Lost amid the hand-wringing over Israel’s botched flotilla raid last month and speculation about the diplomatic fallout for the Jewish state has been perhaps the most significant development, namely the resurgence of Hamas.
On political and financial life support not even a month ago, Hamas has become the face of the Muslim world’s newest cause célèbre: ending the “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza. This newfound determination cannot end a “humanitarian crisis” that didn’t exist in the first place, but it just might end the political and economic crises that had been besetting Hamas over the past year.
While understandable on the surface, President Obama’s call last week to curtail the blockade of Gaza so as to stop only weapons is exactly what Hamas needs to emerge stronger than it was when it won the 2006 election.
Even though it was never well-explained to the international community, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade had a crucial secondary aim beyond thwarting weapons smuggling: crippling the Islamist regime.
What few Western leaders seem to realize is that the blockade was working. Hamas was in freefall, with its cash flow drying up and most Gazans turning on the party they had backed just a few years earlier.
This March, according to the Associated Press, the Hamas government was only able to pay most employees roughly half of their salaries. Not coincidentally, this came right on the heels of Egypt’s most aggressive efforts to clamp down on smuggling, from building an underground steel wall to detonating tunnel entry points on Egyptian soil.
The following month, Hamas was once again unable to meet its payroll. This shortfall happened despite a bevy of new taxes imposed by Hamas on everything from cigarettes to smuggled automobiles and gasoline.
The culprit for Hamas’ financial woes? “We are having difficulties in getting the money in (to Gaza) because of the siege,” Deputy Finance Minister Ismail Mahfouz reportedly wrote on the Gaza Finance Ministry’s website.
While far from suffering a “humanitarian crisis”—Gazans have not suffered shortages of food or medicine—life has gotten markedly worse in the Hamas-controlled territory since 2006, which has been the point of the siege all along.
The same world community now objecting to crippling an unreformed terrorist organization that consolidated its power through a blood-soaked coup was almost universally supportive of sanctioning and isolating apartheid South African—the goal of which was to sow unrest to help topple the government.
Never before have Palestinians been forced to make a stark choice between supporting terrorism and pursuing prosperity; until now they’d more or less been able to enjoy both simultaneously. While growth was stagnant or negative during most of the so-called “intifada,” Palestinians started their terror campaign in the fall of 2000 with the wealthiest non-oil Arab economy.
Faced with the reality that continued Hamas leadership likely would result in even greater misery, most Gazans had soured on the terrorist group. According to figures released this January by respected pollster Nabil Kukali of the Palestinian Center For Public Opinion, Gazans’ support for Hamas had plummeted to 22%—making the Islamists much less popular in Gaza than Fatah.
In a surprisingly candid interview with Public Radio International this January, Hamas Senior Advisor Ahmed Yousef admitted that Hamas’ popularity was suffering “because of the sanction[s], the pressure.”
Should the economic siege of Gaza be broken, most Gazans will likely credit the “martyrdom” of the nine dead flotilla passengers—which only happened because of the violent ambush of descending Israeli soldiers. Though not the doing of Hamas, it certainly followed the spirit of Hamas—a point that probably won’t be lost on most Palestinians.
While clever Western diplomats might believe that they can chart a path that will enable Fatah to receive the credit for ending the economic siege of Gaza, they would be wise to study carefully the aftermaths of Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005.
In both instances, domestic political concerns were clearly the primary motivation for Israel pulling back military forces, yet each time, Hezbollah and Hamas dubiously claimed credit for driving out the “Zionist enemy.”
The gambit worked both times.
With Egypt temporarily opening its border with Gaza in a show of “solidarity”—an obvious pandering to its largely anti-Israel population—Hamas appears to have rebounded considerably. And that’s even before Gaza receives its portion of the proposed U.S. aid package of $400 million for the Palestinians.
When Israel announced Thursday that it would allow the transfer of even more food into Gaza and ease restrictions on materials for civilian projects under international supervision, Hamas quickly refused the offer. Why? Because, as explained by senior Hamas official Ismail Radwan, Hamas is holding out until Israel decides to “completely lift the siege on the Gaza Strip.”
If President Obama is successful in breaking the economic siege of Gaza, his victory will be a Pyrrhic one. Economic revival in Gaza cannot help but reinvigorate Hamas, thus increasing terrorist attacks against Israel and dashing whatever hopes Mr. Obama himself harbored for achieving peace.
In other words, ending the economic siege of Gaza will lead to the same ending as so many other paths paved with good intentions.
Joel Mowbray is a syndicated columnist.
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