When the Hamas charter was first published in 1988, the New York Times observed that the group’s formation represented “the first serious split of the nine-month-old Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories”. Hamas was “critical of the Palestine Liberation Organization” and “not only poses a threat to the secular, P.L.O.-oriented leadership of the uprising, but has also complicated the efforts of several West Bank leaders to press Yasir Arafat and the P.L.O. leadership abroad to capitalize on their political gains by offering to come to terms with Israel.”
Despite having become “a major force in the Gaza Strip”, the Times noted that “Israeli authorities have taken no direct action against Hamas” and that “Many Palestinians maintain that the fundamentalists are being tolerated by the Israeli security forces in hopes of splitting the uprising, noting that such tactics have been used in the past in the Gaza Strip to set Islamic fundamentalists against Palestinian leftists.” Israel had reportedly gone even further and directly funded the Hamas parent organization, which was legally registered in Israel a decade before the Hamas charter was announced.
Hamas would go on to deserve its reputation among the international community as a terrorist organization. In April 1994, Hamas claimed responsibility for the first Palestinian suicide bombing in retaliation for the murder of 29 Muslims in a mosque in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler armed with an assault rifle.
Israel’s initial support and encouragement for Hamas is widely acknowledged among analysts. This may seem at first like an oddity, but there is a quite logical explanation. The main problem facing Israel was the threat of peace posed by a PLO increasingly recognized by the international community as having rejected the tactic of terrorism in favor of engagement in the political process. Israel was dealing with a PLO that had dangerously accepted the international consensus on a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This consensus is based on the requirement of international law that Israel withdraw from the territories it occupied during the 1967 war, a principle reflected in U.N. Security Council resolution 242 and numerous subsequent resolutions. In Israeli policymakers’ political calculus, the ultimate threat was not that of terrorism but of the possibility of having to give up the land it wanted as part of Israel in order for a viable Palestinian to be established.
That this has been the political calculus of Israeli leaders is well evidenced by its policies and their predictable consequences, and is perhaps the only logical explanation for Israeli actions. Israel’s continued occupation, oppression, and violence towards the Palestinians have served to escalate the threat of terrorism, but this is a price Israeli leaders are willing to pay. Indeed, the threat of terrorism has often served as a pretext for carrying out policies furthering political goals that would not be politically feasible absent that threat.
That its policies served to increase the threat of terrorism was well recognized among its leadership. In October 2003, for instance, Israel’s chief of staff of the military criticized the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, pointing out that they served to increase hatred of Israel and strengthen terrorist organizations. The next month, four former chiefs of Israel’s Shin Bet security service similarly spoke out, saying Israel was headed in the direction of “catastrophe” and would destroy itself if it continued to take steps “that are contrary to the aspiration for peace”, such as the continued oppression of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. “We must admit that there is another side,” said Avraham Shalom, Shin Bet director from 1980 to 1986, “that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully.”
But the policies continued, with Israel often acting violently to provoke a violent response, including its use of extrajudicial killings. On March 22, 2004, for example, Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a quadriplegic. “I could not recognize the sheik, only his wheelchair,” said one witness to the attack. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei called it “a crazy and very dangerous act” that “opens the door wide to chaos” because “Yassin is known for his moderation, and he was controlling Hamas”. Analysts predicted that the action, rather than lessen the threat of terrorism, would “likely lead to increased violence against Israel in the form of retaliation attacks”. Criticism of the attack included members of Sharon’s own government, including Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who made similar observations.
The Sharon “Disengagement” Plan
The fact that it was predicted to have the opposite effect certainly casts doubt on Israel’s claimed motive of wanting to mitigate the threat of terrorism by eliminating the head of a terrorist organization. Furthermore, other predicted consequences point to a much different rationale for the decision. Some experts argued the assassination was in part “intended to build domestic support for a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank.” But more importantly, the attack had “devastated prospects for a peace settlement in the Middle East”, which was also precisely the outcome that the planned withdrawal from Gaza was intended to produce.
