The Cleaving of Palestine

The Cleaving of Palestine

Strangling Gaza boosts Hamas and widens the gaps between Palestinians—and both these outcomes serve Israel's purposes.

Those wanting to keep discussion about the Palestinian territories off the front pages have mostly been successful during the two years since a lethal encounter at sea between Israeli forces and a Turkish-based flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Just enough international outrage followed that incident to lead Israel to relax somewhat its strangulation of the strip. This was especially true regarding the import of items into Gaza, which previously had been severely restricted—in the name of “security,” although the blockade included a host of consumer items with no conceivable security implications. Despite that relaxation, as reporting by Donald Macintyre describes, Israel is still stifling the Gazan economy. This is particularly the case with exports, which are at less than two percent the level of more than five years ago. The Israelis are permitting only extremely limited exports, mostly of produce, to a few European and Middle Eastern markets. They have cut off would-be Gazan exporters from what had been by far their biggest markets, in Israel and the West Bank. This completely reverses what had once been an Israeli policy of encouraging economic integrating across Israel and the occupied territories.

To the extent that the strangulation of the Gaza Strip has been a form of collective punishment intended to undermine the rule there of Hamas, it has manifestly failed. Hamas is as firmly entrenched there as at any time since it won a free all-Palestinian election in 2006. Moreover, some of the very restrictions that Israel continues to impose have probably strengthened rather than weakened Hamas. Many goods and materials that Israel bans as imports into Gaza simply come in through tunnels from Egypt, enriching tunnel operators with ties to Hamas. The severe restrictions Israel places on foreign travel by Gazans also probably do Hamas a favor by limiting the sorts of foreign ideas and contacts that might ultimately weaken support for the group.

The Israeli postures toward the remaining parts of the blockade and toward Hamas itself are clearly not all about security. Israeli military officers admit privately that as far as rocket firings into Israel are concerned, Hamas has in recent times primarily been a force curtailing the firings (by smaller militant groups). As for the severe restrictions on exports, Macintyre relates the story of one of the lucky few Gazan producers who with much difficulty has gotten permission to sell some of his goods (in his case tomatoes) outside the strip. He trucks the tomatoes in question through Israel and the West Bank and across the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, from which they are shipped to Saudi Arabia. To do this he has to meet all of the stringent security checks and requirements imposed by the Israeli military. Obviously there would be no more of a hazard to Israeli citizens if the tomatoes were eaten by consumers in Israel or the West Bank than if they are consumed in Saudi Arabia. Something else is going on here.

For Israeli leaders seeking to put off indefinitely a Palestinian state and the associated yielding of land in the West Bank, having Hamas to fulminate about serves a useful purpose. The terrorist card can always be played as a rationale for political and diplomatic inflexibility. By issuing threats against the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority whenever it makes any move toward reconciliation with Hamas, Israel helps to sustain a fissure in Palestinian leadership that in turn is a basis for justifying still more inflexibility on grounds that Israel doesn't have a Palestinian interlocutor who can speak for all Palestinians. So from the standpoint of such Israeli leaders, policies toward the Gaza Strip that may actually help Hamas are not necessarily a bad thing.

The chief consequence of the remaining export restrictions is to add to the political division an ever-deepening economic and social division between Palestinians. Preventing the selling of Gazan goods in the West Bank is part of a huge wedge that Israel is driving between the two parts of the Palestinian territories. The longer that businesses struggling to survive are separated from their traditional markets, the less likely that old patterns of commerce will ever be reestablished. With Gazan professionals prevented even from attending meetings in the West Bank, Gazan students barred from attending universities there and travel of any sort between the two Palestinian territories extremely restricted, Palestinian nationhood is being sliced apart.

All of this is at odds, of course, with a future that would involve the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state. The cleaving of Palestine, like the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory, is another way of establishing facts on the ground that make a viable Palestinian state less feasible and the negotiated establishment of one more difficult.

The current Israeli treatment of the Gaza Strip is more consistent with a future that is a modified version of the status quo, the modification having to do with events in Egypt. Despite additional Israeli fulminations about Islamist ascendancy in post-Mubarak Egypt, a dominant role for the Muslim Brotherhood—which will be all the more apparent if Mohamed Morsi wins the Egyptian presidential election—presents further possibilities for any Israeli vision involving an indefinitely fractured Palestinian nation. A Gaza Strip controlled by Hamas—which began as a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood—will naturally gravitate toward a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt as long as it is denied other directions in which to gravitate. And that means even more separation from Palestinian brethren in the West Bank.

For Israeli leaders who do not want to give up land for a Palestinian state, this alternative of a riven Palestine may appear to be a way to square the often-noted demographic circle in which faster-reproducing Palestinian Arabs are on the verge of outnumbering Israeli Jews. That demographic prognosis pertains to all of mandatory Palestine between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But the Gaza Strip is a a 139-square-mile patch of misery that Israelis have been less interested in than the rest, apart from the few Israeli settlers whom Ariel Sharon was able to remove when he evacuated the strip several years ago. Most Israelis probably would be happy for Gaza to be Egypt's problem, as it was before 1967. Strip away the strip from mandatory Palestine, and you also strip away 1.7 million Arabs, allowing Jewish Israelis to retain their majority in the rest for a much longer time. This does not imply that a fully binational state is in the future of the Jews and Arabs concerned. But for some Israeli leaders it may make indefinite perpetuation of the current apartheid arrangement appear more feasible.

Image: cromacon