Ceasefire deal in Gaza strengthens Hamas’ standing

Palestinians regard the Islamist group as the victor of a war provoked by Israel, and that standing up to the Israelis delivers results

By Chris McGreal  /  The Guardian, Gaza City

Tue, Nov 27, 2012 - Page 9

It might not look like victory. Dozens of dead children among nearly 100 civilians killed. Hundreds more injured, some condemned to a life of struggle from terrible wounds. Houses flattened. Bridges, offices and stadiums blown to bits.

However, as life returns to what passes for normality on the streets of Gaza — once again clogged with people and traffic even as the Israeli drones continue to buzz overhead — many Palestinians regard the ceasefire that put an end to more than a week of incessant bombing and shelling as an Israeli surrender document.

The victor, they say, is Hamas, which faced down Israeli aggression and has emerged from years of diplomatic isolation to be embraced, if tentatively, by the leaders of a new Arab world. The lesson learned is that standing up to Israel delivers results that years of concessions under US peace plans and drawn-out negotiations have not.

Western leaders, from US President Barack Obama to British Prime Minister David Cameron, rushed to blame the bloody upsurge of violence in Gaza on Hamas and other armed groups firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, but Palestinians have a different take. The common view in Gaza is that the conflict was a war of choice by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mkhaimer Abusader, a political scientist at Gaza’s Azhar University, said there was a widespread belief that Netanyahu ordered the killing two weeks ago of the top Hamas military commander, Ahmad al-Jaabari, to provoke a confrontation and launch a military operation in order to make himself look strong in the run-up to elections in January.

Opinion polls showed many Israelis favored an invasion of Gaza to follow the air and sea bombardment. That Netanyahu ultimately did not order one is regarded in Gaza as evidence that he was deterred by the scale of resistance by Hamas and other armed groups, even in the face of much larger Israeli retaliation, which surprised Palestinians.

“Palestinians were very happy to see rockets landing on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. It may be crazy, but there’s admiration that Hamas was able to manufacture long-range missiles and deter Israel,” Abusader said. “Palestinians believe the Israelis were begging for a ceasefire. The conclusion Palestinians reach is that the way to get results is resistance, is to make the occupation costly to the Israelis.”

ISOLATION BROKEN

The ceasefire deal may not have got Hamas all that it wanted, but there is a commitment by Israel to ease the blockade that was imposed to break the Islamist group, and to end the kind of “targeted assassinations” that killed al-Jaabari. There is plenty of skepticism that Israel will deliver or that the truce will last, but the crisis has shifted the diplomatic ground by breaking the international isolation of Hamas imposed by the US and Europeans.

Change was in the offing — driven by the Arab spring — not least in Egypt, where there is a new government more openly critical of Israel than its US-allied predecessor. Israel has alienated its only real friend in the region, Turkey, over the Israeli military’s attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in which eight Turks were killed.

It was no coincidence that the first stream of regional political heavyweights to visit Gaza in more than a decade was led by the Egyptian prime minister and the Tunisian and Turkish foreign ministers. Scenes of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu shedding tears in a Gaza City hospital over dead children and saying he stood in “solidarity with the Palestinian nation’s suffering,” were read in Gaza as evidence that they were no longer on their own.

Talal Okal was for many years among the leaders in Gaza of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular left-wing organization, decidedly different to Hamas.

“I am anti-Hamas. I am democratic. I am secular. But I admire what Hamas has done because they showed they were working underground secretly to challenge the Israelis,” he said. “Now we are facing Israel from a better position. We don’t have a balance of power with Israel. But now, because of Hamas, we have influence in the region and that makes a better situation.”

However, Okal said Hamas was still divided over how to take advantage. Its external leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal, has embraced the Arab spring as an opportunity for Gaza to declare autonomy. Hamas leaders in Gaza, led by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, remain allied with Iran and Syria, with an eye on extending power to the West Bank.

Okal said that from his conversations with Haniyeh, he thought there was growing confidence in Hamas that it could widen its support among Palestinians.

POLITICAL GAINS

“I used to think Hamas is going to have a state in the Gaza Strip, but now I think Hamas is headed toward reuniting the Palestinian establishment pushed by the hope it will be in control [of Gaza and the West Bank],” he said.

That may be wishful thinking, given the growing disillusionment among many people in Gaza with Hamas before the latest fighting.

“Before the war erupted, Hamas was under a lot of criticism,” Abusader said. “Hamas was accused of corruption, smuggling, mismanaging revenues, issues of land management. That’s why Hamas had a government reshuffle a month ago.”

However, that criticism has been silenced for now and there was open support in the West Bank — where the Palestinian leadership there is often seen as weak for its emphasis on negotiation — for Hamas for fighting back against Israel.

Hamas’ political gains are at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also the leader of Hamas’ rival, Fatah. He was all but irrelevant in the recent crisis, with Hamas center stage in the Arab world. On Thursday last week, Abbas was forced into a humiliating telephone call to Haniyeh to congratulate him on his “victory.”

The past week has been a severe blow to Abbas’ strategy to bring about a Palestinian state. He has renounced violence and committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. He has followed the obstacle course laid out by the US and Europeans, and supervised by former British prime minister Tony Blair, of “institution-building” and security cooperation with Israel, with the promise of a Palestinian state dangling at some undefined point in the future.

The result, as many Palestinians see it, is that Netanyahu has ignored and humiliated Abbas, and continued Israel’s expansionism with yet more Jewish settlement construction and measures to reaffirm Israeli control over all of Jerusalem and great chunks of the West Bank.

The lesson many in the occupied territories have taken away from the past week is that standing up to Israel brings results.

“The model that the US, Europe and Israel promote of giving the Palestinian Authority financial support to build institutions hasn’t worked. What you see is more Israeli settlement expansion, more measures to make a two-state solution more difficult,” Abusader said.

The latest crisis puts pressure on Abbas over his plan to ask the UN General Assembly to effectively recognize Palestinian statehood this week. Washington and European governments, which blocked a similar move at the UN Security Council a year ago, are telling the Palestinian leader the move will damage the prospects for peace. Israel is threatening to annul all or some of the Oslo peace accords if he goes ahead.