United States of Denial

One can never accuse the neo-conservatives of a lack of hubris.

Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick and Lynne Cheney, offers a prime example of this in an interview on ABC News. While Cheney was admitting the massive mistake the Bush Administration made in pushing for Palestinian elections in 2006, Cheney condescends as follows:  “I don’t think they [the Palestinians] were ready for it. I don’t think we should have pushed it.”

No, Liz. It is we who were not ready for it, and to a lesser extent, our friends in Fatah. Indeed, even the Israeli government, then under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, turned more and more cool to the idea as the elections approached, fearing significant gains for Hamas (despite some re-writing of personal histories, exceedingly few expected an outright victory for Hamas, let alone the overwhelming one that occurred).

Liz Cheney

Those elections, held under occupation in exceedingly difficult conditions, were universally praised as free and fair, and the results generated far less controversy than many American elections, including both of those which brought Cheney’s boss, George W. Bush to office.

The Hamas victory was due to three major factors:

  • The ineffectiveness of Fatah’s leadership in ending or easing the occupation. The second intifada had simmered down in early 2005, but the revised and intense measures Israel had put in place during the intifada were mostly still in place by the end of that year. Palestinian life was perhaps at the lowest point it has been, before or since. While many Palestinians questioned the intifada, that question was often based in the notion that Fatah, under both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had so badly blown the negotiated approach that the intifada was the only choice many Palestinians saw.
  • Corruption in Fatah. In 2006, before Salam Fayyad reformed many Palestinian institutions, corruption within Fatah continued apace. There is little doubt that corruption was a major problem under Arafat, who dealt with it as part of his system of control. Abbas was not so inclined, but also did very little to stem the tide of corruption in the PA.
  • Poor organization of campaigns by Fatah. In 2005, the Fatah party was on the verge of splitting in two. Although in the end, the breakaway group, al-Mustaqbal, agreed to stay with the party, out of fear of handing Hamas victory, the damage was done. In numerous districts, Fatah ran multiple candidates, splitting the vote.

These factors coupled with growing support for Hamas, either because their ideology was gaining popularity or, much more often, simply because people were fed up with Fatah and, in their desperation, were ready to try any alternative.

Plenty of analysts in the US, across the political spectrum, understood all of this, but it was completely lost on the Bush Administration. Their response, despite the endless propaganda about “spreading democracy to the Middle East” was to boycott the new government and to help arm Fatah forces in Gaza to overthrow the new PA. Hamas’ attack was pre-emptive, and resulted in their smashing Fatah in Gaza, forcing many to flee to the West Bank, killing others and imprisoning yet more. The result was a de facto Hamas government in Gaza, separate from the Palestinian Authority but also very different from the one that had been elected (for this reason, it is highly inaccurate to say that the governing body in Gaza was elected, an argument made, for different reasons, both by supporters of Hamas and supporters of hardline Israeli policies).

While Qassam rockets continued to flow out of Gaza, Israel imprisoned many Hamas legislators in the West Bank and tightened the siege on Gaza. The June 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit (and that is what it was—neither the abduction nor his captivity conform to the definition of prisoner of war) created a solid popular base for Israeli policies in the

Noam Shalit holds a picture of his son, Gilad

Strip.

And then, the 2008 cease-fire, the Israeli attack on Palestinian militants, the re-ignition of qassam fire, Operation Cast Lead, and all the other events that have occurred since that time.

The disastrous and criminal attack on the flotilla has finally brought the kind of attention to Gaza that it deserves. And now, the stark calls for lifting the siege have little connection to reunifying the Palestinian leadership or seeing new elections in Gaza. Neither of those things seems to favor Hamas, but Israel and the US continue to oppose either.

In part, this is simply a flawed strategy. As we’re seeing, eventually, there will be enough pressure from the international community to end the siege on Gaza, but it may come about in a way that does not serve the broader goal of a comprehensive resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Still, Israel and the US continue to insist on this bankrupt path.

But in equal measure, this is the result of unwillingness on the part of both Israel and the US to face up to their roles in creating this situation.

Israel’s miscalculations regarding Hamas, in fact, date back to before the group even formed. In the early and mid-80s, Israel actively encouraged the development of Islamic social networks linked to the Muslim Brotherhood as a hoped-for counterweight to the uniform popularity of the secular PLO.

One can hardly imagine a better example of “be careful what you wish for.” That social network coalesced into a political entity, as Israel had hoped. But it also sprouted a military wing, which they had not anticipated, and the two together formed Hamas.

But once the initial blunder had passed, one can certainly understand the Israeli reaction to the group that launched so many terrorist attacks against it. Blame or no blame, Israel had a real security concern there.

Presumably, though, an outside entity like the US, which was never under Hamas attack, should be able to think a bit more clearly. But such has not been the case.

Cheney went on to say that “If you look at the difference in life between the west bank and Gaza I think it puts the lie to the notion that somehow the Israelis are responsible for the conditions inside Gaza.”

That can set your head spinning. Apparently, Liz doesn’t understand that Israel has very different policies regarding the two areas. Behind that is a refusal to acknowledge how seriously misguided American policies have helped lead to this situation.

So, let’s explain this to Ms. Cheney. Three years of siege have not diminished Hamas’ military capability, they have enhanced it. They haven’t diminished Hamas’ hold on Gaza, they have enhanced it—and this despite the fact that Hamas’ popularity has declined over that time. Three years of siege have done nothing to free Gilad Shalit.

In those three years, though, Gazan civilians have been deprived of clean drinking water, and for 8-12 hours a day, of electricity. 80% of them depend on food aid to survive. According to the CIA, unemployment in Gaza was 40% in 2009 and 70% of the population lives under the poverty line. 90% of Gaza businesses have been destroyed.

The smuggling tunnels are the Strip’s only growth industry. And the smuggling of goods in the tunnels is heavily taxed by Hamas, enriching their coffers. Meanwhile, the growth of the tunnel economy makes it much easier to smuggle weapons than if consumer goods came in over land through the Israeli crossings.

Protest against the Gaza siege and the occupation this weekend in Tel Aviv

This is the very definition of a failed policy. Moreover, the simple fact is that until Hamas can be re-integrated into a Palestinian leadership, the reality of a two-state solution will be unattainable since the Palestinian territories are split.

All of these are reasons for the US to be talking with Hamas. The ongoing effort to isolate Hamas is understandable, but at some point, one has to deal with reality. And the reality is that, through a combination of factors which very much includes serious mistakes by Israel and the United States, Hamas is a reality that is here to stay. The sooner everyone starts dealing with that reality, the sooner Israel can shed its cruelest and most damaging (including to itself) policy. And the sooner peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians can at least start to look more realistic.

Or we can continue to listen to the various Cheneys and follow the path they’ve already led us down, which we already know leads only to disaster.

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