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Cordesman: Gaza Isolated But Hamas Not Easily Contained

Interviewee: Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 18, 2007

Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Middle East strategic issues, says the de facto division of the Palestinian territories into a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a West Bank led by President Mahmoud Abbas raises many questions. “It’s not clear that Hamas can be contained inside Gaza,” he says. “Fatah’s rule has often been corrupt, and ineffective, and it has often been brutal in its security operations.” He says the chaos in the Palestinian territories raises broader Middle East questions about al-Qaeda and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There is now a division of the Palestinian territories, with Fatah, which for years ruled the Palestinian world, now in charge of the West Bank, and Hamas, the more Islamic and anti-Israel group, in charge of Gaza. How does this division of Palestinian territories affect Israel’s security?

The effect is somewhat ironic. It certainly puts a hostile force or group in charge of Gaza. But Gaza already was largely isolated. What this does is establish a clear dividing line. There’s going to be much less pressure on Israel to increase economic ties to Gaza, to open up the passageways between Gaza and Israel and between Gaza and the West Bank, or to try to create a dialogue with Hamas.

There will also be less resistance to Israeli incursions into Gaza, and less resistance to any kind of economic measures or security measures. It also, to some extent at least, puts a group in charge of Gaza which Egypt also sees as a threat and it may or may not produce Egyptian efforts to halt smuggling across the Sinai border or the Philadelphia Corridor [the area separating Sinai from Gaza]. Although in fairness to Egypt such efforts have been limited.

There is a problem, of course. It’s not clear that Hamas can be contained inside Gaza. Fatah’s rule has often been corrupt, and ineffective, and it has often been brutal in its security operations.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be in Washington and he has said he is now going to cooperate as fully as he can with the Fatah leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas. The United States is now ready to lift its sanctions on Fatah, right?

These are positive visions. The U.S. government already has lifted its sanctions against the Fatah elements in the West Bank. If you look at the government that President Abbas has appointed, it’s going to be led by a very competent economist, Salaam Fayad, who is respected throughout the world. He has talked about bringing in technocrats, and about maintaining a mix of people from the West Bank and Gaza. The question has always been, can they really overcome the heritage of [the late President Yasser] Arafat—the divisions within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority that have created so many problems and so much ineffectiveness in the past? Can they deal with the problems of corruption and with the resentment against the people who came back with Arafat [to Palestinian territories from exile in Tunisia], which many younger Palestinians say was almost a completely ineffective leadership? It’s not clear, but certainly it will be easier with U.S. and Israeli support.

Does this essentially mean—it’s too early to say with certainty, I think—at least a long pause in any efforts in bringing about an overall two-state solution between Palestine and Israel?

It may be that you get something closer to a two-state solution, but if you get it, it’s going to be a West Bank state. The problem here is that the West Bank at least has some hope of economic ability—the demographics are less bad, the population growth is less of a problem, and it has more internal economic resources. If that happens, the difficulty is that even before the [second intifada] fighting began in 2000, almost all the projections by the World Bank and other sources indicated that Gaza could never develop a viable economy, that it would be dependent on outside aid.

Now, after nearly seven years of warfare, population growth, and the breakdown of the school system, and virtually cut off from economic cooperation with Israel, Gaza is almost a giant refugee camp, with no economic hope in any serious way. Also, what do you mean by a two-state solution? Because if it’s a solution that only affects the West Bank, without any right of return, without any impact on the Palestinian diaspora, with the world watching the situation in Gaza steadily deteriorate, it’s not a solution at all.

Do you think some kind of international body, whether it be an Arab group or a UN agency, will have to go into Gaza?

I don’t see outside intervention as being effective. First, it’s not clear what any outside body would actually do. What’s happened in Gaza is not something where you have seen an unpopular small cadre seize power. There is no way that Hamas could have gained power as quickly as it did if it was not very popular within Gaza, and if the Palestinian Authority and Fatah had not virtually collapsed in the face of what was a relatively minor threat in terms of the size of forces and how well they’re equipped. The United Nations is not in a position to mediate that, Arab states would find themselves in an almost impossible position—even to deploy and support an operation there and then have to agree on what on earth they were going to do to restructure the government and create some kind of new compromise.

Now it is possible that outside powers like the Arab League, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt can mediate. But it seems very doubtful, at least in the short term, that you’re going to see anything other than more polarization—more people from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority having to leave Gaza, people either going underground and supporters of Hamas in the West Bank leaving for Gaza, and in that process of polarization the risk is not that you are going to see international forces come in to solve the problems. You could see Israel take military action against Gaza while at the same time it builds up a Fatah or Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.

That was going to be my next question. Can you see some kind of de facto military alliance between Abbas and Israel?

There’s already been one. It obviously wasn’t very effective. The United States tried to rebuild the presidential guard and create a strong presidential force that would counterbalance the growth of Hamas. Arafat divided the Palestinian authority security forces so much that they were never effective. And what was there suffered so many casualties and defeats at the hands of Israel between 2000 and 2007. Also, there was simply so much corruption and incompetence in the Palestinian security forces as well as brutality that alienated many people inside Gaza.

The end result here is that it’s going to be a political alliance. There will be, I’m certain, continued U.S. support for the presidential guard. There may be an effort to create a more serious force for the Palestinian Authority and Fatah in the West Bank over time and certainly Israel is going to tacitly support Abbas. But an open alliance would probably do Abbas and moderate Palestinians more harm than good. They have to be able to reach out as much as possible, to both the Palestinian diaspora, and if there’s any chance at all, to people in Gaza. They can’t do that if they are seen, effectively, as a captive of Israel.

Now who’s going to be backing the Hamas force? Iran? There don’t seem to be Arab states around that are likely to back Hamas.

We need to wait and see what Hamas does—whether it tries to adopt a more moderate cover—but this is already a game where Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon have played a significant role. There is a vast flood of private capital in the Arab world, much of it in the hands of people who are not under the control of their governments. Money laundering activities that have somewhat tightened the flow of money in the Gulf have not affected what are massive deposits, perhaps half a trillion dollars—a lot of which is in private banks or in Asia or in Islamic banks in Asia.

There’s never a dull moment in this part of the world, is there?

There is the possibility of Iranian support and cadres infiltrating into Gaza; you have questions about what Hezbollah is going to do. It impacts in general on what al-Qaeda and Islamist movements elsewhere are going to do. If you look at the possibility of these interactions, none of them seems likely to move toward major wars, but this is part of a regional rise in instability, which extends from Pakistan into Algeria. It is very, very difficult to predict how much it will escalate and what the interactions will be.

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