WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is worried that the Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to confront terrorism and lawlessness in Gaza Strip thwart international efforts to transform the area’s failing economy.
There is widespread international agreement that vigorous economic development is necessary for Gaza to function effectively after Israel completes its pullout from the area. The international community’s economic envoys to the Palestinian territories unanimously say, however, that such development requires significantly more stability both within Gaza and between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The initial indications are not encouraging,” a Bush administration official said. The official cited several instances in recent days — since Israel completed its evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank — which suggest that P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is failing to confront his internal opposition.
This past Sunday, hours before two security guards were injured when a Palestinian suicide bomber attempted to blow up a bus in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, Hamas, the largest Palestinian terrorist group, publicly warned Abbas not to try to confiscate its weapons. In a rare video recording that was given to television stations, Muhammad Deif, commander of Hamas’s military wing, said, “We warn all those who try to touch the weapons of those who liberated Gaza.”
Implying that Abbas was taking undue credit for the Israeli withdrawal, Deif addressed “the brothers in the Palestinian Authority,” saying, “The liberation of Gaza has been realized thanks to the sincere actions of the mujahedeen, and as a consequence our weapons will stay in our hands.”
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya made similar comments last week at a huge rally hailing Israel’s “defeat” in Gaza. On Wednesday, even the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, an offshoot of Abbas’s Fatah movement, announced it will not disarm.
“We will continue to brandish our weapons in the face of the [Israeli] occupation as Gaza is only the first step towards the liberation of all of the land of Palestine,” read an Al-Aqsa statement.
Abbas has been telling American officials and other foreign diplomats that he intends to disarm Hamas.
This week, speaking in Gaza before a Palestinian youth group, Abbas used the holy-war terminology of his Islamist opponents, as he declared that “the ‘lesser Jihad’ has ended and the ‘greater Jihad’ of construction, development, security, and tranquility for the Palestinian people has begun.” Abbas told his audience that although Israel’s evacuation of Gaza was achieved thanks to the sacrifice and blood of Palestinians, there no longer would be a need for resistance or weapons after Gaza was emptied of Israeli settlers and military forces.
But senior P.A. officials, including Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, have indicated that the Palestinian militant groups would not be disarmed. And some officials are privately revealing that such action should not be expected before the Palestinian parliamentary elections take place in January 2006.
Observers said that Abbas also showed weakness last week in dealing with local gangsters. He freed from prison three members of a powerful local gang in order to win the release of a French journalist kidnapped by their relatives.
The P.A.’s inability to rein in chaos on the streets of Gaza is causing anger among Palestinians. Last week, the Palestinian Authority Bureau of Statistics, together with a Palestinian think tank, issued a report that highlighted the “chaos of arms” on the Palestinian street. It mentions clashes between Palestinian security services, kidnapping of local officials and foreigners, assassinations, and assaults on local officials and institutions. In the first six months of this year, 15 people were killed and 165 were wounded in such incidents. Last year, 93 people were killed and dozens were kidnapped.
Abbas’s apparent inability to provide a reasonable level of security in Gaza is raising severe concerns among policy makers in Washington and among its partners in the international “Quartet” — Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — that are sponsoring the so-called Road Map peace plan accepted by both Israel and the Palestinians. Quartet members worry that plans to revitalize Gaza’s economy will collapse.
“In order to get the economic recovery process moving again, you need some difficult political decisions to be made,” said Nigel Roberts, who directs the World Bank’s program in the West Bank and Gaza. “You’ve got to create the environment in which major public and private investments are going to take place.”
Since no such political decisions seem likely before Palestinian elections take place, a key question is whether the international short-term economic recovery plan for Gaza would be capable of providing a tangible sense of transformation for the local population and grant Abbas the electoral dividend he seeks.
In the short run, during the next several months, Roberts said, the international community will be able to pass hundreds of millions of dollars on to the P.A. to fund short-term job-creating projects. The P.A. is expected to submit a list of several-dozen such projects to the international agencies within days.
“That kind of shot in the arm is important, but I doubt if it will have any real political impact,” said former U.S. ambassador to Israel Edward Walker, presidentand chief executive officer of Washington’s Middle East Institute. Success, he said, depends on the ability of the Palestinians — and of Israel — to create a stable environment in Gaza, which will dramatically reduce risk for potential investors.
Security may be the main challenge, but it is not the only one. “The reality is that even if things go well, both in terms of security and the reduction in [Israeli] closure [of the Palestinian territories], you are looking at a gradual process of economic recovery,” Roberts said.
The Karni crossing on the northwestern border of Gaza with Israel is a case in point. It is the only cargo terminal for goods imported into and exported out of Gaza, and transported from Gaza to the West Bank. A notorious bottleneck, the crossing station currently processes only about 50 truckloads a day, while demand exists for about 150 to 200 truckloads daily, Roberts said.
“If an economic recovery really takes place, you will be looking at many hundreds of trucks a day,” he said. Such traffic could not be handled for anywhere from 12 to 18 months, when several mammoth X-ray scanning devices are expected to arrive in Karni. The new machines would allow for entire trucks and their trailers or containers to be scanned for explosives and other illegal materials, without having to unload the cargo. Currently, the terminal uses old palette scanners; cargo is unloaded from one truck and placed into another before being allowed into Israel.
“You could say that the recovery of Gaza depends to a very great extent on the efficient and reliable functioning of the Karni crossing,” Roberts said. “And, yes, there is quite a lag there.”
At the end of the day, Roberts said, “creating an environment in which people have a sustained confidence, in which people make big investments and where donors are willing to go to the well and do considerably more than they have — that requires a belief that there is a fundamental change in the dynamics.”
“The dynamic that matters most is the bilateral security relationship” between Israel and the Palestinians, Roberts said. “That is the key.”
But most observers seem to agree that achieving such a dynamic and using it to stabilize the political situation in Gaza is a long shot.
“I don’t know that anybody is capable of dealing with the real problem,” said Walker. “And the real problem is the fragmentation in the Palestinian society and the political jockeying that they are going to have, which in Gaza, like in Iraq, tends to be done with guns.”