That the actual goal was to undermine prospects for peace is underscored by the fact that Yassin had just a short time prior said “that Hamas could accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip”, with Hamas offering a long-term truce in exchange for withdrawal from the territories, “a major shift in policy from Hamas” towards acceptance of the international consensus on a two-state solution.
At the time of Arafat’s death later that year, Israel had been openly talking about withdrawing from Gaza not as a means to implement steps towards a negotiated peace settlement, but as a means to derail it. This purpose was typically obfuscated in U.S. media coverage of the development, which tended to characterize it as a move intended as a gesture of goodwill done to advance the peace process. But the true nature of Sharon’s “disengagement” plan did occasionally slip through the cracks. The Washington Post reported, for instance, that according to Sharon’s “top aides”, “once Gaza was evacuated, the whole [peace] process would go in a deep freeze for many years – leaving Israel in control of the West Bank, where its most populated and richest settlements were located.”
In contrast to Western accounts, the Sharon government itself offered few pretenses about the true motivations behind the plan. Israel announced that while the withdrawal took place, it would at the same time expand settlements in the West Bank. Israel additionally declared that large portions of the West Bank would “remain part of the State of Israel” as the illegal construction of what was effectively an annexation wall continued. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, while insisting that the wall was intended to prevent terrorist attacks, later admitted that “One does not have to be a genius to see that the fence will have implications for the future border.” While she characterized these “implications” as merely incidental, this is hardly plausible in light of Israel’s policy of four decades of occupation and illegal settlement of Palestinian territory.
But Israel needed political cover for its plan to consolidate its control over land in the West Bank and to disengage from any kind of effort towards a negotiated settlement. This was where the withdrawal from Gaza would come in. It was part of a little-disguised public relations campaign. Once implemented, Israel declared that although it would “monitor and supervise the outer envelope on land, will have exclusive control of the Gaza airspace, and will continue its military activity along the Gaza Strip’s coastline” and would “continue to maintain military presence along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt”, there would be “no basis to the claim that the Strip is occupied land”. The move would also offer the U.S. government political cover so Israel could gain its much-needed support for the “disengagement” plan.
The Sharon government continued with its plan to derail efforts to negotiate a two-state settlement (in this sense, it was rightfully called a “disengagement” plan), winning cabinet approval for the Gaza pullout in February. The New York Times reported that “Mr. Sharon wants to complete the West Bank separation barrier” while at the same time “consolidating Israel’s control over the large settlement blocs.” Palestinians, the Times added, “view the move as a land grab and an attempt by Mr. Sharon to unilaterally set a future border on territory they want for a state.”
Three days later, a Times editorial acknowledged that the Palestinian “view” was perhaps the correct one. It said that the Times “has long been very wary of any moves by the Israeli government to further consolidate land it seized after the 1967 war without negotiations with the Palestinians.” The editors “were a little queasy about” how Sharon “coupled” plans to withdraw from Gaza with further construction of the wall, “a chessboard-worthy move”. Essentially, “Mr. Sharon is sacrificing Gaza in return for the world’s acceptance of Israel’s ‘de facto annexation of 7 percent of West Bank territory’” (the quote was from an Israeli columnist writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot). The editorial asserted that the wall “should not be treated as a permanent boundary when the time comes for peace talks about a final settlement with the Palestinians”. Despite these acknowledgments about the true nature of the plan, the editors expressed their “enthusiasm” for the withdrawal.
One month later, another editorial in the Times noted that Israel had since acted to expand settlements in the West Bank and that “Mr. Sharon is unfairly trying to stack the deck before peace talks even begin”, as predicted. It asserted that “Israel can’t simply exchange Gaza for more settlements in the West Bank”, the understood purpose for the plan to withdraw the Times had just a short time before greeted with such “enthusiasm”.
