Punishing Hamas has backfired
Want leverage? Then engage the Islamist regime.
The policy of isolating Hamas and applying sanctions to Gaza has been a predictable failure. Violence to both Gazans and Israelis is rising. Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair. The credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatic forces has been grievously damaged. The peace process is in tatters.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, Hamas's hold on the Gaza Strip, purportedly the principal target of the policy, has been strengthened. Since Hamas assumed full control in June 2007 the already-tight sanctions, imposed following the Islamists' January 2006 electoral victory, have been tightened further. Israel – upon which Gazans depend almost entirely for relations with the outside world – even curtailed cross-border passenger and goods traffic.
Israel has hardly been alone. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, seeking to undermine Hamas's standing, has done its part to cut off Gaza and prevent the normal functioning of government. Feeble protests aside, the international community has at best been a model of passivity.
The logic behind the policy was that by putting pressure on Hamas, they could prevent rocket launches into Israel. This would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Hamas could not deliver and ought not be trusted. The hope was that the West Bank, buoyed by economic growth, a loosening of Israeli security measures, not to mention a revived peace process, would serve as an attractive countermodel. But the theory has not delivered on any of these counts.
Within Gaza the debate about whether the sanctions have helped or hurt Hamas's efforts to consolidate power is, for all intents and purposes, over. The Islamist movement has come close to establishing an effective monopoly on the use of force and a near-monopoly on open political activity. It has refashioned the legal and legislative systems. And it enjoys freer rein to shape society through management of the health, education, and religious sectors.
By boycotting the security, judicial, and other government sectors, the Palestinian Authority turned an intended punitive measure into an unintentional gift, creating a vacuum that Hamas has filled. The absence of any international involvement has meant the absence of leverage. The closure of the crossings has caused the private sector to collapse, eroding ordinary citizens' traditional coping mechanisms, increasing their dependence on those who govern, and weakening a constituency traditionally loyal to the Palestinian Authority.