Gaza Dispatches: Violence Down, But Crises Loom

By Orly Halpern

Published June 20, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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The Media War

The street fighting in Gaza abated last week, but Hamas and Fatah are still battling it out online and over the airwaves for the hearts and minds of Palestinians.

“There are two stories: the Fatah story and the Hamas story,” said Nasser Laham, the frazzled chief editor of the independent Ma’an Network and News Agency. “Each one wants us to take their story and abandon the facts.”

Both Hamas and Fatah have their own television and radio stations, as well as Web sites and local newspapers, and senior officials from both groups have used them to level accusations usually reserved for Israelis. On Fatah’s Palestine TV, spokesmen labeled Hamas as “occupiers.” Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, for its part, called Fatah “treasonable… collaborators.”

Independent journalists, Laham told the Forward from Ma’an’s Bethlehem headquarters, have received threats on their lives “in every way you can imagine: by e-mail, SMS, phone and in the field.” Reporters and editors at Ma’an, which provides 24-hours news on Arabic and English Web sites and on local television and radio stations, have been besieged by efforts to direct their coverage.

“They need us as an independent agency to say ‘Yes, you’re right,’” Laham said.

The Humanitarian Crisis

As the already dire situation in Gaza worsens, Israel is facing the dilemma of how to prevent a full-blown humanitarian crisis without aiding Hamas. One hardliner, former Shin Bet director Yaakov Peri, argued in a Yediot Aharonot commentary Tuesday that Israel needs to lock the border gates, throw away the keys, and let Egypt or the international community take responsibility for the almost 1.5 million residents of the coastal strip.

For the meantime, Israel has decided to continue its policy of allowing basic supplies to reach Gaza. Drinking water and electricity supplied by an Israeli power grid continue to be delivered to the strip, and on Tuesday Israel let in emergency food and medical supplies.

Israeli authorities, however, remain confounded over what goods to allow in.

“We don’t want to help Hamas, but we also don’t want a humanitarian crisis,” said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the military’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. “The question is, what is a humanitarian crisis? Some say, if you can’t provide education or people can’t get to their job, then that is also a humanitarian crisis.”

Last Sunday, the Israeli fuel company Dor Alon, the sole provider of gasoline to Gazan gas stations, said it was cutting off the supply of gasoline for cars. The next day, it retracted its decision.

All commercial and agricultural imports and exports have been frozen. Israel has yet to decide if it will allow them to cross. The problem, Dror said, is that “the moment people make money and economic life is good, Hamas is stronger.”

The Power Vacuum

With two separate Palestinian governments now operating in Gaza and in the West Bank, the questions of the day are if and when Hamas and Fatah will return to power sharing and who will lead them if they do.

On Sunday, Fatah-aligned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in an emergency Cabinet to replace the Fatah-Hamas unity government he had dissolved last week. The West reacted approvingly, unfreezing millions in aid that it had withheld since Hamas swept to power last year.

The new Cabinet, however, has little control over Gaza, prompting more than a few observers to wonder how long Abbas and his emergency government can last. In a Palestinian poll taken last month by Near East Consulting, 43.7% of respondents supported Abbas’s resignation. According to Palestinian law, Abbas’s new Cabinet requires legislative approval after 30 days, a near impossibility given the number of Parliament members affiliated with Hamas.

Hamas rejects the emergency government, which is led by former Palestinian finance minister and former World Bank official Salam Fayyad. The organization is calling for dialogue and reconciliation with Abbas and Fatah, and a return to a power-sharing formula. Israel wants Hamas isolated and fears that Abbas, in need of Palestinian support, will reconcile with Hamas as he did last March in Mecca.

That possibility has prompted such Israelis as former Shin Bet director Gideon Ezra to call for the release of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, in the hopes that his release will shore up popular support for Fatah.

“I would have freed Barghouti a while ago,” Ezra told Israel Radio this week. “Abbas needs able leaders in addition to Salam Fayyad.”

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