In April, U.S. President George W. Bush sent a letter to Sharon that welcomed the “disengagement plan” and gave a green light for the policy of settlement expansion and construction of the wall. While paying lip service to the notion of a Palestinian state, it effectively endorsed the Israeli policy of prejudicing the outcome of any future negotiated peace settlement.
A month later, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer said in an interview with Israeli media that it was U.S. policy that “Israeli major populations areas [in the West Bank] in our view should remain within the State of Israel.” This is the policy, he said, that had been communicated in the letter from President George W. Bush to Sharon. So as to leave no uncertainty, Kurtzer reiterated that “U.S. policy is the support that the President has given for the retention by Israel of major Israeli population centers as an outcome of negotiations. It is very, very clear to both the United States and Israel what this means.”
Kurtzer’s remarks caused “a diplomatic furor”, forcing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to contradict it by saying that Israel’s settlement expansion was “at odds with American policy.” The New York Times correctly observed that Sharon “has justified his plan” to withdraw from Gaza “on the basis of his belief that Washington will support Israel’s intention to keep its main settlement blocks” in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem, but described the contradiction between rhetoric and action as “Diplomatic ambiguities”.
There were no “ambiguities” about the matter in Israel, which had been made “very, very clear” about it. Sharon responded to Rice’s remarks by telling his cabinet, “We can’t expect to receive explicit American agreement to build freely in the settlements.” But, he added, settlement blocs in the West Bank “will remain in Israel’s hands and will fall within the (separation) fence”. He added that “we made this position clear to the Americans.” There were no misunderstandings.
Not all commentators in the U.S. mainstream media were mystified by the “ambiguities” of U.S. policy. The reality of the situation did manage occasionally to slip out. Thus, one could read in the Washington Post that Sharon had a “bold agenda” to “obtain support of President Bush for a unilateral Israeli solution.” Having abandoned “ a decade of efforts at negotiations – not to mention Bush’s own ‘road map’ for a two-state solution – Sharon aimed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, then impose a border of Israel’s choosing in the West Bank, fortified by walls and fences. Rather than seek accord with the Palestinians, whom he knew would never accept his terms, Sharon sought to anchor his initiative in a deal with Bush, whom he asked for an endorsement of Israel’s eventual annexation of West Bank territory and its determination never to accept the return of Palestinian refugees.” This was a plan with which “Bush signed on.” Sharon had “straightforwardly” said “that his whole purpose is to avoid the result of a negotiated settlement” and his “closest aide, Dov Weissglas, has been equally forthright. ‘The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process,’ he told the newspaper Haaretz last October. ‘It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians.’” U.S. officials “understand very well what Sharon’s goals are but choose not to notice them”.
But such candid observations were far from the norm in U.S. accounts, and after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the mainstream press and government officials alike exercised collective amnesia when Israel announced that it had agreed to a deal under the Bush administration to allow for “natural growth” of the settlements. Thus a headline in the Washington Post in April 2008 could read, “Israelis Claim Secret Agreement With U.S.” with a subheading that read “Americans Insist No Deal Made on Settlement Growth”.
Following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005, a headline in the British daily The Independent summarized one key aspect of the “disengagement plan” in a few words: “Sharon pledges to expand West Bank settlements as last Israelis leave Gaza”.
Underscoring another key element of the plan, Haaretz reported that “The main message Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will bring to meetings with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly this week is that Israeli responsibility for the Gaza Strip has come to an end.” Sharon had “adopted the Foreign Ministry’s position that it would be out of place to declare ‘the end of the occupation’ in Gaza, at least as long as the Palestinians do not control the border crossings, airspace and territorial waters. Instead, the ministry prefers ‘the end of Israeli responsibility.’” In other words, Israel would reject any suggestion that it had responsibility for the suffering of the people in a territory that it proceeded to place under a state of siege, a calamitous situation that persists to this day.
