Sawa, a U.S.- funded station heard across the Middle East, that Israel welcomed the visit of the emir, who pledged generous financial aid.

“Since our withdrawal from Gaza, the goal has been that Arab states come and help the residents of Gaza,” Ben Dor said, referring to the Israeli pullout in 2005.

The double message was a symptom of the unraveling of an Israeli policy toward Gaza that was put in place after Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, seized control of the territory in June 2007.

The Israeli government adopted measures to isolate Gaza, sharply restricting supply shipments at border points, tightening bans on movement out of the territory, and promoting an international diplomatic boycott of the Hamas government.

The policy, strongly backed by Washington, was coupled with moves to promote economic development and foreign aid in the West Bank, where the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is dominant. The intention was to squeeze Hamas by blockading and imposing austerity on Gaza, while boosting Abbas and Fatah through improved living conditions in the West Bank.

But the policy essentially backfired. Hamas rallied popular support in Gaza through a shared sense of siege, and it consolidated economic control by taxing goods smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.

A deadly Israeli commando raid in 2010 on a Turkish ship carrying activists challenging Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza led to an international outcry and a substantial loosening of Israeli restrictions on shipment of goods to the territory.

The rise to power of Islamist movements in Egypt and other countries swept by the Arab Spring provided Hamas with a diplomatic opening. The Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has made two regional tours this year, visiting Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Iran. Egypt has eased restrictions on its border with the Gaza Strip, allowing greater freedom of travel for Palestinians.

The Qatari emir’s visit to Gaza, where he was received with an honor guard and the playing of national anthems — as if the Hamas enclave were an independent state — was touted by Haniyeh as the formal end of “the political and economic siege.”

The emir’s pledge of $400 million for projects including housing construction and road improvements — well exceeding the amount of foreign aid Gaza receives annually — contrasted sharply with the financial woes of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where a falloff in aid has left Abbas and his allies struggling to pay salaries of thousands of employees.

Egypt has promised to allow construction materials for the Qatari-funded projects through its border crossing to the Gaza Strip, following earlier suggestions that the crossing might be opened regularly for passage of commercial goods.

“This signifies the beginning of the collapse of the West Bank-first model, but we still have to wait and see if Egypt follows through,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at al-Azhar University in Gaza, said the assumptions behind the effort to isolate Gaza and its rulers had been upended. “The policy of isolating and weakening Hamas through sanctions and blockade failed miserably,” he said. “The model the U.S. and Europe tried to build in the West Bank did not lead to positive results. Israel is expanding its settlements, the peace process has reached a dead end, and the Palestinian Authority is on life support.”

The new realities have brought some commentators in Israel to call for a reassessment.

Giora Eiland, a former general who headed Israel’s National Security Council during the withdrawal from Gaza, asserted after the emir’s visit that Israel should shift away from trying to undermine Hamas rule and focus exclusively on security concerns, such as halting rocket attacks across the border.

“Israel has an interest that Gaza resemble, as much as possible, a state with a stable government. That is the only way to have an address for both deterrence and dealing with security issues,” Eiland wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “Israel has an interest in economic improvement in Gaza of the kind Qatar can bring. Such improvement creates assets that any government would be concerned about damaging, and thus it will be more moderate and cautious.”

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said in an interview that Israel should “recognize that Hamas is in charge of Gaza and that we’re not going to change that.”

“Let the Qataris rebuild the Gaza Strip,” Alpher added. “The objective should be to reach some kind of modus vivendi with Hamas.”

Long-standing demands by the United States and other international mediators that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence as a condition for diplomatic contacts have been overtaken by events, Alpher said.

“The reality is that there are two separate Palestinian entities and no peace process with either of them, so all of these conditions don’t seem terribly relevant,” he said. “The question is, can we can find a way to dialogue with political Islam?”


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