After the Blockade Fiasco, a New Approach to Hamas?

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Hatem Moussa / AP

Blocked by the Israeli navy, Palestinian fishermen linger in the port of Gaza City on June 5, 2010

Israel's siege of Gaza, having failed to achieve its primary objective of toppling the Hamas regime, may be drawing to a close. In the wake of last week's aid-flotilla debacle, the Israelis have been told by the U.S. and its allies that it is untenable for Israel to continue blocking a wide range of basic economic commodities from entering Gaza. Instead, the policy discussion is shifting toward finding ways to open the border crossings into Gaza while keeping out weapons. On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden met with Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak, in search of new solutions "to address the humanitarian, economic, security and political aspects of the situation." Egypt last week reopened the Rafah crossing into Gaza, with a security official telling the Associated Press that it would remain open indefinitely because the blockade had failed.

The Gaza blockade's purpose, of course, was never simply to prevent Hamas from rearming; it was designed to topple the movement from power. From the moment Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, Israel — with the support of the U.S. and other Western powers — began to restrict Gaza's economic lifeline to the outside world. And after Hamas expelled security forces loyal to Fatah in a violent power struggle in 2007, Israel adopted a siege strategy. The plan was to deprive Gazans of many basic commodities — "putting the Palestinians on a diet" while stopping short of starving them, as a top Israeli official explained it at the time — in hopes that imposing a twilight existence on the territory would turn the civilian population against Hamas. That's why the list of banned items included not only the cement, steel and glass that would be essential to reconstruct the thousands of buildings that were destroyed in the 2008-09 war but also coriander, sage, ginger, A4 paper, notebooks, toys, pens and pencils, seeds and nuts, livestock, fishing nets and a host of other commodities with no plausible military use.

The political strategy underpinning the blockade — to marginalize the more radical Hamas and restore the centrality of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party in Palestinian political life — was endorsed by the same Western powers that are now backing away from the siege. After Hamas won the 2006 elections, the Bush Administration persuaded its European allies to boycott Hamas until it agreed to formally renounce violence, recognize the state of Israel and accept previous peace agreements. But Hamas was not elected to mimic Fatah, and it was never likely to declare what it would deem a symbolic surrender.

While Israel implemented the blockade with the cooperation of Egypt and (tacitly) Fatah, the Western powers looked away, hoping that Hamas would be weakened by the malign neglect of Gaza as well as the propping up of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. While the collapse of Gaza's economy certainly put pressure on Hamas, it didn't stop the organization from rearming through smuggling tunnels — and the collapse of the regular economy made the population more dependent on Hamas than ever.

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