The Price of Not Talking to Hamas
The picture was highly symbolic. After several weeks of boycott, corn was finally delivered again to the Gaza Strip from Israel in mid-May. Through a hole in the thick concrete wall at Checkpoint Karni, a thin stream of corn grains was transported on a conveyor belt and then loaded onto a truck on the Palestinian side of the border.
Karni is the only place where goods are exchanged between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Palestinians were handed the food and commodities they urgently need as though they were prisoners who get their meals through a flap in the door to their cell.
The election victory of Hamas has led to economic sanctions with devastating consequences for the Palestinian territories. From the end of January to mid-May, the border was completely closed on seventy days. Thanks to international pressure, it was open on a few days, but only few goods were delivered to the Gaza Strip on those occasions.
Direct dependency on the funds
Sometimes, only five trucks were dealt with; on better days, 150. The norm would be 400. The consequences have been dramatic. Sometimes, the territories with the world's highest birth rate even lacked milk and baby food.
The European Union and other international donors have stopped transferring funds, thus exacerbating the crisis. Salaries that were normally covered with money from the EU can no longer be paid. Some 165,000 public officials – teachers, bureaucrats, doctors, security forces – directly depend on these funds. And they are the ones who feed their families.
Normally, these salaries provide a living to some 1.5 million Palestinians.
Fierce power struggle with the Islamists
Poverty is getting worse. The lack of prospects is radicalising people and fostering anarchy. Many are disgruntled, if not desperate. Followers of the Fatah Movement, which lost the elections for Parliament, refuse to accept their defeat. They feel that the international boycott is supporting their cause, and they are engaging in a fierce power struggle with the Islamists. Violence is escalating, sometimes to a point resembling civil war, especially in the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas government faces an intractable dilemma. It is being called on to dismiss its election platform and anti-Israeli ideology – without talks, without anything in return. Moreover, it is expected to maintain peace and order in the Palestinian territories and prevent terrorist and missile attacks on Israel.
At the same time, it has lost the means of doing so. It is neither able to set up loyal security forces of its own, nor to pay the police recruited by the previous government. Government head Ismail Haniye and his ministers cannot even leave the Gaza Strip to make their presence felt on the West Bank.
Demand for democratic institutions
The Middle East Quartet has proposed that limited financial aid be reinstituted but given directly to the people, not to the government. However, that approach will not solve the problem. Should funds be channelled through Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), on the other hand, things will again be as they were in the days of Yassir Arafat.
The late PLO leader and first PNA president paid those loyal to him as he saw fit, funnelling funds to undisclosed recipients – including himself.
For years, Israel and the international community have demanded that Palestinians set up democratic institutions, create the post of a prime minister, and hold elections. Palestinians have now fulfilled all of these demands. They have elected a government they hope will deliver more than the corrupt Fatah leadership did.
Instead of punishing Palestinians for doing so and thus driving them into the arms of extremist groups, one should contact the new government immediately, offer support, and encourage it to start negotiations with Israel. After all, if one does not talk with Hamas today, one will eventually have to deal with Al Quida terrorism.
© Development and Cooperation 2006
Dr. Bettina Marx works as a correspondent for German Public Radio (ARD) in Tel Aviv.