Is Gaza worse off than Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia?

Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli missile strike 

The Gaza Strip is burning, drifting into chaos, turning into hell—and nobody seems to have a way out of this mess. Dozens of people were killed in Gaza in the last couple of weeks, the victims of lawlessness and power struggles between clans and families, gangsters and militias. Thirteen died on Monday alone, eight of them when Hamas gunmen attacked forces from the Fatah-linked Presidential Guard. President Mahmoud Abbas, from Fatah, couldn’t stop it; Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, from Hamas, couldn’t stop it. The violence continued into the evening as militias fired rockets into Israel, wounding a woman and her child.

These are the days of despair and accommodation: People save money so they can buy more weapons and more ammunition, knowing that no force will be willing to confront the new chiefs of the Gaza streets. These are the days of chaos, leading to violence, leading to cruelty and to new heights of brutality. It is the Iraq-ization, the Afghan-ization, the Somali-ization, of the Palestinian Authority: executions Iraqi-style, clan rule Afghanistan-style, and absence of government Somali-style.

And there’s no NATO to stabilize the situation, no U.S. military to surge its forces, no Ethiopian neighbor to support the weak government. Gaza is an area “slightly more than twice the size of Washington, DC,” as the CIA World Factbook describes it, with a population of 1.4 million. Small but crowded. And with a birth rate that will make it even more packed in coming years: 5.64 children per woman. It needs someone to rule its many inhabitants, but no one seems to want it.

“If Palestinians embrace democracy, and the rule of law, confront corruption, and firmly reject terror, they can count on American support for the creation of a Palestinian state” declared the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy. But by embracing democracy, the Palestinians elected a president from one party and a government from the rival party. By confronting the corruption of the Fatah era, they elected Hamas.

No wonder that what happens in Gaza has the flavor of Iraq: A bad regime—whether it’s the Israeli occupation or the incompetent Palestinian Authority—was replaced by no regime. So now the world can start worrying again. Is this the familiar story of terror with no controlling authority finding refuge in a place with no government or law?

The NSS’s promise to “ensure” that a state suffering from the presence of terrorists will have “the military, law enforcement, political, and financial tools necessary to finish the task” sounds hollow. Under a program led by Gen. Keith Dayton, the United States is planning to spend almost $60 million to reform and strengthen the Presidential Guard. That’s the same guard that was attacked by Hamas supporters on Monday. If America is counting on this guard to maintain law and order in Gaza, it must be hallucinating. A guard is only as strong as its leaders.

The actions that led to the current violence can be debated and argued, but truth must be told: Gaza was never easy to govern. The Egyptians didn’t want the responsibility; last year the Israelis pulled out, hoping for the best; the Palestinians never quite rose to the occasion. President Abbas was too weak—or too incompetent—to take control. Hamas wanted to have it both ways with the extremists. The newly formed unity government proved to be no more than a unity mirage.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has now learned that he is not immune to the lesson that Slate’s William Saletan once described as “the three languages of the peace process: Hebrew, Arabic, and bureaucratic bullshit.” This applies to deals between Israelis and Palestinians, but no less so to deals between Palestinians and rival Palestinians. Maybe even more so.

A colleague of mine at Ha’aretz, Avi Issacharoff, complained in an article last week that “the world is ignoring this”—that is, the turbulence in Gaza. “The media in Israel and the West, which reported on every person killed or wounded in the conflicts between Fatah and Hamas or because of ‘the Israeli occupation,’ are not taking any interest in Gaza,” he wrote. And I think I know why: What’s the point of writing about it if there’s no one to blame and no one to push for a solution?

Gaza fatigue is slowly spreading among journalists and policy-makers alike. And it’s not going away anytime soon.

No leader or legislator in his right mind would ask to send an international force to calm things in Gaza, as was done in Lebanon after the summer war. The so-called “benchmarks” for Israel and the Palestinian Authority—laid out by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to promote peace—seem like a joke: No Israeli leader can agree to the opening of a “safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank, which could spread the infighting. Israeli and U.S. intelligence officers are looking at Gaza, worried about the prospect of an al-Qaida safe haven developing in the shadows of its narrow alleys. The Egyptians are being pressured to make sure that the border is sealed, but they are reluctant to take strong action.

“What can I say? It’s a mess,” a Palestinian minister told me last week. Today, he’d probably say the same thing, except more forcefully. A mess that no one is ready to clean up. “Civilization,” American philosopher William Durant once stated, “begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.” Gaza, apparently, skipped the first two stages. But no one should expect it to die quietly, or alone.