Hamas’s Democratic Gains
It was under these circumstances that the Hamas began most dramatically to evolve away from a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction towards a legitimate political force seeking a negotiated settlement. While the Palestinian Authority (PA) under President Mahmoud Abbas had increasingly become seen as corrupt and ineffectual, Hamas had increasingly become seen as a viable alternative that would clean up the corruption and more faithfully defend the rights of Palestinians as it pursued the goal of statehood, such as by refusing to recognize that the unilateral declaration of the establishment of state of Israel and subsequent ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 had any legitimacy, refusing to renounce the right to armed resistance, and insisting on the right recognized under international law of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland.
Hamas stormed the political arena in force in 2005. In January of that year, prior to scheduled municipal elections, a report from the U.S. State Department observed that Hamas was “Neck and Neck” with Fatah, the party under the leadership of President Abbas, with “a majority of both [Fatah] and Hamas supporters” backing “a continuation of the ceasefire, ongoing talks with Israel, and a two-state solution.” It noted that Palestinians “tend to see Hamas as more qualified to clean up corruption, resist occupation, and uphold societal values”, and that the “lack of hope in the peace process may also contribute to support for Hamas.” In other words, by rejecting the two-state solution, Israel was effectively helping, once again, to empower Hamas. A little over a week later, Hamas won an overwhelming victory in the municipal elections, gaining 75 out of 118 seats in 10 local councils, and with Fatah winning only 39 seats.
Hamas continued to gain council seats in further municipal elections in May. But rather than encouraging Hamas’s engagement in the political process, Israel continued to seek to isolate the group. Instead of encouraging Hamas to moderate its behavior, Israel continued to attempt to provoke the group into a violent response. Israel sent the message to Hamas that its steps towards moderation and political engagement would bear no fruit. When Hamas cleaned the streets, Israeli bulldozers and tanks destroyed them, and when Hamas erected streetlights, Israeli soldiers shot them out.
A further round of municipal elections were held in the West Bank in September, with Hamas again performing well, receiving nearly a third of the votes. As the parliamentary election scheduled for January 25, 2006 drew near, Hamas published a manifesto that Western news agencies found remarkable for the absence of mention of any goal to eliminate Israel. Hamas candidate Gazi Hamad said it reflected the group’s position of seeking a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. He said Hamas would not recognize that Israel had a “right to exist”, but that it was seeking to shift strategies away from armed struggle to engagement in the political process. Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib said, “Having Hamas inside the system is a positive development whereby they have to abide by the rules of the majority and respect the arguments of the administration they are part of, which includes a state built on 1967 borders. It will take time but Hamas will no longer have their own militia. It will be solely a political force.”
Israel and the U.S., however, had other plans and other goals. Israel initially announced that it would prevent Palestinians from casting ballots in occupied East Jerusalem, but then changed its position. Under the new rules dictated by the occupying power, Palestinians would be allowed to vote, but Hamas candidates couldn’t appear on the ballot or campaign there. Three candidates who tried to do so were arrested. The U.S. spent $1.9 million through a program run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in an effort to bolster Fatah, a violation of the Palestinian election law. James Bever, the USAID mission director for the Palestinian territories described the program without irony as an effort “to support the democratic process”.
When the results of the election were in, despite U.S. efforts to sway the vote, Hamas had won 76 of 132 seats in the legislature. The New York Times observed that the U.S. and European Union have “equivocated”, on one hand having “pressed Israel to allow Hamas to participate in the elections” while on the other having “threatened to cut aid and ties to a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority.” But, the Times added, “Hamas’s participation in Palestinian politics is not necessarily a bad thing, and resisting it is very likely to do more harm than good. As a political party, Hamas revealed itself to be disciplined, pragmatic and surprisingly flexible. It fielded well-regarded candidates, including doctors and academics. In some cases, Hamas aligned itself with independents once affiliated with the secular Fatah party. And although the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the liberation of Palestine ‘from the river to the sea,’ the party’s campaign manifesto made no mention of these goals.” The editorial suggested the U.S. should engage Hamas to encourage this evolution and that refusing to do so, “will only further legitimize the party” and “could even give rise to violence.” In addition, “cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, which is already in a fiscal crisis and enormously dependent on foreign aid, could bankrupt it, further destabilizing the region.”
