Civil Fights: Back to 'let's help Abu Mazen' dead-end

Since '93, Palestinians have played bad cop, those who are violent, and good cop those who denounce it.

bush olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP )
bush olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP )
Last week's Hamas takeover in Gaza was the logical culmination of Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Strip. To understand why, it is worth studying a Palestinian opinion poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center 10 months after the pullout. The June 2006 poll found that 34 percent of Gaza residents thought the new Hamas government was better than its Fatah predecessor, compared to 22 percent of West Bank residents; that 56 percent of Gazans opposed the Oslo Accords, compared to 45 percent of West Bankers; and that 58.2 percent of Gazans supported suicide bombings against Israel, compared to 37.1 percent of West Bankers. These results had two noteworthy elements. First, as JMCC director Ghassan al-Khatib told Haaretz, "this was the first time we found a significant disparity in positions between the West Bank and Gaza. Until now, the differences were two or three percent on questions such as support for Hamas and attacks." Second, this disparity defied the accepted dogma that "the occupation" radicalizes the Palestinians. In every category - support for Hamas, support for Oslo and support for suicide bombings - residents of the "occupied" West Bank proved significantly more moderate than residents of unoccupied Gaza, whence Israel had evacuated every last settler and soldier only a year before. Yet for anyone not blinded by dogma, this result was predictable, for two reasons. THE FIRST is that while Israel controlled Gaza, it waged war on radical organizations: arresting or killing terrorists, raiding weapon caches and combating arms smuggling. This made it difficult for radical groups to operate openly and amass strength. And in the West Bank, Israel's counterterrorism activities still prevent radical groups from acquiring too much power. Following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, however, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas made virtually no effort to combat terrorism and arms smuggling (whether due to unwillingness or inability is irrelevant). Egypt did equally little to stop the smuggling from its side of the border, while the international community declined to press either Abbas or Cairo on these issues. Radical groups could thus operate freely, including recruiting and training new troops and accumulating arms at a ferocious rate. These processes merely accelerated after Hamas won the January 2006 parliamentary elections. The result is that radical groups acquired far more power in Gaza than they could in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, turning them into Gaza's "strong horse" - the one worth backing. In the West Bank, in contrast, they remained the weak horse. THE SECOND reason is the pullout itself, which Palestinians overwhelmingly interpreted as an Israeli flight from Palestinian terror. That is an oversimplification, but hardly a baseless one: The plan's public support stemmed largely from Israelis' desire to "stop having their sons killed in Gaza." Gaza residents thus had concrete proof that violence worked: It expelled the hated Israeli occupier. The logical conclusion was increased support for Hamas and suicide bombings and decreased support for negotiated deals such as Oslo. West Bankers, in contrast, had a very different experience of violence: Years of suicide bombings inside Israel brought only a far more devastating occupation. Before the intifada started in 2000, Palestinians enjoyed self-rule in large parts of the West Bank; tens of thousands of them worked in Israel; and there was substantial freedom of movement both within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza. But Israel's efforts to protect its citizens from suicide bombers erased these gains: The army reoccupied all the areas it had vacated under Oslo; Palestinians were largely barred from working in Israel; and freedom of movement, both within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza, was sharply curtailed as Israel erected checkpoints and, later, the fence in an effort to catch terrorists before they reached Israel. Thus by June 2006, West Bankers had seen six years of violence make their lives steadily worse. And here, too, the conclusion was logical: decreased support for Hamas and suicide bombings and increased support for negotiated deals such as Oslo. THUS THE disengagement's effect was twofold. First, though Hamas technically won the 2006 elections in both territories, in Gaza, it had the power to openly recruit, arm and train the troops that carried out last week's takeover, whereas in the West Bank, due to Israel's military presence, it did not. And second, it could reasonably conclude that it had public support for a takeover in Gaza; in the West Bank, it does not, and knows it. Given that the world's goal now is to keep Hamas from seizing the West Bank as well, this analysis has obvious policy implications - and they are the opposite of the current diplomatic consensus. That consensus, just as after every eruption of Palestinian violence for the past 14 years, is that Israel must "strengthen" the PA (now confined to the West Bank) through more concessions - even though its leader has just proven himself unwilling (or unable) to fight Hamas in Gaza despite his forces' substantial numerical advantage. The proposed concessions range from releasing convicted terrorists through removing West Bank checkpoints to negotiating on final-status issues. Yet aside from undermining Israel's ability to fight Hamas in the West Bank, such measures would once again prove, just as they have for the past 14 years, that the "good cop, bad cop" routine - in which "bad" Palestinians commit violence that the "good" ones denounce, but make no move to prevent - pays: It creates international pressure for more Israeli concessions. And that is the opposite of the message the world should be sending, which is that failure to halt violence is counterproductive. Reversing 14 years of failed policy is hard. But if the world ever wants to see a Palestinian state, it must make the effort. And that means making it clear to Abbas, and to all Palestinians, that there will be no "diplomatic horizon," and also no Israeli security concessions, unless and until a government willing and able to fight terror emerges. Only if such a message is consistently enforced are Palestinians ever likely to conclude that refusing to fight their extremists does not pay.