Israel – West Bank – Gaza: The Future

Hamas's control of all Palestinian Authority security installations in Gaza has drawn new political lines of division across the region. What now? Yossi Alpher considers two options

Hamas militant places a green Islamic flag on a guard tower of the Preventive Security headquarters in Gaza City (photo: AP)
The capture of the Preventive Security headquarters was a major step forward in Hamas' attempts to complete its takeover of all of Gaza

​​What happened in Gaza was a revolution in more ways than one. The Hamas takeover was a coup d'etat at the internal Palestinian level which also generated a broader revolutionary situation in this part of the Middle East.

It demolished more than a few fundamental or historic assumptions about the nature and future of Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Palestinian and Palestinian-Arab relations.

In light of the strategic dimension of this change, it's possible for the moment only to speculate about developments in the near future. Anyone who purports today to speak with authority and certainty about what's ahead is skating on thin ice.

In order to sharpen appreciation of the issues at hand, here are two extreme scenarios for upcoming developments as seen from an Israeli perspective. The most likely course of developments almost certainly lies somewhere in between.

Half full, half empty

At the optimistic end of the spectrum, Israel relatively successfully and peacefully manages its relations with two very different Palestinian leaderships on two fronts.

In the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas consolidates Fatah's control, stabilises security and accepts to deal with Israel and the international community on behalf of the West Bank alone. The new Salam Fayyad government receives tax money from Israel and aid from Europe and America, and the West Bank prospers.

Abbas begins negotiating an interim agreement with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that involves Israeli withdrawal from territory and the dismantling of additional settlements.

Fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza City (photo: AP)
The resurgent violence in Gaza destroyed a brief truce between Fatah and Hamas and forced thousands of people to huddle in their homes to escape the crossfire

​​Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas, now in exclusive control, confronts the need to maintain security in order to continue to receive infrastructure and food supplies and export agricultural and other goods.

Israel links the opening of the Gaza passages to the absence of Qassam rockets falling on Sderot and its surroundings, as well as a prisoner exchange. Israel and Egypt impose an effective arms embargo. The government in Gaza confronts Palestinian public anger over its brutality and Egyptian determination to constrain it, and becomes more pragmatic.

In contrast, at the pessimistic end of the spectrum, the organisational and leadership weakness demonstrated by Abbas and Fatah in Gaza continues to characterise their performance in the West Bank. Hamas makes inroads there, and together with disparate elements launches terror attacks against Israel.

This renders Israeli-Palestinian security, economic and political cooperation in the West Bank impossible. Meanwhile in Gaza, the dominant Hamas military wing moves from internal takeover to exporting violence to Israel. It also attacks targets in Egyptian Sinai, as Egypt fails to remedy its sloppy effort to police the Gaza-Sinai border.

Israel responds with major military strikes into Gaza, where chaos and crisis spread. Iran, sensing that Israel has been put on the defensive on two Palestinian fronts, encourages its Syrian and Lebanese Shi'a allies to launch a third.

A handful of dust

In cautiously assessing such anticipated events, it is also possible at this juncture to identify a number of much-discussed developments that are almost certain not to take place.

First, under present and likely near-term circumstances there will be no international force in Gaza. No third country will volunteer to place its troops between Israel and Hamas or (on the Gaza-Sinai "philadelphi" border) between Egypt and Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo: AP)
Given both Abbas's and Olmert's weakness and Hamas's capacity to interfere, we should not expect anything resembling a full-fledged peace process, writes Alpher

​​For a peacekeeping force to succeed in the Middle East it needs both a peace agreement to maintain and two viable and responsible governments to work with. Hamas does not qualify. In any event, its Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshal, has rejected the idea.

Second, whatever new Saudi- or Egyptian-mediated efforts to reform a Palestinian unity government emerge, there will be no genuine reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas or, for that matter, between Israel and Hamas. The lines are drawn between a radical Islamist Arab regime on the shores of the Mediterranean - and the rest of us.

Third, no matter how badly Hamas treats its own people or antagonises Israel, the latter will not permit the emergence of a total humanitarian crisis and mass starvation in Gaza.

Fourth, an Israeli-Palestinian political process confined to the West Bank could conceivably provide a helpful confidence-building boost and contribute conflict management. But given both Abbas's and Olmert's weakness and Hamas's capacity to interfere, we should not expect anything resembling a full-fledged peace process.

Fifth, Israeli illusions aside, neither Egypt nor Jordan is about to take over responsibility for, respectively, Gaza and the West Bank, thereby letting Israel "off the hook". Egypt, on the contrary, is eliminating its diplomatic and military advisory presence in Gaza; hopefully, the penny has finally dropped in Cairo and the Hosni Mubarak regime will start to treat Hamas as part of the opposition to its regime.

As for Jordan, a successful re-launching of an Israeli-Palestinian political process on the West Bank could hopefully open up opportunities for closer East Bank-West Bank cooperation. But it is very doubtful that King Abdullah in Amman would be tempted to attach more Palestinians to his kingdom and reinstate their Jordanian citizenship.

Above all Israel and its Arab neighbours, along with the Europeans and Americans, now have to confront the emergence of a tiny but venal Islamist entity in their midst; a situation which offers no quick, bloodless or easy solutions.

Yossi Alpher

© OpenDemocracy 2007

This article was originally published on the independent online magazine

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the "bitterlemons family" of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.

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