Fully conscious of the predicted consequences, Israel responded to the elections by announcing that it would not negotiate with Palestinians on a peaceful settlement. “These results have definitely brought an end to the peace process,” observed former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, “The state of Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if even part of it is an armed terrorist organization calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Rather than calling for Israel’s destruction following the election, however, Hamas instead reiterated its goal of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the 1967 borders. The top Hamas official in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said if Israel “is ready to give us the national demand to withdraw from the occupied area [in] ’67; to release our detainees; to stop their aggression; to make geographic link between Gaza Strip and West Bank, at that time, with assurance from other sides, we are going to accept to establish our independent state at that time, and give us one or two, 10, 15 years time in order to see what is the real intention of Israel after that.” Hamas, he reiterated, was willing to “accept to establish our independent state on the area occupied [in] ’67”, a tacit recognition of the state of Israel.
The head of the political bureau of Hamas, Khalid Mish’al, wrote in The Guardian that Hamas was “ready to make a just peace”, saying that “The day Hamas won the Palestinian democratic elections the world’s leading democracies failed the test of democracy. Rather than recognize the legitimacy of Hamas as a freely elected representative of the Palestinian people, seize the opportunity created by the result to support the development of good governance in Palestine and search for a means of ending the bloodshed, the US and EU threatened the Palestinian people with collective punishment for exercising their right to choose their parliamentary representatives.” He closed by saying, “We shall never recognize the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights…. But if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms. Hamas is extending a hand of peace to those who are truly interested in a peace based on justice.”
The U.S.-Israeli Assault on Palestinian Democracy
The U.S. and Israel had no interest in such a peace. Israel announced that it would not transfer tax funds that it collected on behalf of the P.A., effectively stealing Palestinian taxpayers’ money. The U.S. asked the P.A. to return $50 million in funds given for infrastructure projects after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. Abbas, mindful of having illegally accepted U.S. backing for Fatah and of U.S. opposition to his own political opponents, consented.
“The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again,” the New York Times reported in February. “The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election.”
Hamas official Nasser Abdaljawad responded that the Muslim world would provide for its needs, and that it would save money by ending the corruption that existed under Abbas. Hamas spokesman Farhat Asaad laughed and told the Times, “First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It’s not possible for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy.” Assad was woefully mistaken on the last count.
Abbas, for his part, was willing to do the bidding of the U.S. and Israel, telling Hamas that it must accept existing agreements with Israel made by PLO, or he would replace the prime minister and possibly even call new elections.
Before the election, Abbas had tried to consolidate power by having the Fatah-controlled parliament grant him special authorities, including the power to appoint judges to a constitutional court without seeking legislative approval. This would have allowed Abbas-appointed judges to decide whether laws passed under the new parliament were constitutional, effectively giving him a veto power over new laws. The new Hamas-controlled parliament proceeded to revoke those special powers. As that session began, Fatah members walked out, while Fatah gunmen near the parliament building in Gaza City fired shots into the air in an apparent attempt to intimidate the decision. Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, a senior aid to Abbas, afterward responded by describing the move by Hamas as “a coup attempt”. But Hamas legislator Mahmoud Ramahi explained that “The law is very clear. It gives us the right to endorse or reject the resolutions or the decisions of that [previous] session.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the U.S. decision to cut off aid to the new government by saying, “The principle is very clear. We’re not going to fund a Hamas-led government.”
