Haifa, Israel — The immediate fate of a battered Gaza seemed to hang in the balance, as negotiations for a cease-fire ramped up among Israel, Egypt and Hamas, with the United States and other Arab countries active on the sidelines.
As the diplomats negotiated, Gazans — their food supplies depleted, and their access to clean water and electricity increasingly limited under the commercial closure Israel has imposed — did all they could do to avoid becoming collateral damage of the Jewish state’s assault against Hamas.
But even as Hamas rockets continued to land in Israel, and as Israel continued the military campaign it launched in response, policy analysts and thinkers on both the Israeli and Palestinian side were looking further down the line.
When the dust settles with an inevitable cease-fire, what will Gaza look like?
Surprisingly, hawkish Israeli analysts and at least some Palestinians share points of agreement. Hamas’s popularity, they say, will decline after an initial surge. The two groups diverge widely on just what will happen after that.
Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, which is a department of the hawkish Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, believes that stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israel — the declared aim of Operation Cast Lead, as the Israelis have dubbed their military campaign — is only part of Israel’s objective.
“The long-term strategic goal is to restore the Palestinian Authority and eliminate Hamas control in Gaza,” he told the Forward.
In his reading of the situation, Israel’s blockade is, as planned, communicating to Gaza residents that being under Hamas comes with a cost to their standard of living.
“Israel could have ceased [Hamas] rocket fire by opening crossings,” he acknowledged. But “from a political point of view, it is not about rockets but about crossings. This is where Israel needs to be really tough.”
Many argue that the death and destruction of Israel’s campaign in Gaza will strengthen Hamas. But Kramer made a prediction: “After the fire, criticism will come to the fore.”
Fares Akram, a Gaza-based journalist, shared this view.
“The fighting can strengthen Hamas briefly,” he said in a phone interview with the Forward. “Traditionally, Palestinian groups under attack by Israel increase support.” But he added, “After the war ends, and once Hamas returns to ruling Gaza by force, this extra popularity will vanish.”
Akram said that two criticisms are already being heard against Hamas and will become more widespread after the fighting. “People say that the leaders should be taking responsibility but have gone underground and left people unguarded,” he said. “And people say that Hamas should not have provoked Israel without making efforts to ensure that the effect on the civilian population would not be so strong.”
Kramer believes that such a postwar dip in Hamas’s popularity could be the beginning of the end for the group.
This will be followed, he said, by a further drop, as pressure mounts from Gaza residents for the reconstruction of their neighborhoods in the war’s aftermath.
Many buildings have been destroyed or damaged, Kramer noted. But there are no building materials in Gaza, and neither sand nor aggregate can be smuggled in large quantities through what remains of Hamas’s network of tunnels connecting the group to Egypt.
“This is a very important leverage that Israel has, and which it will exercise in favor of the P.A.,” Kramer said.
Gaza residents will realize that only the P.A. has the ability to get Israel to open border crossings, and that only the P.A. will be trusted to work with Israel and/or Egypt, Kramer argued. This will lead to pressure for reintroducing the P.A., he said.
Hamas, in Kramer’s vision, will agree to some kind of partnership in which it plays a minor role, spinning it to the media and public not as a surrender of authority, but as action taken for the sake of the people.
“The building boom will come, and the P.A. will be seen as the agency of reconstruction,” Kramer predicted. The P.A. could conceivably also negotiate a peace settlement with Israel for Gaza and the West Bank, he added.
Kramer warned that two scenarios could derail this course of events: the possibility that Operation Cast Lead steers Hamas toward receiving legitimization from world leaders, and the danger that something akin to a civil war could break out between the different factions in Gaza.
Though its loyalists do not necessarily reject this scenario, the P.A. must tread a careful line. Suggestions abound that it passed intelligence to Israel to aid its operation, and that P.A. officials are cheering on Israel from behind closed doors while publicly condemning that operation.
Salah Abdel-Shafi, who serves as ambassador to Sweden for the P.A., as well as for the Palestine Liberation Organization, was keen to stress that the P.A. would refuse to make political gain out of Israel’s operation. “We, the P.A. will never, ever return to Gaza riding on Israeli tanks,” said Abdel-Shafi, a member of one of the most influential families in Gaza.
He said, however, that Hamas rule in Gaza would nevertheless come to an end — as the result of elections.
Abdel-Shafi said that within the next six months, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank would go to the polls.
“I’m pretty sure that we would not have the results we had in 2006,” said Abdel-Shafi, referring to the Hamas victory that year, which he says was a result of people “punishing Fatah for corruption and a lack of progress in peace negotiations.”
Though careful not to link political shifts to Israel’s operation, he said, “The vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza — including refugees — accept the two-state solution and want to go about their daily lives without restriction.” This is an indirect reference to Israel’s blockade against Gaza under Hamas. “People have become disillusioned with Hamas, and new elections will give us new results,” he said.
An optimistic Abdel-Shafi believes that if Barack Obama, America’s president-elect, proves helpful, 2009 will be a year of intense negotiations — “a last chance” — to finalize the two-state solution. A Gaza ruled by the P.A. will be part of those negotiations, he said.
Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib, a vice president of Birzeit University in the West Bank, foresees a very different chain of events — one much closer to that predicted by many critics of Israel’s Gaza operation. In his view, Operation Cast Lead’s legacy will be to “increase the political weight of Hamas and other Islamist movements in the region. [This] will increase the radicalization we have seen in the last 10 to 15 years.”
The war, the first with Israel in which Palestinians were represented not by Fatah but by Islamists, has helped Hamas to present itself to Palestinians as Israel’s main opponent, Khatib said. He added that the war has helped Islamist movements across the Arab world generate sympathy for Hamas, and will spur them to provide aid in the war’s aftermath.
Khatib, formerly a minister of planning with the P.A., predicted that Hamas would continue to rule Gaza with increased public support. Among other things, he anticipated that Hamas would claim credit for having secured the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, an expected provision of most cease-fire scenarios.
This outcome would have long-term import, Khatib predicted. Gaza, occupied by Egypt before 1967, will again become dependent on Egypt for supplies and jobs.
Khatib said: “We all know that Gaza needs to be dependent on something [for supplies and employment]. It used to be Israel, and I see this changing to Egypt.” Egypt could then find itself facing a stronghold for Hamas in Gaza in the same way that South Lebanon is for Hezbollah, he said.
For Israel, the rockets will mostly have been stopped as a precondition for opening Rafah. But Khatib believes that tying Gaza to Egypt will set back Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “This would consolidate the split between Gaza and the West Bank, and work against the progress of the two-state solution,” he said.