Condemned to misery by its leaders? How Gaza can choose life

The burgeoning truce with the PA is Hamas's admission that when it came to governing it had no idea what to do.

A Palestinian boy standing by a gate looks on as he waits for the return of his relatives after performing the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, September 13, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMED SALEM)
A Palestinian boy standing by a gate looks on as he waits for the return of his relatives after performing the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, September 13, 2017
They had 10 years, and they squandered them all.
After several weeks of exchanges of fire in spring 2007 in which scores were killed from both sides, and after Hamas forces threw from rooftops Fatah members like presidential bodyguard Muhammad Sweirki, and after Palestinian Authority gunmen assassinated clerics like Imam Muhammad al-Rifati – Hamas won.
PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah holds cabinet meeting in Gaza, October 3, 2017. (Reuters)
The Islamists who defeated the PA in the previous year’s local election now had Gaza all for themselves. Compelled to deliver food, housing, jobs, electricity, sewage, hospitals, law and order to more than 1.5 million people, Hamas had to decide what to deliver first: life or war.
It chose war, and delivered death.
CHOOSING LIFE did not require conversion to Jeffersonian democracy, Hamiltonian capitalism or Herzlian Zionism. It just demanded several years of economic dedication, of the sort fellow Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan displayed those days after having reached Turkey’s helm.
Such a focus crossed no mind in Hamas, which took the treasure and manpower that could have made Gaza flourish and invested them in producing arms, conscripting Arabs and rocketing Jews.
The consequences for Hamas’s voters were catastrophic.
Unemployment, according to World Bank figures, reached 42%, fuel ran out, sewage overflowed, and the thirst for battle with Israel triggered wholesale bloodshed, carnage and despair.
This is all besides the diplomatic sphere, where Hamas led Gaza to a dead end, regardless of tanking its economy and keeping its Israeli flank ablaze.
Gaza "unliveable" 10 years after Hamas seized power - UN
Up north, when civil war erupted in Syria, Hamas bet against Bashar Assad, who summarily expelled it from Damascus and also blocked his Iranian allies’ handouts to Hamas. Iran’s infusions have since returned, but in smaller portions, while a victorious Assad now counts Hamas as an enemy for life.
Hamas made the wrong bet also down south, as it invested in the short-lived government of Mohamed Morsi, thus emerging also on the wrong side of Egypt’s future.
Further afield, Hamas’s investment in Turkey also went awry when it learned that Ankara cared for Gaza less than it cared for Israel’s newfound gas.
Lastly, Gaza’s strategic investment in Qatar also collapsed when Egypt and Saudi Arabia laid diplomatic siege to the audacious sheikhdom that became a political thorn in Cairo’s and Riyadh’s sides.
That, in brief, is how Hamas ended up economically, politically and also diplomatically bankrupt, so much so that two weeks ago it disbanded the shadow cabinet with which it had provoked Mahmoud Abbas, and this week it humbly hosted PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah for talks on “reconciliation.”
This is not reconciliation. It’s surrender.
THE BURGEONING truce between Hamas and the PA may unfold in many ways both good and bad, but for Gazans it should loom as proof that the Islamists they crowned had no idea how to govern, and no intention to better their lives.
Scholars will try to understand why Hamas failed to govern, and whether that failure reflected a local situation or a broader syndrome: On the one hand will loom the antithesis of Erdogan, an Islamist who delivered economically and lasted politically, and on the other hand will loom the analogy of Morsi, an Islamist who neglected the economy and was soon overthrown.
Whatever the academic conclusion concerning the relationship between Islamism and government, in Hamas’s case the conclusion is obvious: war was their only thing, and such it remains.
That is certainly what Abbas suspects, which is why he told Egyptian TV Monday that he will not allow Hamas to emulate in Gaza Hezbollah’s model in Lebanon. That model means outsourcing civilian government to someone else, while commanding a separate army and creating a state within a state.
Such a formula, of maximum authority and minimum responsibility, is any politician’s dream, but it defies political gravity, even for Hezbollah.
The Lebanese organization has a Shi’ite population and territory that create a tribal pocket where its clerics are natural rulers. Within that realm, it does deliver government. Hamas has no such tribal distinctiveness, and therefore no such territorial pocket. It could have created one over the past decade, had it chosen a different path, but it made a different choice, and will now have to fight daily with the PA over influence in Gaza’s every street.
This, of course, does not mean that Gaza is in for better times; the PA’s economic performance has also been poor. But in Gaza Abbas now has an opportunity to deliver the hope that Hamas has quelled.
FANATICISM harks back millennia in Gaza.
When Alexander the Great marched from Europe to Asia, all local cities along the eastern Mediterranean opened their doors to his dreaded army except one: Gaza. After besieging, storming and taking it, Alexander tied Gaza’s leader by his feet to a horse and somewhere between today’s Rafah and Beit Hanun dragged the man to his death.
Yet there was also a different Gaza, one that sought peace and spawned wealth.
In the first century CE, for instance, Gaza was the linchpin of the Nabataean Kingdom’s tri-continental spice trade through a seaport that competed with Alexandria to its south and Caesarea to its north.
Gaza also farmed and manufactured over the centuries, supplying much barley to Europe and also making bandages that to this day are known universally as gauze pads.
Sprawling along a pristine coastal strip whose climate, fertility, and flatness are ideal for tourism, farming and industry, Gaza can easily restore its mercantile heritage by building with Egypt a seaport on both sides of their joint border, north of Rafah.
Flanked by new desalination and power plants, the port would service a new Riviera and industrial zone along the sparsely settled northern Sinai’s 180-km. coastline, where the same Gazans that Hamas condemned to misery would now commute daily on a new railway and become gainfully employed.
Yes, this sounds like science fiction, but the fact is it is very doable. All it takes is choosing life.