The Middle East Channel

Fatah and Hamas are both taking on water

The Freedom Flotilla, and Israel's tragic reaction to it, highlight how the official Palestinian leadership has grown increasingly marginal in its own national struggle. In just a few days, 600-odd international activists garnered more attention -- and arguably did more to undermine the siege of Gaza -- than Fatah and Hamas have done in the past three years. The movements have largely become bystanders to their own cause, prisoners not only of the occupation but also their own political divisions. When PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas recently sought support for entering into proximity talks with Israel from the Arab League before approaching the organization he heads, many Palestinians criticized his move as a grave relinquishment of independent Palestinian decision-making. But a sense of fatalism today seems to pervade the ranks. When asked how the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah should react to the flotilla crisis, a senior movement leader replied, "It was the Turks' idea; let's see what they do." In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have become agents of their own subordination to Israel as well as of their own internal disarray. This need not be, but changing the equation will require different regional and international incentives.

The geographic division of the Palestinian territories is firm. Municipalities around the West Bank hung black flags -- rivaled in number only by Turkish flags -- but many criticized their government's reaction as little more than empty political theater. Gaza observed a general strike -- heavy-handedly imposed on recalcitrants -- but ministries in the West Bank remained open, as did schools. A few scattered demonstrations were attended by protesters numbering in the tens; the largest, in Ramallah's main square, turned out no more than 200. The PA deployed a heavy security contingent to keep a tight lid on approved gatherings and prevent others; government forces stopped youths from reaching checkpoints to clash with Israeli troops. A dejected participant in one of the Ramallah rallies lamented, "It's like something bad happened in Somalia, not something that affects you, your own country and people." Territorial estrangement in Palestine is hardly new. Even during the heyday of Oslo, when movement across Israel was still possible, West Bankers were never pleased when Gazans showed up looking for work. But if social prejudices are longstanding, the sense of political separation is new.

The assault on the flotilla invigorated calls to end the blockade and in doing so, has put wind in Hamas's sails. Egypt already has been forced to bend, opening the Rafah crossing for what appears today to be an open-ended period instead of the usual three days every six weeks. Emboldened, Hamas is refusing to accept any supplies from the flotilla's ships until Israel frees all activists and pledges to a reliable third party that all the cargo will be allowed to enter the strip; according to Hamas, only 10 percent will enter if Israel allows only goods permitted under the siege. 

Of potentially greater import is the change in diplomatic volume and tone. Calls from the world's governments to end the siege in the past often came in the same breath with demands that Hamas change its political positions and allow the PA back into Gaza. But in the past days, few have made demands of Hamas. Gaza is again the victim, and while the protesters claim to act on behalf of Gaza and not Hamas as a movement, it is hardly surprising that the Islamists take heart. Who does Fatah and the PLO have pulling for them? The beneficiaries of global solidarity in an earlier historical moment, today they are bereft of active supporters. It is the PA, rather, that is the recipient of international largesse; Fatah's utility today mainly stems from its role as a prop for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government. Hamas leaders in both Gaza and Damascus have sounded upbeat, but Hamas -- like the PA -- has a tendency to overreach when circumstances favor it. If the past three years are any guide, the wheel of fortune will revolve again and Hamas at some point will find itself disadvantaged once more.  Indeed, there is little new -- even among countries that support the siege -- about the recognition that it is bankrupt, both politically and morally. What would be new is a rapid and forceful push to reverse it.

Meanwhile Fatah is facing one of its most trying moments ever. Last year, before the movement's first General Conference -- its highest decision-making forum -- in 20 years, the Fatah rank and file at least could believe in the promise of reform. Its partisans had few illusions about how hard it would be, but they hoped that the reward would be commensurate with the enormity of the task.  But nearly a year after electing a new leadership, the movement has little to boast about and its activists are disappointed with the yield. Skepticism abounds that it will score a decisive victory in next month's municipal elections despite Hamas's decision to sit them out. Nor is Fatah's presence felt in the streets. Its senior leaders have gone absent from the popular resistance activities that they heavily promoted, reportedly under pressure from Israel.

With neither Fatah nor Hamas able to mobilize popular passions, the most dynamic group today may well be the "1948 Arabs" -- that is, Palestinian citizens of Israel -- and their leadership, which is increasingly speaking with a loud and clear message. During Operation Cast Lead, the rallies in the Palestinian-Israeli town of Sakhnin were the largest in historical Palestine. After the flotilla was seized, the strike in East Jerusalem and Israel -- undertaken not on orders of Fatah or the PLO, but rather Israel's Higher Arab Monitoring Committee -- was comprehensive. In particular Ra'id Salah -- the head of the northern Islamic movement in Israel and one of four Palestinian-Israeli leaders who participated in the convoy -- has emerged as a leader of national stature. While in some quarters he is seen as an Islamist in the mold of Hamas, his cachet extends beyond the factional. He is especially well regarded in Jerusalem for the economic support he mobilized during the second intifada and his championing of al-Aqsa Mosque -- regardless of how tendentious Israeli Jews may consider his allegations about their government's designs on Muslim holy sites.

As for reconciliation, the flotilla generated lots of talk that has largely confirmed what we already knew. Independents renewed their push for unity, but the effort fell apart before it began. Nablus businessman Munib al-Masri obtained Abbas's blessing to lead a Fatah/PLO delegation to Gaza. But as a political outlier, Masri's leverage was fatally weakened. If the split has made one thing clear, it is that the only positions that matter are Abbas's and Hamas's. The Islamic movement quickly put paid to his mission: A spokesman denounced the proposed visit as a "maneuver," and senior leaders expressed fatigue with successive delegations that simply repeat the mantra, "Sign the Egyptian document."

