After nearly one year of a suffocating siege imposed on Gaza by the Israeli military establishment, a truce agreement was reached between Hamas and Israel. This followed months of dedicated Egyptian good offices. Rockets launched from Gaza against Israeli settlements were to stop in return for gradually lifting the blockade. A cease-fire sustained for six months would then roll over to the West Bank. Gilad Shalit, the hostage Israeli soldier, would be released in a separate deal involving exchange of Palestinian prisoners. Future negotiations would set the terms for opening the borders between Egypt and Gaza.
Hamas vowed to respect the agreement as did other Palestinian factions. In addition to Hamas, only Islamic Jihad is to be taken seriously. Fatah, the faction linked to President Abbas, has long and vehemently criticized rocket firing from Gaza.
Five days into the long awaited cease-fire, Israel allowed the entry of tissues and sanitary napkins into Gaza as a form of good will. Simultaneously, it carried out an early morning raid against a student hostel in Nablus, killing two Palestinians in their bed.
Seeking to justify what seemed to many an obvious provocation, Israeli spin-doctors once again invoked the ‘ticking time bomb’ rationale. It was claimed that the men, both in their early 20s, were plotting a terrorist attack that had been prevented only at the last moment. Israel was instantly rewarded with the response it expected. Rockets landed in Sderot, the first two fired by Islamic Jihad and the third by the al Aqsa brigades of Fatah, who denounced the truce with Israel as a form of treason, taunting Hamas for being more concerned with the survival of its cadre in Gaza than with the fate of fellow Palestinians in the West Bank.
Hamas is in a tight corner. Denied international recognition, embargoed and short of funds, its leaders feel responsible for meeting the needs of a throttled population as well as challenged by the daunting task of running a government with no experience behind them.
Perhaps the most painful dilemma faced by Hamas is how to govern well and consolidate their power while at the same keeping faith with their bedrock commitment to champion the armed struggle against the Israeli occupation.
Some of its leaders believe that entering the legislative elections in 2006 was a form of entrapment – even though Hamas won a decisive triumph at the polls. Echoes of this doctrinal purity can now be heard in charges from al Aqsa brigade fighters against Hamas for abandoning the noble mission of resistance in favor of squalid political compromise.
It is widely believed that firing rockets hurts Palestinians and impedes their quest for justice, and that competing militias – the al Aqsa brigade in particular – are out to embarrass Hamas by turning the ideological tables.
But Hamas leaders now insisting on self-restraint and denouncing those who breach the cease-fire as traitors must contend with the irony of time. Not so long ago, they used the same polarizing language to indict Abbas as a collaborator when he demanded a halt to what he called ‘futile’ rocket attacks.
On the Israeli front, it is increasingly and tragically clear that continued violence represents the default mode of the Israeli military establishment. However much peace may be rhetorically invoked, in practice it remains anathema, since it inevitably means the surrender of occupied land to the Palestinians.
Israel is a master at disguising aggressive intransigence as self-defense. The assassination carried out last week in Nablus aimed to incite retaliatory Palestinian violence. It did so. And this in turn served to confirm the master narrative, so familiar in media coverage of the conflict, which casts Israelis as perennial victims and Palestinians as treacherous and untrustworthy.
Such an Israeli strategy is not new. The current Intifada, provoked by Sharon’s visit to al Aqsa mosque and quickly militarized, has witnessed a veracious Israeli appetite for Palestinian land in the West bank. And as settlements expand and grow more entrenched, Israel has succeeded in making the Palestinians play the scripted role as violent spoilers who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
In my dialogue with some of Hamas leaders I have tried consistently to alert them to Israeli colonial designs, and the need to change course in order to outflank and out think our force-addicted opponents. I always found listening ears.
Caught in a pincer move between a siege of medieval barbarism imposed by the Israeli military, and a vicious, internecine Palestinian feud, Gaza has been brought to the breaking point. But residents have displayed amazing steadfastness, finding the strength to persevere from religious faith, traditions of familial solidarity, and an abiding belief in the justice of the Palestinian cause. Resilience, however, has its limits.
The siege must be completely and permanently lifted so that the million and half people who have endured a kind of collective water-boarding get the chance to come up for air. For this to happen, political leaders in Ramallah and Gaza must concentrate less on settling scores and more on meeting the needs of the citizens they represent, communicating a set of core messages to European and American audiences, and crafting an agile, principled and tough-minded strategy to negotiate with Israel.