Sword dancing while Gaza starves

President George W. Bush and Prince Salman bin Abdul Al-Aziz (right) join sword dancers during the President’s visit to Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, 15 January 2008. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

A staggering disparity in images has emanated from the Middle East over the past two weeks. While US President George W. Bush received a warm welcome during his tour of the Persian Gulf, Israel pounded Gaza killing over 40 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians. Bush participated in sword dancing ceremonies, watched the prowess of hunting falcons, and in the United Arab Emirates he was finally greeted with the flowers that he once believed American troops would receive in Iraq. The obscene displays of wealth and extravagant gifts by the Gulf states, whose coffers are flush with cash from near-record oil prices, contrasted sharply with the images of death and destruction unleashed on impoverished Gaza. This was compounded by Israel’s total closure of the tiny strip late last week, leaving the 1.5 million Palestinian inhabitants with dwindling food and fuel supplies. As the only power plant in Gaza shut down Sunday night, Palestinian children in a candle-light march covered by Al Jazeera asked, “Where are the Arabs?” Yet, the Arabs weren’t the only ones absent from the scene. Indeed, Gaza appears to have been abandoned by the entire world, further revealing the state of fragmentation and isolation of the Palestinian national movement.

Responding to the crisis, the Arab states again demonstrated their impotence and callous disregard for Palestinian suffering. In the diplomatic equivalent of a sword dance, an emergency meeting of the Arab League was held in Cairo on Monday. The result was a request by the League that the UN investigate Israel’s actions. [1] However, it is unlikely that any such investigative body will be created. Even if impaneled, it is unlikely to have any impact, as was demonstrated with the UN investigative committee into Israel’s 2002 invasion of the Jenin refugee camp.

Displaying the height of cynicism, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak deployed 300 riot control troops to the Rafah border crossing rather than send food or fuel. Egypt, which has come under pressure from Israel and the US Congress for its inability to stop black-market tunnel traffic into Gaza, clearly wanted to demonstrate that while it publicly denounced the closure and privately mediated with the Israeli government, it was not about to unilaterally lift the siege. Instead, Hamas demonstrated on Wednesday that it could, as its militia destroyed 200 meters of the metal barrier separating Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah, allowing Palestinians to stream through and get needed supplies. Mubarak later claimed he ordered his troops not to interfere and that Palestinians could “come in and buy food” and return to Gaza as long as they were unarmed. [2]

Not to be left out, the UN held its own diplomatic sword dance in New York on Tuesday. Ambassador Riyad Mansour of the Palestinian Observer Mission to the UN, who five months ago blocked an effort by Qatar and Indonesia for a Security Council Resolution on the pending humanitarian crisis in Gaza, finally found the “specific need” absent in August. [3] Mansour called the situation “absolutely untenable” and argued that Israel was “creating a humanitarian catastrophe.” [4] However, the resolution faltered in the Security Council, like many before it due to American pressure. Instead, the Security Council expressed “deep concern” in a non-binding and ultimately meaningless Presidential Statement. [5] While world leaders converged on Paris last month to shower money on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to bolster the “peace process,” their silence on Gaza is deafening.

Back in Washington from its trip to the region, the Bush administration appears content to give Israel free reign and diplomatic cover in Gaza. Indeed, the escalation of Israeli military incursions and attacks began with Bush’s arrival in Tel Aviv and climaxed last week as the trip was winding down. In his joint press conference appearance with Abbas, Bush called Gaza a “tough situation” that was unlikely to be “solved in a year.” [6] The time table for that solution appears to have accelerated.

Rocket fire from Gaza has provided Israel with a convenient excuse to pursue punishing attacks and tighten its siege of the territory. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert justified Israel’s actions by stating that “a war is going on in the south, every day, every night.” [7] Meanwhile, Israel’s supporters in the US, echoing Israeli government spokesmen, argue that Israel cannot be expected to sit still while its cities are targeted by Palestinian rockets. Yet, no rockets have emanated from the West Bank and the occupation not only continues there, it is further entrenched through settlement expansion, continued construction of the Apartheid Wall, and near daily military incursions, arrests and assassinations. All of this occurring under the watchful eye of American mediators designated to judge Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the terms agreed at November’s Annapolis conference. After Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel claimed that Hamas had an “interest in exaggerating,” Israel relented slightly by allowing enough fuel to restart Gaza’s power plant on Tuesday. [8] However, implicit in the shipment was the threat of continued cuts and closures.

Perhaps most disturbing of all has been the actions of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). While Abbas has publicly uttered words of sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza and condemnation of Israeli actions, privately his officials have continued their ongoing whispering campaign against Hamas. An anonymous PA official explained to The Jerusalem Post that “ ‘We hope the residents of the Gaza Strip will now realize that Hamas has only brought disaster upon them’ ” and added, “ ‘the only way to resolve the crisis is by getting rid of Hamas.’” [9] More telling has been Abbas’ unwillingness to suspend negotiations with Israel until the blockade is lifted. If Gaza’s children ponder Arab inaction, the same can surely be said for the PA in Ramallah.

Nor is Hamas blameless in this crisis. It has been almost two years since its stunning election victory, and the movement has yet to decide whether it wants to be a resistance movement or a government — it cannot be both. If it is solely a resistance movement then it must begin to elucidate a clear political and military strategic vision for its followers, other political factions and the Palestinian people as a whole that demonstrates how it will achieve its goals. If it is an elected representative government, then it must begin to compromise and accommodate alternate points of view, even those it disagrees with. In addition, the movement cannot continue to behave like the opposition party when it has assumed the role of governing authority in Gaza. Although Israel bears ultimate responsibility as the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas wanted and took control of Gaza, and is at least partially responsible for the actions that occur within the territory and the consequences for the population. While this does not excuse Israel’s brutality or the criminality of its actions, the Palestinian people are owed an explanation from Fatah, Hamas and the other factions for the political and military strategies they pursue and their implications. The failure of these groups to reconcile and their continued adoption of tactics that have proven to be detrimental to the national movement demonstrate their selfish myopia and expose their negligence and incompetence.

As the region is gripped by the coldest winter in memory, the sword dancing will continue. Gaza will remain under siege with Israel allowing the minimal amount of food and fuel supplies into the territory, attempting to slowly punish the Palestinians living there. The US, the EU, the UN, the Arab League, and even other Palestinians will sit back and allow it to happen in a conspiracy of silence and complicity. One can only hope that the people of Gaza will forgive the world’s silence and inaction. But they have no reason to, nor should they.

Osamah Khalil is a Palestinian-American doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at okhalil@berkeley.edu.

Related Links

[1] Al Jazeera, “Worldwide Anger over Gaza Plight,” 23 January 2008.
[2] Reuters, “Palestinians blow up border wall and flood into Egypt,” 23 January 23, 2008.
[3] Osamah Khalil, “Shameless,” The Electronic Intifada, 31 August 2007.
[4] Al Jazeera, “Angry Gazans Storm Rafah Border,” 21 January 2008.
[5] Shlomo Shamir and Barak Ravid, “US pressure thwarts UN censure of Gaza blockade,” Haaretz, 22 January 2008.
[6] “President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Abbas Participate in Joint Press Availability,” 10 January 2008.
[7] Gulf News, “Israel At War in Gaza, Olmert Says,” 18 January 2008.
[8] Shlomo Shamir and Barak Ravid, “US pressure thwarts UN censure of Gaza blockade.”
[9] Yaakov Katz and Khaled Abu Toameh, “Israeli official: Gaza food will run out in days,” The Jerusalem Post, 20 January 2008.