When asked in an interview whether Hamas would accept the conditions placed upon it by the U.S. and other nations to recognize Israel, abide by existing agreements, and renounce violence, the newly appointed prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, responded by asking why these conditions weren’t also placed upon Israel, which “has bypassed practically all agreements.” He also asked, “Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders and then we will know what we are talking about.” He reiterated that if Israel were to withdraw to the 1967 borders, Hamas would enter into a long-term truce with the state. When asked if he would extend the ceasefire Hamas had been observing since 2005, he answered, “If Israel gives us a quiet period and stops its incursions and the assassinations, then we will be able to convince our people to continue with a state of quiet.” He added that “If Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights, then we are ready to recognize them.”
“While the Americans and Europeans were demanding that Hamas commit to nonviolence,” the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs pointed out, “Israel was busy killing Palestinians. In the four weeks following the Jan. 25 election, Israeli forces using air strikes and ground fire killed at least 27 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank”, including “a 9-year-old girl who had strayed into a ‘forbidden area’ in Gaza”.
Hamas had been observing the cease-fire for 16 months when, on June 9, Israel launched artillery into Gaza, killing seven Palestinians having a picnic on the beach and injuring dozens of others. Hamas considered the truce to have been terminated by Israel and resumed rocket attacks.
On June 24, Israeli soldiers raided Gaza and abducted two Palestinians, Osama and Mustafa Abu Muamar, whose father was a member of Hamas, but who the group said were not themselves members. The next day, Hamas militants entered Israel through a tunnel, killed two Israeli soldiers, and captured a third, Corporal Gilad Shalit.
In response, Israel invaded Gaza, destroying three bridges and bombing the territory’s only power plant, cutting power to half of the territory, an assault on civilian infrastructure constituting a war crime under international law, and an attack that “raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis”. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem called the attack “a war crime” and suggested that a possible “objective was to collectively punish the entire Palestinian population”. Amnesty International called for “an end to the wanton destruction and collective punishment” by Israel as Israeli troops proceeded to abduct sixty-four Palestinian legislators and eight ministers.
The reaction from the U.S. media was to suggest that “responsibility for this latest escalation rests squarely with Hamas” for the attack on soldiers in Israel, without mentioning the Israeli murder of civilians in Gaza that resulted in the collapse of the cease-fire Hamas had honored, or the abduction of Palestinian civilians just one day before, or the thousands of other Palestinians who had similarly been abducted and disappeared into Israeli prisons to be held indefinitely without charge. The New York Times did mention that, “Ironically, Hamas has chosen this bleak moment to finally endorse a document that implicitly recognizes Israel within its pre-1967 borders”, but added that this didn’t represent progress because “Hamas’s military wing has crossed those very borders”. The paper declined to mention the fact that Israel had occupied land beyond those borders for nearly forty years and noted the “renewed presence of Israeli forces in Gaza” only in passing. The editorial closed by stating that Israel “needs to be delivering” the message that “things must not be allowed to go on like this” to Hamas, a tacit endorsement of Israel’s military assaults against Gaza.
At the same time, Israel was engaged in military operations in Lebanon and by July 18, the New York Times reported, the “asymmetry in the reported death tolls is marked and growing: some 230 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians, to 25 Israeli dead, 13 of them civilians. In Gaza, one Israel soldier has died from his own army’s fire, and 103 Palestinians have been killed,” including at least 30 civilians and the rest claimed “militants”. “The cold figures,” the Times noted, “combined with Israeli air attacks on civilian infrastructure like power plants, electricity transformers, airports, bridges, highways and government buildings, have led to accusations … that Israel is guilty of ‘disproportionate use of force’ in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and of ‘collective punishment’ of the civilian populations.” The article then goes on at length with Israeli denials of any wrongdoing, before adding: “Referring to complaints that Israel was using disproportionate force, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s United Nations ambassador, said at a rally of supporters in New York this week, ‘You’re damn right we are.’”
