All eyes are focused on US Secretary of State John Kerry's peripatetic efforts to bring Israel and the PLO to an agreement. Less well-considered is the US view on Gaza, and the ill-placed, subordinate position it occupies in the US effort.
US officials claim to be "watching closely" the engineered penury that Gaza is suffering — initially at the hands of Israel, which has kept the 2 million Gazans “on a diet” for years, and joined more recently by the new regime in Cairo, which has all but shut down the tunnel economy created to accommodate Israel's and Egypt's lack of interest in Gaza's economic rehabilitation. Even mother nature is conspiring against those seeking relief from the strip's man-made miseries, bringing unprecedented winter rain and snow to Gaza's already overburdened, underperforming public infrastructure.
The Oslo process has aimed at the empowerment of secular Palestinian nationalists led by Fatah and the destruction of Hamas, a movement described by President George W. Bush as “[more] devoted to extremism and murder than to serving the Palestinian people.”
Washington, with the international community in tow, has been a full partner in Gaza's story of malign neglect, whose parameters were first sketched by Bush soon after Fatah’s violent ouster from Gaza by Hamas' Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in June 2007.
“The alternatives before the Palestinian people are stark,” Bush declared. "There is the vision of Hamas, which the world saw in Gaza — with murderers in black masks, and summary executions and men thrown to their death from rooftops. By following this path, the Palestinian people would guarantee chaos and suffering, and the endless perpetuation of grievance. They would surrender their future to Hamas's foreign sponsors in Syria and Iran. And they would crush the possibility of any Palestinian state.
"There's another option, and it's a hopeful option. It is the vision of President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad; it's the vision of their government; it's the vision of a peaceful state called Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people.”
Almost seven years on, the Hamas-Fatah/Gaza-West Bank competition that Bush envisioned between good and evil, hope and misery, is at best a draw. Both the West Bank, competently but indifferently ruled by Abu Mazen, and Gaza, the tenacious foothold of a besieged Hamas leadership out of ideas, are locked in a race to the bottom. Gaza is all but unique in lacking any reliable connection with the outside world. Only a year ago, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal made a triumphant visit. Little did he know it, but it was his best day. Since then Hamas' fortunes, and Gaza's too, have only declined.
As for the West Bank, even its international patrons are tiring of sinking billions into what has become a subsidy for continuing Israeli occupation rather than economic revival and political independence. Unless Kerry's efforts pay off, Europe may well put its millions elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Obama continues to think of Gaza in terms of the contest that George Bush first declared almost a decade ago. Gaza had to fail and the West Bank succeed, according to this model.
In his remarks at the Saban Forum, Obama explained, “If, in fact, we can create a pathway to peace, even if initially it’s restricted to the West Bank, if there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with self-determination, and suddenly their economy is booming and trade is taking place because they have created an environment in which Israel is confident about its security and a lot of the old barriers to commerce and educational exchange and all that has begun to break down, that’s something that the young people of Gaza are going to want. And the pressure that will be placed for the residents of Gaza to experience that same future is something that is going to be I think overwhelmingly appealing.”
But after decades of US patronage, the West Bank is a model to be avoided rather than embraced.
Gaza, for all its faults, and despite its privation, has assets that Abu Mazen would kill for. Israel is Gaza's declared enemy, but, and no thanks to Washington, it has withdrawn both its forces and settlers. It also recognizes that Hamas represents a strong, responsible power in Gaza, exercising unchallenged power within its “borders.” So strong, in fact, that were Israel to end its support for Abu Mazen's Ramallah-based government, Israeli officials are certain that Hamas would prevail there as well.
Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman told Israel's Channel Two that only Hamas had the power to enforce broad respect for the truce that ended that conflict and to limit rocket fire into Israel.
"What we want is calm and security in the Gaza Strip," he explained in mid-September. "Hamas, currently the sovereign power in the territory, has the means and the know-how. I see no alternative to control being exercised by Hamas."
If Washington were truly watching, it would not be oblivious to the vibrant, if bloody relationship that Israel and Hamas/Gaza have forged in the last decade of conflict, war and mutually suspicious engagement. They would conclude that it is Gaza, not the West Bank, which for some time has been the most dynamic front of the conflict. And Washington would conclude that any effort to forge a comprehensive agreement must necessarily include, if not start with Gaza.
“Allen cannot make suggestions regarding security, without addressing Gaza at all,” observed a senior Arab diplomat who has been briefed on the recent security proposals of Obama's security envoy, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, by Palestinian officials. “Ramallah has complained about this. And you can't expect a DOP [declaration of principles] to succeed without including Gaza, or pretending that it only addresses the West Bank.”
Nevertheless, US officials continue to see Gaza as a manageable afterthought — believing that Israel only needs to reach an agreement with Abu Mazen first and that Gaza will, somehow “take care of itself." Wishful thinking, however, falls far short of policy.