How Gaza Could Turn Into Mogadishu

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Palestinian security officers guard the Palestinian parliament building in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Monday. Hundreds of armed Fatah security officers went on a violent rampage against the Hamas-led government riddling the parliament building and Cabinet offices with bullets before setting them ablaze to protest a Gaza attack

Looking at the looming train wreck in Palestinian politics — and in the Palestinians' relations with Israel — it's hard to imagine that any of the protagonists has gamed out the implications of their positions.

The U.S. and Europe are using financial strangulation as a tactic to oust the Hamas government and resurrect a discredited Fatah regime in the hope that it can cut a deal with Israel; President Mahmoud Abbas is playing a game of political chicken with Hamas, while Hamas is trying to combine the mutually exclusive options of responsible governance and armed struggle. Israel, for its part, has no faith in negotiations with the Palestinian leadership and has made clear it plans to unilaterally redraw its borders; all the while, it is responding to rockets fired from Gaza with military strikes. But the sum total of all of these pressures may spell the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, leaving Israel living alongside a chaotic political entity not altogether unlike Somalia: awash with guns, broken into mini-fiefdoms ruled by unstable coalitions of warlords, and fertile soil for al-Qaeda.

The spark for the most recent flare-up was last week's tragedy on a Gaza beach, where a number of members of a Palestinian family were killed by what is suspected to have been a stray Israeli shell. Soon after Hamas declared an end to its unilateral cease-fire. Though Israeli officials might scoff at that statement — given the involvement of Hamas leaders in many previous rocket attacks against Israel from inside Gaza — the prospect of Hamas resuming terror attacks and Israeli plans for a broad offensive in northern Gaza suggest that a new wave of violence and political instability may be building.

And the source of the looming chaos is not just the usual Israeli-Palestinian antagonism. Monday's attacks on the Palestinian parliament and government offices by gunmen of the Fatah movement of President Mahmoud Abbas are a reminder that tensions between the Palestinian factions are escalating into low-intensity civil war — one in which the U.S. could suffer, as in Somalia, as a result of aligning itself too closely with factions viewed with hostility by many of those on the sidelines.

Violence and political quarreling, of course, are nothing new to the Middle East, but this time is dangerously different. Previously, cool heads on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide could look to mediators from the U.S. and Europe to help them choreograph their way out of such a crisis. The Western powers left a diplomatic vacuum when the gave up their traditional mediation role following the election of the Hamas government in January. And the usual mechanism for restraining violence between rival Palestinian groups on the ground — a consensus at the top over the need to maintain national unity — has been replaced by a virtual collision course between Hamas and President Abbas.

Rather than moderate its behavior, the latest string of events may have tipped the balance in Hamas toward the hardliners. Those within Hamas that had argued for restraint and some form of coexistence with Israel — not to mention warned that permitting ongoing rocket fire from Gaza was a road to disaster — are now being drowned out by those calling for a resumption of violence. The images of the family destroyed by the Gaza beach explosion have darkened the mood on the Palestinian street, where there is a growing appetite for revenge for Hamas to tap into. And as long as the financial stranglehold over the Palestinian territories persists, the prospects for the more pragmatic element winning the day will become even more remote.

The U.S. and Europeans are trying to keep alive prospects, however dim, for a two-state solution by insisting that Israel must first seek a negotiated solution with President Abbas before moving to unilaterally redraw its boundaries; that message was reiterated to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Monday during talks with his British counterpart, Tony Blair. But while the Western governments may imagine that the popularly elected Hamas government can simply be bypassed, Abbas understands that he can't deal without a popular mandate. As a result, he's decided to try to gain one by risking everything on a political fight to the finish with Hamas.

After failing to convince Hamas to embrace a document drawn up by Palestinian prisoners calling for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, Abbas has declared a referendum on the matter next month, a proposal promptly rejected by Hamas. In calling for a boycott of what it calls nothing more than a power play by Abbas, Hamas is arguing that there is no reason for a Palestinian showdown over a negotiating position that has already been flatly rejected by Israel.

Even if Abbas were somehow able to win, the chances of implementing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement without the participation of Hamas also appear remote. That may not worry an Israeli government that was elected on promises of implementing a unilateral solution. But if the Palestinian Authority collapses, as it threatens to do under the combined weight of Palestinian infighting, Western financial pressure and Israeli bombardment, then Israel will find itself living alongside something akin to a failed state, not unlike Somalia. If so, the dangers to Israel — and the West — will grow no matter how tight a border Olmert maintains.