Who lost Gaza?

Don’t miss a story in this week’s New Republic by John Judis, “Clueless in Gaza”, on the events of  2006-07 in the Palestinian territories – when the American and Israeli governments tried to drive the elected Islamist movement Hamas from power, only to have it stage an armed takeover in the Gaza strip, thus entrenching the division between it and rival Fatah, who regained power in the West Bank.

Judis starts with a look at a new book, Tested by Zion, by Elliott Abrams, the neocon stalwart who oversaw the Bush administration’s policy in the area. Although Judis professes himself “not absolutely certain which version of events is right”, he pretty clearly believes that Abrams’s account is (as one would expect) a whitewash of a failed policy, and that a more accurate version can be found in an alternative account, which he summarises as follows:

… the Bush administration blundered at every turn in its dealings with the Palestinians. It encouraged an election on the assumption that Abbas and Fatah would win. When Hamas was victorious, it sought to nullify the results and to block a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, even though such a government might have actually become a credible partner in peace negotiations. And the Bush administration helped arm Fatah’s security forces against Hamas, which stoked the civil war and led to Hamas taking over Gaza. According to this narrative, Hamas was basically right about American intentions.

That’s certainly how it looked at the time. In 2007 I described American policy as “millions for civil war, not one cent for public services”: its priority was clearly the destruction of Hamas, despite the rhetoric of support for democracy and regardless of what effect it would have on the Middle East peace process.

But Judis spells it out in considerable detail, with the testimony of those who were involved. It’s a fascinating read.

Judis presents this largely as a tale of incompetence: “the Bush administration was utterly incompetent at foreign policy. … Nothing they did—from urging elections on the Palestinian Authority to attempting to oust Hamas from the PA—achieved what they hoped.” Only right at the end does one sense a glimmer of understanding of a different perspective.

American or Israeli politicians who back the idea of a “greater Israel” that incorporates lands that the Jews inhabited several millennia ago might agree … that Hamas’s takeover in Gaza boded well for Israel. But it would be hard for anyone who backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to agree. Hamas … would eventually have to be brought into any viable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The evaluation of a policy as a success or not depends on what it was trying to achieve. If you accept the goal of a peace settlement based on the creation of a Palestinian state, then Bush’s policy was clearly a disaster. But it’s much more logical to believe that policy was being run by people who did not accept that goal; who shared Likud’s view that a permanent state of conflict was preferable to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, and who were therefore trying not so much to advance the peace process as to stymie it.

From that point of view, the policy has been remarkably successful. No unified Palestinian government; no negotiations; no progress towards Palestinian statehood; no halt to the process of colonisation in the West Bank. Hamas still rules in Gaza, powerless to do much to help its people but invaluable to the Israeli government as a scapegoat for all the ills of the region.

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