The Hamas Cabinet?and the Humanitarian Crisis: Israel and the World Grapple with a Delicate Policy Challenge

March 21, 2006

Members of the American Jewish Committee’s Board of Governors participating in the Centennial Board Institute Mission in Israel visited the western Negev this Monday, where they witnessed the Israeli-Palestinian interaction at its most complex and sensitive point: the Erez Crossing. This site is designed to enable thousands of Palestinians (and in the putative future, tens of thousands, in a facility now being built that closely resembles a standard airport terminal) to travel into Israel for work, business transactions, or medical treatment and, at the same time, to provide necessary checks against terrorist infiltration. Here is the place where, under the gaze of civilian and military authorities, Israeli and Palestinian concerns, humanitarian needs, and security fears intersect on a daily basis—and do so with the constant threat of violence hanging in the air. This time, the intermittent sound of gunfire in the distance came from a clash, a mile or so away, between local Fatah “activists” and the Palestinian Authority “General Security” forces, apparently over money (seven people were wounded). There have been other days when Qassam rockets were fired nearby or a terror group targeted the crossing itself, unconcerned with what this would mean to the livelihood of their countrymen.

At the heart of all this, cool and confident, were the IDF officers—including our competent host, Major Uri—whose duty it is to maintain effective liaison with their Palestinian counterparts, facilitate the daily business of economic transactions and humanitarian aid, and respond to emergencies. Not for nothing was a poignant message recently painted, blue on white, in Arabic, clearly visible to Palestinians who come through: “When this crossing is closed [due to terror threats], who will take care of your needs? Fatah? Hamas? Jihad? Or rather, Israel?”

As the BOG delegation heard earlier on the same day from U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones, these very same questions now stand at the core of our current—and common—dilemmas. As Hamas prepares to ask the Palestinian Parliament, which they dominate, to swear in a cabinet purely of their movement’s own making—since all other Palestinian factions seem keen to let them take the fall—it is clear that neither Israel nor the U.S., and indeed no other players in the international arena, can offer direct aid to a government representing an unrepentant terror organization. Indeed, even the Turkish and Russian visits, as the ambassador pointed out, served only to confirm that Hamas shows no signs of reform, despite their hosts’ entreaties. Prime Minister-designate Isma’il Haniya may have made some conciliatory noises in his CBS interview—he even said he would never think of sending his son on a suicide bombing mission (and supposedly we should all be grateful for that, as if Hamas were ever short of other volunteers, and as if they did not put the mother of three such “martyrs” in parliament)—but his personal musings mean next to nothing. He may head the list of ministers, but the movement’s decision-making process lies elsewhere, and its real leaders, from Khalid Mish`al in Damascus on down, made it clear that they intend to adhere to the fundamental rejection of Israel’s right to exist, to the unbridled exercise of the so-called “right of return,” and to “resistance”—an elegant word for terror—as a tool.

Nevertheless, it is also in Israel’s interest, in no uncertain terms, to prevent a major humanitarian crisis, the first signs of which were visible this week, and to avoid pushing the Palestinian people as a whole into a dark corner where nothing but violence would seem to be an attractive option. Hence the arrangements made to send supplies through Kerem Shalom in the south (overcoming a negative Palestinian position, which reflected the vested interests of those who take a percentage at other crossings); and the willingness to take a risk, despite some specific warnings, and reopen the truck terminal at Karni. The foiling of a major terror attack by Islamic Jihad on Tuesday—based on highly penetrating intelligence, the suicide bomber was caught on his way to Tel Aviv, after a dramatic chase—did not alter the careful course designed by the present Israeli leadership.

After all, side by side with its adamant stand on terror, Hamas itself has come to recognize the benefits, for the Palestinian people and for Hamas as a movement, of the present calm—which is, in fact, a prolonged ceasefire or hudna (an Arabic term legitimized by the Prophet’s conduct). The last time they deliberately broke the hudna was two years ago in the port of Ashdod—I pass by the memorial for those murdered there every time I bring my son to his naval base—and they paid for this with the lives of their leaders; and the lesson was learned. (Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s preeminent reporter on Arab affairs, told us this week that the Hamas double bombing in Beersheva in 2005 was, in fact, a local initiative unauthorized by the leadership.) This consideration, as well as Israel’s need to maintain a common front with the U.S. and Europe, will play a major role in policy planning in the weeks and months to come.

To bring down Hamas, in other words, Israel needs to steal a trick from our adversaries’ bag. For years, Hamas has found ways to offer various social services which the Palestinian Authority, a monumentally dysfunctional entity, failed to deliver—from kindergartens to funerals. Now, as the squeeze is about to constrain (and hopefully break) the Hamas government as a political proposition, ways should be found to offer similar alternatives to a Palestinian public that may have voted against Fatah but can be “peeled off” Hamas, if it turns out that their bread is buttered elsewhere. Of course, it is not a bright idea for Israelis per se to run kindergartens in Gaza; but it is not beyond human ingenuity to find and fund other agencies that would provide such nongovernmental services.

True, when it comes to the UN agencies such as UNRWA, Israel (and the Jewish world) has had serious issues with their attitudes, conduct, and personnel—indeed, with their very raison d’être, which has been the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem as such. Similarly, some of the active foreign groups operating in the Palestinian territories are radically oriented toward the International Solidarity Movement’s anti-Zionist stance and can hardly be relied upon. Nevertheless, there are able and willing bodies, even within the UN family, and certainly among the broad camp of Palestinian NGOs and cooperatives (some of them closely allied with our friend Yehuda Paz—with whom AJC is now working on post-tsunami reconstruction in Sri Lanka—who leads the Israeli component of the International Cooperative Alliance, a world body with 222 member organizations representing 800,000,000 individuals). It will take time, money, and the usual measure of mistakes and mismanagement, as might be expected in such cases. Still, given the level of complex and daily interaction, and the extensive familiarity of the relevant Israeli bodies with the situation on the other side of the divide, as we saw for ourselves at the Erez Crossing, solutions can be found over time: inelegant, cumbersome, often in the grey zone of uncertainty and moral ambiguity, but nevertheless necessary.

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