Judith Kipper, director of CFR's Middle East Forum, says the economic boycott of the Hamas government has created a major crisis in the Palestinian territories: "The situation is extremely dangerous because the humanitarian despair is really, really drastic, particularly in Gaza: people are hungry and dying." She says both Israel and the United States miscalculated when they sought to cut off the newly-elected Hamas government from international aid.
"As soon as Hamas was elected, long before it even took over, there should have been some leadership in the world to figure out how to continue to get money in but not give it to the Hamas people," she says. As to Hamas' announcement that in response to the Israeli shelling that killed a family on a Gaza beach, it was ending its self-imposed truce, Kipper says this is potentially quite dangerous. "They can get into a new cycle of violence, in which case, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate even more."
The latest news from the Gaza strip is that the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature delayed any vote on President Mahmoud Abbas's call for a referendum on whether to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel. Hamas said it wanted to wait until June 20 to have more time to work out an agreement with President Abbas before trying to vote it down. Is Hamas buying time here?
I think Hamas is under extreme pressure. They are trying to buy time. They are trying to figure out how to deal with the situation because they are cut out of the world and from any patrons. The only patron they appear to have today is Iran, which is something that the international community, Israel, and the United States have to look at very, very carefully because Hamas going to Iran for patronage is obviously a very negative factor and will make any solution much more difficult. There is a power struggle between Hamas, the elected government, which is relatively powerless except for veto power and the power-abusing violence, and the elected president, the only Arab leader who [was] fairly elected by 66 percent of the population, who is not powerless, but is weak. There is a struggle on the ground between the security forces belonging to Fatah and Hamas; there is a political power struggle as well. The situation is extremely dangerous because the humanitarian despair is really, really drastic, particularly in Gaza: people are hungry and dying because they cannot get dialysis, for instance. They have the machines, but they do not have the tubes to connect it, and there are other kinds of horror stories. So the total isolation of Hamas needs to be reviewed.
Is there total isolation of Hamas by the international community, except Iran?
Even the Arabs?
The Arabs meet with Hamas, but they are not willing to help it in any possible way, and they oppose their policies.
Should Arab states use their influence on Hamas to get it to change its policy?
They do have influence on Hamas, but they are not willing to be a patron as they have been, for better or worse, for Fatah since the beginning. The fact that Hamas really has no place to go and everyone is beating it over the head [to] recognize Israel and change its mandate is not going to produce the kind of results that are necessary. Within Hamas there are two points of view: one is that "We are the government now, we have to represent everybody, and we should accept the Arab initiative and all the agreements that came before we did." There is another wing that says "No, tough it out." That wing is lead by Khaled Mashal, a Hamas leader in Damascus, who obviously, with Iran and Syria on his neck and with him in exile, has zero interest in moderation. He was the one who was supposed to have been assassinated by Israel with a lethal injection when he was in Jordan. He got the injection, King Hussein found out, and King Hussein made the Israelis give him the antidote and also release Sheikh Yassin [the Hamas founder] from prison. He is not an insignificant figure.
Over the weekend we had this situation where a Palestinian family, supposedly on a picnic on the Gaza beach, was killed by a rocket, supposedly fired by Israel. That is under investigation, but it has caused a big stir, leading Hamas to issue an announcement that it would no longer abide by its cease-fire. Is that a meaningful statement? Is Hamas going to launch suicide attacks again?
I think Hamas reserved the possibility of doing just that. It certainly raises the fear level and raises the ante for both Israelis and for Abu Mazen [Abbas' nom de guerre] because Hamas was cheering when Islamic Jihad did something inside Israel and called it "resistance" through Islamic Jihad, the wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranians. Now Hamas is giving itself the right to do it on its own, which obviously is a very, very negative factor.
Of course, in Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have a plan they could put into effect that would be a strong response to this continued rocketing from the Gaza strip into Israel. I gather Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who is a neophyte in this whole business of defense policy, has ordered them to hold off doing anything very dramatic. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in London right now, and maybe Israel is waiting until he gets back.
I think it is tit for tat. Obviously with this rocket going wrong, killing the family, Hamas simply had to respond: Gaza is Hamas' stronghold and so on. The Israeli public has been trained to expect retaliation, retaliation, retaliation, but every action has a reaction. They can get into a new cycle of violence, in which case, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate even more, and legally Israel is responsible. I do not know if they are still responsible for Gaza, but I think they probably are. The Palestinians might say "Okay if we cannot do anything, Abbas should resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority and give it all to Israel to run."
I do not think that is going to happen.
I am not sure if they are desperate enough. The desperation is really deep. It is worse in Gaza, of course, because people are hungry and it is more crowded. But there is desperation in the West Bank because there is no way out. Israel has put itself behind a wall; they are locked in. They have a government that nobody will talk to. Nobody is getting paid. The economy is in the toilet. They cannot move around, there are checkpoints everywhere. Their hospitals, health, and educational institutions are deteriorating. There is massive trauma to young people. You cannot occupy people for forty years and not expect that there is going to be some result.
If Olmert called you up for advice, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to release the Palestinian money [Israel has not allowed tax revenues which were normally given to the Palestinian Authority to be transferred since Hamas came to power] to Abu Mazen. What people do not know is that every employee of the [Palestinian] Authority has a bank account, and that is how they receive their salaries. The United States was surprised, shocked, did not know what to do. Finally, it realized how bad it [was] and asked the Europeans to come up with a mechanism. It is certainly possible to put money in those bank accounts and authorize the banks to receive the salaries of everybody who is employed by the Palestinian Authority up to the minute that Hamas took over. This is about political will, not about mechanisms.
Do you think Israel made a big mistake in holding on to that tax money and not giving it to the Palestinians?
Absolutely. I think the United States also made a big mistake in being so precipitous in running around and forcing everybody to cut off funds. Nobody wants to give or is ready to give funds to Hamas. As soon as Hamas was elected, long before it even took over, there should have been some leadership in the world to figure out how to continue to get money in but not give it to the Hamas people. For example, the United States has infrastructure projects. As soon as Hamas was elected, the United States stopped the infrastructure projects, which provide huge numbers of jobs. This happened when work was already going on for constructing water facilities, roads, sewers, telephone lines, etc.
Is the United States reconsidering this policy?
The United States got quite desperate. There was a meeting of the Road Map Quartet [the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations] in New York. The European Union was asked to figure out a mechanism by which humanitarian money could get into the territories without it going to Hamas. But every minute that goes by, the situation deteriorates. I fear it will be a long time before some mechanism is worked out. So there is more and more radicalization. Forget Hamas. All the Palestinian people in general are not blaming Hamas; they are blaming the United States and Israel. It has the unwanted result of radicalizing even those who were not radicalized before because that is what desperation creates.
Is there anyone in Israel who agrees with your point of view?
Sure. Talk to any Israeli, even the leadership, they understand all of this and do not know what to do about it.
You think they acted too impulsively themselves?
Yes. Of course, everyone was horrified that Hamas was elected. I think that people overreacted instead of giving them a chance to see if they could govern. Israel should have said: "We are not going to talk to them, we are not going to give them money, we are going to keep quiet and give them a chance." In the meantime, Israel should have figured out other ways to get money in because if people are getting paid from non-Hamas entities or getting their salaries directly in their bank account, that is going to go a long way to keep things calm while Hamas tries to figure out what it is trying to do.
The European Union has not come up with a plan yet?
Not yet, no. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to New York last month and met with the foreign ministers from the [Road Map] Quartet because there was real panic. They just did not realize how bad it was going to get, how fast, how dependent people are on government salaries.