The Problem Nobody Wants

There’s only one winner in Gaza: Hamas.

Salam Fayyad

Salam Fayyad is a serious man. He takes his job seriously; he talks seriously; he has no time for crowd-pleasing jokes. Fayyad is prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, or what’s left of it. This Monday, he bored his audience at Washington’s National Press Club for 20 minutes or so before mentioning the elephant in the room: Gaza.

Fayyad—no surprise here—isn’t happy with the way things are going in Gaza. He rejects “the firing of rockets and all forms of violence from Gaza”—that is, the daily shelling of Israeli towns by Palestinian militants. But he also rejects “the disproportionality of Israel’s military actions and the collective punishment it has imposed on our people in Gaza”—that is, the blockade and the assassinations (“targeted killings”) imposed by Israel in a failed attempt to curb Palestinian attacks.

Fayyad is in an interesting position: He rejects the actions of both sides and is left playing the impotent role of opinionated observer—but nothing more than that. Fayyad now treats Gaza just like everyone else does: He’s willing to offer advice, to nod, to understand or condemn, to express worry, and to be concerned. But a solution? None is on offer.

The same is true for the Palestinian Authority, which insists that the people living in Gaza are “our people” but also claims it has no way of exerting control over the area that’s now controlled by Hamas.

Israel, Egypt, the United States, and the rest of the international community all have good reasons to want someone else to take care of the problem.

Israel can’t stop the rockets, but it certainly doesn’t want to reoccupy Gaza for the obvious reason: This is a place you can get into very easily, but getting out is always problematic. Israel also doesn’t want to talk directly to Hamas about a cease-fire, since such talks would replace a short-term problem with a more profound quandary. It would give Hamas time to strengthen its rule over the area and entrench its semimilitary forces. It would also undermine Fayyad and his boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

If you talk to Hamas, you are saying that the more moderate Fatah faction of the Palestinian leadership is not the only legitimate interlocutor. This runs contrary to the central concept of the Annapolis summit and the current two-track peace process (that is, implementing the road map for peace and concluding a peace treaty by the end of 2008).

The so-called international quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations) can’t solve this problem for Abbas or for Israel. They can give Israel the benefit of their understanding—mostly by failing to condemn its sometimes brutal military actions. They can give Abbas more money and support as he tries to strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s stand in the West Bank. Their solution for Gaza is, well, to be hopeful. Maybe someone, somehow, will take care of the situation. Some entertain the notion of an international force. (It will never happen.) Some believe that giving Abbas control over border crossings would do the trick. (Why would Hamas allow such a thing?) Some hope that Palestinians will eventually “reject” Hamas when they see some progress on the political negotiation front. (How, exactly, would they do that?)

The Arab world—specifically, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have been heavily involved in Palestinian politics in previous negotiations—wants Abbas and Hamas to re-form a unity government. This might solve Egypt’s problem—they want to maintain good relations with both Palestinian factions—but it would ensure that no peace talks could happen with Israel. It would also send a message that Washington is very reluctant to send: Radicalism pays.

Egypt’s role in this stalemate is that of ultimate realist. When the border was breached by Gazans a couple of weeks ago and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians entered the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, Israel dared to consider an optimistic scenario: let Gaza become an Egyptian problem. Cairo didn’t take the bait. The border was resealed, and the Egyptians refused to play the role that both Israel and the United States were casting them in. With Al Jazeera broadcasting live from the border, Egypt couldn’t participate in the containment of Gaza. This was an important lesson: Arab rulers are more easily manipulated by the power of the “Arab street” than they are by the U.S. State Department.

How long will Abbas be able to resist talking with Hamas? Apparently, he is waiting for a more opportune moment. He wants to negotiate from a position of strength. The trouble is that until that time, there are many people, mostly civilians, who are suffering in and around Gaza, and there are many players searching for a magic formula to reverse the events that brought Hamas to power. There’s only one faction that’s winning. That’s the one that’s ready and willing to take control, forcefully, over Gaza: Hamas.