Israeli commentator Gideon Levy wrote in Haaretz in early September that Israel “has been rampaging through Gaza – there’s no other word to describe it – killing and demolishing, bombing and shelling, indiscriminately.” He likened Gaza to “a prison” and deplored the “disgraceful and shocking collective punishment” Israel was inflicting upon the Palestinians there, adding that the U.S. also bears “responsibility for the situation.” Two months after Israel began its military operations, “224 Palestinians, 62 of them children and 25 of them women”, were dead. “A day doesn’t go by without deaths, most of them innocent civilians.” By mid-September, according the International Federation of Human Rights, 307 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza since Cpl. Shalit had been captured on June 25, with 80 percent of the casualties being civilians.
A majority of both Palestinians and Israelis favored negotiations between Israel and a Palestinian unity government including Hamas. Hamas worked to build a national unity government, but Abbas continued to demand that Hamas accept the Oslo Accords and recognize the state of Israel, a rejection of public opinion among Palestinians, a majority of whom agreed with Hamas that it should not recognize Israel. As the talks between Hamas and Fatah broke down, violent clashes began occurring, a situation worsened by the “severe economic crisis” brought on by the cessation of aid and “frequent Israeli closures of the crossing points into Gaza”, leaving “hundreds of young men, who have ready access to weapons, without salaries.” Talk of an outright civil war began to appear in the media.
Abbas again threatened to dismiss the Hamas government and call for new elections while the U.S. began a $42 million campaign to bolster Fatah in the event Abbas made good on his threat. Some of this money was also “reportedly being used to set up training facilities for Abbas’s special guard, Force 17, in the West Bank town of Jericho and in Gaza.” The U.S. had already sent weapons to Fatah in May in an arms transfer Olmert said he had approved. “I did this because we are running out of time and we need to help [Mahmoud Abbas],” Olmert had said. Meeting with Condoleezza Rice in October, Abbas requested more arms from the U.S., according to a senior P.A. official, which Rice said would likely be answered in the affirmative. Abbas failed, however, to garner the support needed from Fatah leaders, most of whom opposed his move to dismiss the Hamas government, and talks on a unity government resumed.
On November 26, Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza as part of a new cease-fire agreement with Hamas.
With no progress on a unity government, Abbas announced in mid-December that he would call for early elections with Hamas less than a year into its four-year parliamentary term. Hamas rejected the move, saying it would not participate in new elections and asserting that any such move by Abbas would be illegal. Under Palestinian law, the President has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister, but no authority to call for early parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, the deadlock appeared to be coming closer to a resolution in February 2007, when Hamas and Fatah once again seemed reached an agreement on forming a national unity government.
In March, Arab leaders sought to revive a peace plan first proposed in 2002 offering Israel peace and normalization of diplomatic relations if Israel were to end the occupation by complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on it to withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967, accept a Palestinian state within those borders, and agree to seek a “just solution” for Palestinians refugees. Israel rejected the offer, with Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres calling it a “diktat” and saying, “There is only one way to overcome our differences, and that is negotiation.” Israel, of course, had already adopted a policy of refusing to enter negotiations with the elected Palestinian government. It would be remiss not to also mention that complying with international law is non-negotiable.
During the cease-fire, other Palestinian militant groups had been responsible for firing rockets at Israel, but Hamas itself fired none. Israel claimed that the cease-fire did not apply to the West Bank and continued operations there. In April, Israel launched a series of raids against Gaza and the West Bank in which nine Palestinians were killed. Hamas responded by firing rockets into Israel for the first time since the November cease-fire had begun. Israel then began launching regular assaults against Gaza. By the end of May, 47 Palestinians, including 15 civilians, seven of whom were children, had been killed in Israeli attacks, while one Israeli woman had been killed by a rocket attack. Israel also arrested 33 Palestinians in the West Bank, including a cabinet minister, three legislators, and three mayors.
