Reflections on the challenges of the Gaza Strip

By Walid Salem (for Safe Democracy)

Walid Salem explains how the Gaza Strip could become the next Hong Kong of the Middle East provided that steps are taken to reach a permanent peace. In Salem‘s opinion, while the Hamas government has shown enormous restraint in upholding the promised ceasefire with Israel, there are three major challenges confronting it: growing social unrest and chaos, its own refusal to recognize Israel, and suffocating international sanctions. Salem explains the importance of human security in establishing a responsible citizenry and building up strong democratic structures, and outlines a possible approach to give the people of Gaza their right to human security and peace.

Walid Salem is a political analyst and the director of Panorama, the Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, East Jerusalem office.

SINCE GILAAD SHELIT’S KIDNAPPING ON JUNE 26TH, the fighting in the Gaza Strip has not subdued. While Palestinian rockets fired into the southern parts of Israel have been relatively ineffective at causing casualties, the Israeli insurgence into Gaza has resulted in a rising death toll of approximately 375 Palestinians.

From a humanistic perspective, all human beings should be able to live peacefully and free from fear. In the Gaza Strip, this human security has been stripped bare by perpetual fighting, making it almost impossible to either establish responsible citizenry or build up strong democratic structures. Furthermore, with the Israeli sanctions imposed upon the Palestinian government, the PA has been unable to pay its employees. The situation found in Gaza is very tragic indeed.

In an area no bigger than 360 square kilometers, there are one million four hundred thousand citizens living in the Gaza Strip. Unemployment here is up to more than 60 percent, while 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line in the southern region of Rafah.

When Israel disengaged from the region on September 9th, it left the Gaza Strip completely shut off from the outside world. Comparable to a big prison, Gazans were prohibited from seeing family members anywhere outside of their territory, as well as rebuilding their own airport or ever reopening their own port. Later Israeli authorities froze the measures set up by Condoleeza Rice that allowed travel between Rafah and Egypt. The Israeli’s believed it to be their right to decide when to open the Rafah Crossing Border, which was left closed for the majority of the time. Other arrangements to allow exchanges between Gaza and the West Bank were similarly left unimplemented.

With the imprisonment of the Gazans and the continuing occupation of the West Bank, some Palestinians chose to respond to the Israeli attacks on their people by launching primitive rockets on Israeli towns. In 99 percent of the cases, the rockets caused very little harm and almost no casualties. The effect that they did have, however, was to create insecurity within Israel, which was consequently exploited by Israeli politicians in order to take severe military action against the Palestinian territories.

Those who launch the rockets are few, mostly members of Islamic Jihad, and some Fatah activists who disobey the orders of the Fatah leadership. The Hamas government, meanwhile, has chosen to adhere to its promised ceasefire with Israel, showing the highest self-restraint and commitment of any Palestinian faction in the last two years. With this new approach, Hamas has moved from its earlier acts of resistance, where it rejected Israel from a fundamentalist viewpoint, to the calling of a unilateral ceasefire with Israel.

But three major challenges have hindered Hamas’ new political realism. The first is the outbreak of internal unrest and social disorder within Gaza. Many members of Fatah and other clans have taken to the streets to riot, while adherents of a new Qaida branch in Gaza have kidnapped foreigners and assassinated security department agents. Hamas will need a great deal of help in order to get their security concerns under control.

The second challenge to Hamas comes from itself. Hamas was advised to recognize the state of Israel pending on Israel’s withdrawal from the 1967 occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in those regions. Harming their political legitimacy, Hamas has nevertheless refused to accept such a formula.

The third challenge comes from international sanctions. While the international community did agree to create a temporary mechanism to pay part of the salaries of the neediest Palestinian employees, Israel is still abstaining from transferring the tax revenues on Palestinian goods imported via Israel to the Palestinians even though this money clearly belongs to the Palestinian people.

Despite these challenges, one could look at the situation in the Gaza Strip in the following manner. Israel has been legitimately acting in its own self-defense in its actions in Gaza therefore nothing needs to be done to solve the situation. This understanding, however, is erroneous since the launching of the rockets into southern Isael is the outcome of the conflict, not its cause.

What is needed is a solution to these challenges, a permanent peace settlement that can be negotiated either at Abu Mazen in a possible Madrid II or with the help of Turkey and the Moderate Arab states to mediate the moderation and democratization of Hamas. Until then, establishing a reciprocal Hudna between Israel and Hamas will have to suffice.

The Palestinian Unity government, to be established in the coming days, may also provide new possibilities for peace. In the time being, solutions for the sake of the human security of the people of Gaza and of southern Israel must be found. Following a reciprocal Hudna should be the opening of the Rafah Crossing Borders, the reestablishment of Gaza’s port and airport, the insurance of free movement to and from the West Bank, the opening of the Karni Crossing Border with Israel to allow the free flow of goods, the establishment of the Eretz Industrial Promised Zone, and cultivations in the previous settlement areas in order to generate new jobs.

All of this can be achieved with the help of international monitors deployed between Gaza and Israel.

Gaza could become the new Hong Kong of the Middle East if only a peace agreement is settled.

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