From the outside, it appears that everyone is fighting to control Gaza. Those of us inside Gaza see something different: while everybody wants a piece of it, nobody wants to govern it. The result is that everybody gets a slice of what they want except for the people of Gaza, who are left with a deteriorating political, economic, and humanitarian situation.
Israel realised in 2005 that Gaza is uncontrollable. With 1.5 million Palestinians living on 365km sq, Gaza is over-populated and has one of the highest birth rates in the world. It also has limited resources, and is greatly dependent on local authorities and financial aid from international donors. These dire circumstances have led Israel to withdraw from Gaza in 2005 and evacuate its settlements, leaving the Palestinian Authority (PA) with full political responsibility. The Israeli security apparatuses, however, kept the Strip under surveillance.
The Palestinian Authority, through its institutions, worked as an autonomous authority with its main activities in Gaza. It developed an administrative system delivering public services to the Palestinian people – especially in the field of health, education and the judiciary – and assumed the responsibility for the areas under its control. Comprised of ministries and departments employing over 150,000 civilian and military personnel in Gaza and the West Bank, and in its efforts to provide security, legal and political commitments towards the Palestinian people, the PA tried to assume a role akin to that of a state.
In 2006, Hamas’ victory in the parliamentary elections and its attempts to get its share in control of Gaza, led to violent confrontations with the security apparatus. Eventually, the PA, led by Fatah movement, surrendered the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007, in what was termed the ‘Hamas takeover’. In reality, the ability of Hamas to simply force security forces out of their bases in Gaza can be put down to the wish of the Head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to leave Gaza. Abbas increasingly felt that Gaza was becoming a financial burden and security disaster. The PA thus relinquished its responsibilities, except for the salaries of over 50,000 of its trustworthy employees, who did not cooperate with Hamas and refused to serve the Palestinian people.
Seven years of national dialogue and reconciliation resulted in the formation of a Palestinian Consensus Government in June 2014, to act in Gaza and the West Bank. Yet, partisan interests and political differences between Fatah and Hamas prevented this government from functioning in Gaza. So far, experience has shown that this government (instructed by the President of the Palestinian Authority) has been operating as a semi-state in cities and villages in the West Bank, but lacks communication with the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority, functioning from Ramallah, does not want Hamas in power but does not want responsibility for Gaza either. The deputy chief of Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniya, has repeatedly called for the Consensus Government to work on economic and humanitarian aspects to alleviate the suffering in Gaza and has urged the government to take its role and responsibilities toward the Palestinians seriously.
Egypt, meanwhile, has adopted a similar isolationist policy with Gaza. Despite the historical relations between Egypt and Palestine, the current Egyptian military regime has tightened the siege on Gaza by closing the Rafah Crossing and destroying the tunnels, which were the main source of supplies to Gaza. Egypt wants to maintain its security presence in Sinai, to create a buffer zone with Gaza, and to keep indirect surveillance over the Strip. It wants to achieve these things, however, while assuming no legal or humanitarian responsibilities towards the people of Gaza, most of whom view Egypt on par with Israel in causing damage to Gaza and Palestinians.
Hamas, in the meantime, has fallen in the same trap. Having addressed issues like poverty and unemployment, and provided a civic alternative to the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, it achieved victory in the 2006 legislative elections. After establishing the tenth Palestinian Government in 2006, and having created a distinct social service programme and disciplinary within its ranks, the subsequent political and economic sanctions imposed on the government once again caused uncertainty within Palestinian society with regards to their political future and safety. Armed clashes broke out between Hamas and Fatah, which led, on June 14th 2007, to a Hamas takeover of the entire Gaza Strip. The Head of the Palestinian Authority dismissed the government, which was shortly thereafter called “Gaza Government”.
Hamas was able to rule Gaza using the public institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Despite the attempt by the Israeli authorities to weaken Hamas through military attacks and blockade of the Strip, Hamas has become the executive authority in Gaza. Benefiting from the tunnels’ business between Gaza and Egypt that imported supplies and commodities, Gaza witnessed economic growth and development, particularly after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, catastrophic consequences followed after the military coup in Egypt led by Abdul-Fatah Al-Sisi. The Egyptian military’s closure of the tunnels with Gaza overlapped with Iran stopping its financial support to Hamas over their political disagreement on Syria. As a result, Hamas has not been able to financially afford governing the Strip for the past two years. Hamas is now faced with a financial crisis and finds itself short of money to pay its employees, compensate people for the destruction of the 2014 war, and rebuild Gaza. More significantly, it has failed to reach a cease-fire agreement with Israel to guarantee the opening of the crossing points with Gaza. Instead, the siege has been tightened by both Israel and Egypt. Still, Hamas has been running the military scene.
The current feud between Hamas and the PA in governing Gaza might seem to outsiders as both about enabling the Consensus Government to rule Gaza and the ability of this government to govern Gaza. However, the Government refuses to rule Gaza without Hamas renouncing its military hold and completely relinquishing its grip over the Strip. Hamas, however, will more than likely keep its military capabilities as a resistance movement and continue to preserve its indirect authority over the Strip. Although Hamas is significantly criticized by a large segment within Palestinian society, and despite the fact it is financially ruined, it has credibility in Gaza for providing safety and security. If Hamas relinquishes its power and loses control over Gaza then fear will spread, as the alternative would be neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority. Extremist groups with foreign agendas will spread chaos like never before.
Hamas will defy any attempt to disarm its military wing in return for lifting the siege on Gaza. Yet, the situation is gradually heading towards an implicit agreement with the Israeli government to alleviate the siege, as the Israeli authorities have already allowed more supplies to Gaza under security surveillance. Israel uses a policy of the “Carrot and the Stick”, giving thousands of Palestinians permits to work and travel from Gaza through Israel whilst simultaneously threatening to launch a war on Gaza if Hamas breaches the cease-fire. In return, Hamas will keep its commitment to the cease-fire. In fact, Israel has slightly loosened its siege over Gaza in the aftermath of the cease-fire of August 26th, 2014, whereas Hamas is proved to be in absolute control of the Strip, in coordination with other Palestinian factions, especially the Islamic Jihad Movement. Hamas has left the government; it wants to protect itself and will not disarm, but it does not wish to govern. Yet, the current situation would entrench Hamas in the first place. Some Israeli officials have in fact shown relief that Hamas is keeping its commitment and restraining other militants in Gaza from launching rockets on Israel. Ultimately, Israel is succeeding in perpetuating the Palestinian division and maintaining Hamas’ responsibility for Gaza. This approach will damage Hamas’ image in Palestinians’ eyes.
The result might be seen as a series of agreements among all of the above-mentioned actors, none of whom like each other. But the people get left out, faced with neither reconstruction nor governance. The people in Gaza are suffering from economic isolation, have grown extremely disappointed, and are reeling from the effects of wars and siege. What keeps people alive in Gaza is the logistic and financial aid provided by international non-governmental organizations, particularly UNRWA, which provides about 70% of Gazans with public services and humanitarian assistance, and runs rescue operations. Yet, any immediate solution for now should concentrate on the lives of people whose needs have been ignored and undervalued.