With the collapse of the cease-fire also came the breakdown of relations between Hamas and Fatah, and factional violence once again escalated. With more than 50 Palestinians killed in the fighting, Abbas and Haniyeh met to discuss how to restore the peace with each other and with Israel. But the U.S. and Israel sought to foment the factional violence. The U.S. approved $40 million to train forces under Abbas’s control while Israel openly considered supporting Fatah against Hamas. “If you look at exit scenarios for what’s going on there now,” said one Israeli official quoted in the Washington Post, referring to the U.S. program, “you could have a force loyal to Abbas in northern Gaza that could be highly useful to Israel.” Hamas seized a shipment of U.S. arms intended for Fatah, prompting one Hamas official to say, “We obtained the US weapons and will keep hijacking any assistance the Americans provide to Fatah. Our fighters are aware of the American and Israeli conspiracies to topple our government.”
In June, Abbas’s U.S.-trained Presidential Guards fired rocket-propelled grenades at Haniyeh’s home near Gaza City. Hamas militants retaliated by firing mortars at the presidential office compound of Abbas. A Fatah spokesman claimed that “Hamas is seeking a military coup against the Palestinian Authority” while Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri pointed out that “These [Fatah] groups have relations with the U.S. administration and Israel…. It’s an international and regional plan aiming to eliminate Hamas.” The U.S. asked Israel to approve another arms shipment to Abbas’s Presidential Guards, although Israeli officials were worried weapons would just be seized by Hamas, as the previous shipment had been.
But despite U.S. and Israeli backing, Fatah gunmen were defeated by Hamas, which consolidated its control over Gaza. Abbas declared a state of emergency, dismissed the unity government, appointed a new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and said he would seek early elections. Hamas rejected the move, insisting that “Prime Minister Haniyeh remains the head of the government”. Under the Palestinian Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, the parliament must approve a new government. Hamas thus noted that Abbas’s actions had “no basis in law” and declared that the national unity government remained the lawful authority. Separate governments were effectively established in Gaza and the West Bank, with Fatah’s claim that Hamas had instigated “a coup against the Palestinian Authority” being the narrative adopted in the U.S. media.
The U.S. immediately lifted its embargo on the Abbas government. The Washington Post noted that “analysts have questioned the legality under Palestinian law of Abbas’s dismissal of the Hamas-dominated government”, but that “[Secretary of State] Rice and other U.S. officials brushed aside such concerns”, with Rice declaring that the embargo was ended in part to “support his efforts to enforce the rule of law”. She also accused Hamas of seeking “to divide the Palestinian nation”, which, she said, the U.S. rejected. The U.S. position, she said, was that “there is one Palestinian people and there should be one Palestinian state”.
The rhetoric bore no resemblance to the reality on the ground. As the New York Time observed, by “siding so firmly with Mr. Abbas”, the Bush administration “essentially threw its support behind the dismantling of a democratically elected government.” McClatchy Newspapers reported that the U.S. policy was “an all-out campaign to reverse” the election results “and oust Hamas from power”. At the heart of this policy “was a plan to organize military support for Abbas for what opponents of the strategy feared could have become a Palestinian civil war”.
But a civil war was precisely the desired outcome of the plan. In April 2008, Vanity Fair reported that it had obtained documents showing “a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by [‘Fatah’s resident strongman in Gaza’ Muhammad] Dahlan, and armed with new weapons and supplied at America’s behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power.” But the plan had “backfired” and “inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza.” As former Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney David Wurmser put it, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”
In June 2008, Hamas once again entered into a cease-fire with Israel, which it scrupulously observed until November 4, when Israel invaded and launched airstrikes against Gaza, killing six Palestinians. With Israel having undermined the truce, the violence once again escalated, with daily attacks on Gaza and rocket fire on Israel. On December 27, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a full scale military assault on the Gaza Strip. The apparent goal, according to Richard Goldstone, who headed U.N. investigation into the assault, was to collectively punish the Palestinians of Gaza for having Hamas as their government. But if the intent was to cause the people of Gaza to turn against their elected representatives, it failed. Hamas remains a force to be reckoned with.
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