The knee-jerk reaction in the White House and Israel to the recent violence in Gaza is to blame Hamas and be done with it. The radical Hamas organization that controls Gaza drove thousands of Palestinians toward the fence, the argument goes, so it is wholly to blame for the 62 killed by Israeli snipers, the bulk of them Hamas members.
But this PR blame game obscures the bigger picture.
Two million Gazans, imprisoned in a tiny strip of land with a collapsed economy, see no political and economic future. They are trapped between a reckless Hamas, a feckless Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and an Israeli government that ignores them except for military action. Add to that a blinkered White House that pours fuel on dry tinder.
Rather than face facts – and address Gaza’s economic ills – Jerusalem and Washington promote convenient myths that absolve themselves from responsibility. If both governments continue down that blind path, the violence in Gaza will explode again with huge costs to Israel as well.
The myths go as follows: First, Israel ended its occupation of Gaza when it withdrew its troops and Jewish settlers from the 5-by-28 mile strip in 2005. So Jerusalem has no more responsibility for the strip’s internal affairs. Especially since, Myth Two, the Palestinians chose Hamas in 2005 legislative elections because its charter envisions the end of Israel and endorses violent resistance; ergo, they caused their own misery.
In reality, Israel has retained control of Gaza’s border, air space, and sea coast, except for one outlet into a remote area of Egypt. Thus Israel entirely controls Gazan imports and exports, its coastal fishing, along with its supply of electricity. It also controls all movement in and out of Gaza. Since Hamas took control, Israel has mostly bottled up Gaza’s population while border closures strangle its industry and agriculture.
As for the 2006 elections, which the Bush administration urged on a reluctant Palestinian leadership, polls showed that the main reasons a plurality of Palestinians voted for Hamas were not its ideology. Rather, they were frustrated that the then-ruling Fatah party was corrupt and hadn’t delivered a promised two-state diplomatic solution.
Moreover, in 2007, the Bush administration encouraged Fatah to retake control of Gaza by force, but Fatah lost the battle to Hamas. Thus Washington shares the blame for Hamas’ total control of the strip.
But the most pernicious Myth, number Three, posits that Palestinians are sole authors of their economic misery. The prime example given is the case of greenhouses turned over by Israeli settlers when they quit Gaza in 2005 (they demolished half of the greenhouses and stripped the rest before leaving). The remaining greenhouses were refurbished with $14 million by Jewish American donors, but were supposedly destroyed by Palestinians immediately upon the settlers’ exit.
Yes, there was looting, but the Palestinian Authority quickly refurbished the greenhouses, which were soon brimming with crops of sweet peppers, tomatoes, and herbs worth $20 million. The Palestinians’ then-finance minister Salam Fayyad even gave Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a gift of peppers on her birthday in mid-November 2005, and the greenhouses exported 8 tons of them in mid-December.
What actually destroyed the greenhouse initiative were Israel’s restrictions on Gazan exports at the Karni border crossing. You can read about this in the memoir of Australian Jewish businessman James Wolfensohn, a former World Bank head and special envoy for Gaza disengagement, who contributed $500,000 to the greenhouse project.
“In early December ,” he wrote, “the much-awaited first harvest began … but their success relied on the Karni crossing … which was closed more often than not.
“Everything was rotting. … If you went to the border and saw tomatoes and fruit just being dumped on the side of the road, you would have to say that if you were a Palestinian farmer you’d be pretty upset.”
Fast-forward to now. For more than a dozen years, border crossings have opened only sporadically. Industry and agriculture in Gaza has collapsed. Unemployment of 15- to 29-year-olds is 60 percent. Electricity is sporadic (Gazans can’t pay), water polluted, medicines scarce.
To make matters worse, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which still pays many salaries in Gaza, cut back the money when an effort at reconciliation with Hamas failed.
Yes, Hamas is a threat and has in the past lobbed rockets and built tunnels into Israel. But that doesn’t obviate one blinding fact, which the Israeli military has warned about, over and over: Deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza raise the risk of uncontrollable flareups – especially when young people lose all hope.
There have been many suggestions for rejuvenating Gaza’s economy, but they all require Israel’s cooperation. They include various proposals for a port – but Jerusalem hasn’t pursued them, choosing to focus purely on military action. The Trump White House hasn’t challenged that thinking.
James Wolfensohn put it best in a 2007 interview: “Just pretending that 1.4 [now 2] million people can live in a sort of prison is not a solution at all.”
In other words, it’s time to abandon the Gaza myths and focus on hard facts.