The issue, as Hamas and Fatah leaders both acknowledge, is not a matter of finessing linguistic differences in a document that has become something of a holy writ in Ramallah and Cairo, but rather reconciling competing visions of the national movement. Recent events notwithstanding, there seems to be little appetite for doing so. Abbas is betting, if not on bilateral negotiations with Israel, then at least on international appeals, state-building, and an eventual U.S. plan to demonstrate the effectiveness of his agenda and the futility of Hamas's. Abbas's commitment to this path -- and his lack of alternatives -- is illustrated by his moving forward with his agenda despite the fact it involves negotiations with a state that he just days ago accused of committing a "massacre" on the high seas. Fatah leaders justify this decision by pointing to the indirect nature of the talks; as one said,  "There is nothing to withdraw from. We are negotiating with the U.S., not Israel." But in the street, nobody is fooled, least of all Hamas, which has correctly assessed the public's disdain for Abbas's course and is content to wait for him to fail. If it can demonstrate the fruits of its resistance agenda by opening Gaza without sacrificing its principles, so much the better. Both movements are betting on the same horse, but on opposite results -- which is perhaps the only thing more futile than the siege itself.

In order to change their wager, the international community should alter the house rules. Neither Fatah nor Hamas seeks stasis for its own sake; both are playing a waiting game because they have been given an incentive to do so. By pushing a diplomatic process that promotes one movement and targets the other, the United States has created a zero-sum game and stripped both sides of a reason to reconcile. Only a comprehensive strategy that addresses the full array of regional interests has any hope of breaking the logjam. As it currently stands, any win for the PA is Hamas's loss; any gain for Hamas comes at Fatah's expense. A national movement cannot succeed under such conditions, nor can anything that credibly claims to be a peace process -- and those who seek a durable settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be pulling for both.

Robert Blecher is a senior Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, whose latest report on the issue, "Tipping Point? Palestinians and the Search for a New Strategy," came out in April.

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The Middle East Channel

What exactly is the blockade of Gaza?

In recent days, coverage of the attack on the aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip has focused on the lack of availability of certain humanitarian goods. This fact sheet is a reference tool based on data collected by international aid agencies and human rights groups on the impact of the siege on the population of Gaza.

Electricity: The siege has led to a significant lack of power in the Gaza Strip. In 2006, Israel carried out an attack on Gaza's only power plant and never permitted the rebuilding to its pre-attack capacity (down to producing 80 megawatts maximum from 140 megawatts). According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), the daily electricity deficit has increased since January of 2010 with the plant only able to operate one turbine producing only 30 megawatts compared to its previous average of 60-65 megawatts in 2009. The majority of houses have power cuts at least eight hours per day. Some have no electricity for long as 12 hours a day. The lack of electricity has led to reliance on generators, many of which have exploded from overwork, killing and maiming civilians. Oxfam reported that "[in 2009], a total of 75 Palestinians died from carbon monoxide gas poisoning or fires from generators, and 15 died and 27 people were injured in the first two months of this year."

Water: Israel has not permitted supplies into the Gaza Strip to rebuild the sewage system. Amnesty International reports that 90-95 percent of the drinking water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for consumption. The United Nations even found that bottled water in Gaza contained contaminants, likely due to the plastic bottles recycled in dysfunctional factories. The lack of sufficient power for desalination and sewage facilities results in significant amounts of sewage seeping into Gaza's costal aquifer--the main source of water for the people of Gaza.

Industry: Prior to the siege, the industrial sector employed 20 percent of Gaza's labor force. One year after the siege began, the Palestinian Federation of Industries reported that "61% of the factories have completely closed down. 1% was forced to change their scope of work in order to meet their living expenses, 38% were partially closed (sometimes means they operate with less than 15% capacity)". A World Health Organization report from this year states: "In the Gaza Strip, private enterprise is practically at a standstill as a consequence of the blockade. Almost all (98%) industrial operations have been shut down. The construction sector, which before September 2000 provided 15% of all jobs, has effectively halted. Only 258 industrial establishments in Gaza were operational in 2009 compared with over 2400 in 2006. As a result, unemployment rates have soared to 42% (up from 32% before the blockade)."

Health: Gaza's health sector, dramatically overworked, was also significantly damaged by Operation Cast Lead. According to UN OCHA, infrastructure for 15 of 27 of Gaza's hospitals, 43 of 110 of its primary care facilities, and 29 of its 148 ambulances were damaged or destroyed during the war. Without rebuilding materials like cement and glass due to Israeli restrictions, the vast majority of the destroyed health infrastructure has not been rebuilt. Many medical procedures for advanced illnesses are not available in Gaza. 1103 individuals applied for permits to exit the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing for medical treatment in 2009. 21 percent of these permits were denied or delayed resulting in missed hospital appointments, and several have died waiting to leave Gaza for treatment.

Food: A 2010 World Health Organization report stated that "chronic malnutrition in the Gaza Strip has risen over the past few years and has now reached 10.2%. Micronutrient deficiencies among children and women have reached levels that are of concern." According to UN OCHA: "Over 60 percent of households are now food insecure, threatening the health and wellbeing of children, women and men. In this context, agriculture offers some practical solutions to a humanitarian problem. However, Israel's import and access restrictions continue to suffocate the agriculture sector and directly contribute to rising food insecurity. Of particular concern, farmers and fishers' lives are regularly put at risk, due to Israel's enforcement of its access restrictions. The fact that this coastal population now imports fish from Israel and through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border speaks to the absurdity of the situation." 72 percent of Gaza's fish profit comes from beyond the three nautical mile mark, but further restrictions by Israel's naval blockade prevents Gazans from fishing beyond that mark. Between 2008 and 2009 the fishing catch was down 47 percent.

Yousef Munayyer is the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center

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