Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hints of a change?
On Sunday, world donors are expected to fork over billions of dollars for reconstruction in Gaza. What changes do donors need to see to loosen the purse strings?
The wars between Israel and Hamas tend to be futile and frustrating for all. Each side ends up more or less where it began, having learned little, entrenched in its position, preparing for the next pointless, deadly round.
The shared need for change has nudged along a series of compromises that set the stage for a conference on Sunday in Cairo where world donors are expected to fork over billions of dollars for reconstruction in Gaza.
Hamas seems concerned about its standing with the people in Gaza, however cowed by authoritarian rule they might be. Thousands died in a war that started with the usual cycle of violent escalation and mutual recrimination but was certainly prolonged by the militant rulers of Gaza — and there is little to show for the sacrifice.
For Israel it's about world opinion, where a storm is brewing. Beyond horror at the devastation in Gaza there is growing impatience with the wider Israeli-Palestinian wrangle, a vexation made worse by Israel's continued settlement-building in the West Bank, in stark defiance of global opposition.
It's a rare confluence of interests that also draws in Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who needs to reverse the humiliating 2007 loss of the Gaza Strip, where his forces were expelled by Hamas militants with unbecoming ease.
After nine months of U.S.-led peace talks with Israel collapsed earlier this year, Abbas set up a "unity government" with Hamas, linking Gaza with the West Bank autonomy enclaves set up in the 1990s. A nimbler Israeli leadership might have welcomed that move: Many had previously argued, logically enough, that concessions to Abbas were dangerous since he didn't speak for all Palestinians. Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the airwaves calling on world leaders to shun the moderate Abbas for having allied himself with terrorists.
With the unity government blocked by Israel, its members unable to travel to Gaza, frustration grew. After a serious of violent events in the West Bank and an Israeli arrest sweep of Hamas activists there, Hamas launched rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. And despite several cease-fires, these did not stop until Israeli strikes left more than 2,100 Gazans dead, at least half and maybe more of them civilians. The seaside strip was in smoldering ruins.
Both sides claimed victory: Israel got the rockets to stop, and Hamas survived in power against an enemy whose army is one of the top forces in the world.
But no one is content with the situation.
Hamas is running out of money, has tens of thousands of homeless on its hands, and runs a territory not only blockaded by Israel from the land, sea and air, but also on the south by Egypt, whose new President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi abhors the Muslim Brotherhood that spawned Hamas.
Indeed, Hamas seems lucky to be in power at all: The first Brotherhood offshoot to gain any power, it has seen sister movements rise all over the region during the Arab Spring only to be undone by a backlash.
Israel, its economy slowed by the war, faces possible war crimes investigations. It says the military was as careful as possible given the need to stop rockets being fired from civilian areas. But that logic has trouble competing with the predicament of Gazans ruled by Islamic extremists they can hardly overthrow, under blistering air attacks.
Chastened, Netanyahu has unofficially but rather clearly backed off his opposition to the "unity government." After all, Israel itself negotiated indirectly with Hamas in Cairo for weeks leading up to the cease-fire that finally took hold in late August.
Hamas, for its part, has understood that the world will not let it run the Gaza reconstruction. Too great is the fear that money will be diverted to line pockets and purchase more rockets. Hamas has agreed to give Abbas' West Bank-based government a real say in running the border crossings with the outside world and in seeing the aid to its ultimate destination.
The startling image of the week was the Abbas-appointed prime minister and his Cabinet colleagues, allowed to travel from West Bank to Gaza by Israel, touring areas where once they dared not tread, surrounded by Hamas security men linking arms to protect them. It was symbolic but somehow convincing: Thursday's inaugural meeting of the Palestinian unity government in Gaza.
Donors needed to see such images ahead of Sunday's aid conference in Cairo, where the Palestinians are hoping to raise $4 billion — the price tag Abbas' government has set on even minimally setting things right. There is a sense that world donors, from the West and from the Gulf, will largely come through.
Reasons for skepticism certainly remain: Hamas refuses to give up its militia and, in effect, its security control in Gaza. Abbas will share rule only in a sense, and only at its pleasure. But money talks, and it does look as though Hamas will receive funds to pay tens of thousands of loyal civil servants.
In theory, new elections for the Palestinian Authority lie down the road. Constitutionally, they are long overdue. Abbas is in the ninth year of a four-year presidential term. Hamas has some legitimacy derived from its victory in the 2006 elections for a parliament — whose term has long expired.
Those elections may be held, or not. But then again, the very existence of the Palestinian Authority is hardly well-rooted. It stems from a 1994 interim agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that was meant to lead to a final status agreement in 1999.
Fifteen years and much violence later, the sides are surlier by far, and no closer to a real deal.
The Gaza reconstruction effort may focus attention for a while.
But down the pike lies a question that won't go away: Will the Holy Land ultimately be divided into an Israel and a truly independent Palestine — or will it continue to meld slowly into a single angry place, its component parts struggling to fit together, yet also straining to break free.
Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and leads AP's text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan
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