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Sightless in Gaza

india Updated: May 19, 2007 23:41 IST
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Gaza is on the precipice. This has implications not only for the security of Palestinians and Israelis but also for further radicalising the region beyond. As Mogadishu enters its second decade of chaos and ungovernability there is a cautionary tale for neighbours seeking to fuel civil wars.

With Gaza collapsing, the key culprits are considered to be the Palestinians, Israel, the United States, and even the Arab states. The Palestinians have been unable to hold together a functioning unity government and have too easily resorted to violence in addressing their internal and external problems.

The gun battles are now often between factions within the factions of Hamas and Fatah, overlaid by simple criminality and clan-based feuds. The Palestinian public has understandably lost faith in the political process.

Israel left Gaza but maintains –– and even strengthens –– its occupation of the West Bank, and the attempt to de-link the two is always bound to fail. The unilateral disengagement from Gaza was described by its Israeli architect as an act of punishment, rather than peace and stability-building. Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement continue to be the proximate cause of the dire economic situation as reported again recently in a World Bank study. The US-led the drive for democratisation in the region only to become prime enforcer of an international embargo against a democratically elected Palestinian government after the 2006 Parliamentary elections.

For six years, America has provided no political hope and no political horizon to resolve the conflict, with policy instead meandering between ineffective conflict management and irresponsible conflict promotion. Most of the surrounding Arab states, acting in fear of their own Islamist oppositions, have unhelpfully intervened in Palestinian internal politics.

But the withering complicity of Europe in this sad state of affairs often goes unmentioned. Gaza is on Europe’s doorstep; what goes on there has a ripple effect among Europe’s minority Muslim communities. This is a European interest, and Europe should know better than America’s neocon Neanderthals. After the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, Europe timidly signed up to the preconditions for engaging the new PA government. The EU became part of the diplomatic and financial boycott of the Palestinians’ elected leadership.

Europe seemed so thrilled to be invited to the Middle East peace process big boys’ table of the international Quartet that being there became an end in itself.

Even with all the difficulties of managing common foreign and security policy in an EU of 27 nations, the absence of a European position is a damning indictment.

US deputy national security advisor Elliot Abrams is reported to have recently boasted to a meeting of Jewish Republicans that current American engagement on Israel-Palestine was “process for the sake of process” intended to silence nascent European and Arab criticism. And indeed the European response has been muted. European aid to the Palestinians has continued while its effectiveness has continued to dwindle. To circumvent the economic embargo, Europe led in the establishment of a Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) to channel international aid.

The humanitarian imperative behind TIM is laudable, and it provided a smart technical-bureaucratic solution; but, as so much in the Middle East, the temporary has become permanent, and the abnormal and unsustainable has been prolonged. Rather than reconfiguring its approach when a unity government was established between Fatah and Hamas, the EU simply continued with TIM.

As the World Bank has pointed out, and Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment has detailed in his study, “Requiem for Palestinian Reform: Clear Lessons from a Troubled Record”, this approach is undermining more than a decade of efforts at Palestinian institution-building. In fact, the EU failed to live up to its own at least implicit commitment to the Palestinians that, were a Fatah-Hamas unity government to be agreed, the embargo would be ended and normal aid channels resumed.

It is indeed informative and deeply distressing that the two European governments who have pursued engagement are the non-EU member states of Switzerland and Norway. If and when the situation in Gaza pulls back from the brink, then the international community should pause to consider its failed policies, and Europe should take a lead, at least in some areas.

The Quartet should take advantage of, rather than eschew, the use of variable geometry in its engagement with the
Palestinian Authority. If it is serious and committed, then Europe can do things that the Israelis and Americans, and even some Arab states, are unwilling or unable to do.

Israel’s lack of appetite for a dialogue with Hamas at this stage may be shortsighted, but it is certainly understandable, and anyway the feeling is probably mutual. At the last meeting of European foreign ministers, there was an apparent willingness to consider resumption of direct assistance to the PA.

EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner is apparently eager to push in this direction, but the reorientation should not stop there. Ideally, the new leaderships in France and Britain will be open to new thinking.

Reaching an accommodation with reformist political Islamists is a crucial part of any realistic pushback strategy against al-Qaeda. The Palestinian Hamas reality may not be the ideal laboratory conditions for initiating such an approach, but it is the one we have. Making a Palestinian unity government work is the best option for Palestinians, but also for Israel and an international community interested in stabilising security and creating the building blocks for a renewed peace process. It is also the choice of President Abbas and the Marwan Barghouti-affiliated young leadership faction of Fatah.

Europe should be pushing a three-point agenda –– part it can do alone, and part requires convincing others. First, EU diplomatic engagement with all parties, including Hamas, to promote a stable PA unity government. Second, resume direct financial assistance to the PA and encourage Israel to release Palestinian tax money it is holding.

And finally, work with the Quartet and the parties to extend any future Gaza ceasefire to the West Bank.

The Guardian