When the Gaza Strip was plunged into darkness last week as a result of the Israeli fuel blockade, many people around the world were surprised. But the optimism produced by the Annapolis peace process, which included President George W Bush’s promise of an agreement in 2008 to create a Palestinian state, was clearly unrealistic.
Gaza is usually viewed in terms of Hamas’s overwhelming support there, but the reality is much different. Opinion polls conducted in Gaza by the Near East Consulting Group in late November 2007 indicated 74 percent popular support for a peace agreement with Israel. Only 15 percent would vote for Hamas MPs or a Hamas presidential candidate, compared to 55 percent for Fatah candidates. The Annapolis-inspired peace process received 81 percent support.
Like many territories in the region, Gaza has had a long history of foreign occupation, extending to ancient times. In 1949, the Arab-Israeli war ended with an armistice agreement that divided Palestine into three parts, each under separate political control. Israel encompassed more than 77 percent of the territory, Jordan was left to rule East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and Egypt took control of Gaza. The Palestinian Arab state envisioned by the United Nations’ 1947 partition plan, which was to include Gaza, was never established.
Economic development in the Gaza Strip was limited under Egyptian rule, and the region suffered the burden of absorbing Palestinian refugees fleeing the fighting in the southern part of mandatory Palestine, which would later become Israel. Palestinians’ access to Egypt was restricted, and much of Gaza’s largely unskilled workforce was dependent on the UN Relief Works Administration, which built and maintained the local refugee camps.
The 1967 war placed all of mandatory Palestine (as well as Sinai and the Golan) under Israeli military occupation. Nevertheless, although one-third of the West Bank was closed to Palestinians to make room for a few thousand Jewish settlers, only 10 percent of its largely rural population were refugees, many owned their land, and a variety of jobs was available. By contrast, 70 percent of the Gaza population comprised refugees, who lived in difficult conditions in scores of refugee camps and were largely dependent on work in Israel. At one time, more than 150,000 Gazans crossed the Erez checkpoint daily. Gaza’s poverty was fertile ground for Islamic radicalism. Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, a paraplegic refugee from the village of Jora (now on Israel’s southern coast), worked quietly to build a grass-root movement with the tacit assent of the Israeli army, which sought to encourage an alternative to the PLO. But, with the 1987 uprising (Intifada), Yasin’s supporters announced the creation of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Better known by its Arabic acronym, HAMAS, Yasin’s group competed with the secular PLO groups by staging amateurish attacks on Jewish settlers and kidnapping Israeli soldiers.
While the 1987 Intifada brought about the Oslo process and the return of the PLO leadership, it failed to produce a real economy in Gaza.
The flow of money to the new Palestinian Authority was evident mostly in high-rise buildings, which the PA built to deal with overcrowding. Non-PA groups like Hamas acquired their own weapons mostly by buying them from Israeli soldiers or on the Israeli black market. Later, after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, weapons, ammunition, and cash were smuggled through tunnels from Sinai.
During the second Palestinian Intifada, which erupted in 2000, Hamas used its weapons and explosives to attack Israelis and create their own small protectorate. But the more that Hamas and others attacked Israelis, the more the Israelis tightened the siege on Gaza. The number of Gazan workers in Israel was reduced to a few hundred, and rising unemployment and poverty empowered armed factions, gangs, and warlords — a development that intensified after Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006, which resulted in an international siege that cut off public servants’ salaries overnight.
As a largely refugee population, most Gazans had weak social roots. Those with a university education left to work in either the West Bank or the Gulf States, while Gaza’s armed groups became a magnet for most young people –” the only job they understood and which gave them power. Armed men joined Fatah, Hamas, or other groups and sub-groups, and clans like the Dugmush family (which kidnapped the BBC journalist Alan Johnston) boasted a few hundred members willing to kill for pay. Clearly, the false trappings of a state provided as part of the Oslo peace process have resulted in little tangible change for Palestinians. They got an elected president (who for a while was trapped in his headquarters), a parliament and government (whose MPs and ministers are not guaranteed passage from Gaza to the West Bank), and passports (whose numbers must be entered into Israeli computers). What they did not get was real sovereignty, without which it is difficult to imagine any improvement.
Gaza’s history, and evaporating support for Hamas there, suggests that integrating Gazans into mainstream Palestinian life would not be difficult. But it also suggests that maintaining the current siege would merely punish a peace-loving population while strengthening the grip of its worst elements on society and public life.
"Written before the flow of Gazans to Egypt