What if Hamas had been allowed to govern free of siege?

In January 2006, with a 78 percent voter turnout in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas won 76 out of 132 parliamentary seats.

Issam Rimawi APA images

Seventeen years ago, on 1 November 2006, Israel launched a military ground invasion into Gaza, one that is eerily similar to the one unfolding today. The stated aim of so-called Operation Autumn Clouds in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, which Israel occupied for six days, was to put an end to rocket attacks on Israel.

Months earlier, beginning in June 2006, Israel bombed civilian infrastructure in Gaza, destroying electricity networks, sewage lines, bridges and roads during a separate military operation. At the time, both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International similarly called Israel’s actions war crimes. And, like what we are seeing today, Israel also shut off water and electricity and restricted the entry of fuel, which hampered the operations of hospitals in Gaza.

These attacks occurred before Israel formally imposed a siege on Gaza in 2007. Israel justified its blockade by claiming that its purpose was to reduce rocket attacks.

However, after 16 years of siege, it is inarguably clear that Israel has failed to stop Hamas’ resistance – no matter the number of fighter jets, tanks and battleships it deployed to Gaza, no matter the number of bombs it dropped.

It might therefore help us understand where we are today by looking at the origins of the siege and sanctions.

Elections for all?

In June 2002, US President George W. Bush called for elections in the West Bank and Gaza to encourage the emergence of a new generation of leaders. Such elections would be essential, he said, for the creation of a Palestinian state.

To encourage broader political participation, all political parties and independent candidates were encouraged to run in the elections, including Hamas, the movement the US had listed as a terrorist organization since 1997. Oddly enough, Fatah and Israel were not in favor of the elections while Hamas and President Bush were. A rather strange alignment.

To ensure the electoral process was free and fair, 900 international observers were present and confirmed that the elections were carried out under “democratic and transparent conditions despite all the difficulties, due mainly to the presence of the Israeli occupying forces,” according to the European Institute of the Mediterranean, a European think tank.

Ordinary Palestinians were excited about having their voices heard, given the high levels of corruption within Fatah and the failure of the Oslo accords, which Hamas opposed from the beginning. Under Fatah’s leadership, there was no visible sign of a Palestinian state, and the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank was rapidly increasing.

What no one foresaw, including Hamas, was the movement’s landslide win.

An unexpected victory

In January 2006, with a 78 percent voter turnout, or just over 1 million out of 1.3 million eligible voters living in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas won 76 out of 132 parliamentary seats. In March 2006, Hamas quickly formed a new Palestinian Authority (PA) government and its Cabinet members were sworn in.

This election outcome came as a shock, not only to Fatah, but also to global think tanks, Israeli intelligence, international observers and the Oval Office.

How could a blacklisted entity that has endured so much negative publicity overwhelmingly win free and fair elections?

While the original charter of Hamas called for the destruction of Israel – though this clause was later dropped in 2017 – the movement had long provided services in Gaza to meet Palestinians’ health and social needs. Hamas also provided hope.

Many Palestinians viewed Hamas positively when compared with Fatah, which was widely seen as corrupt and inept, as collaborators with the occupation. When Israel attacked Palestinians, Fatah was either absent or would indirectly join in on the persecution. Hamas, though, could be counted on by Palestinians to give a tit-for-tat answer, or stand up for the Palestinians.

As such, Israel and the US balked at the election results and refused any dialogue with the Hamas-led government. The US, EU and Israel demanded that Hamas recognize Israel, disavow violence and accept all previous agreements between Israel and the PA.

Hamas categorically refused to comply with these shifting goalposts. In response, the US and Europe imposed sanctions that restricted funds into the PA budget, and Israel further imposed travel restrictions against Hamas members.

Government workers, including the police force and other public sector workers, could not be paid for months, causing a great deal of civil unrest. PA officials in Ramallah also faced difficulties in maintaining and delivering essential public services, including health care, education and infrastructure development. It was incredibly difficult for Hamas to address economic challenges and meet the basic needs of the population.

On 25 June 2006, Hamas undertook a brazen raid on Israel, capturing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to help secure the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Seen by Palestinians as a legitimate act of resistance against Israel, some celebrated the capture while others were worried about how Israel would react. Israel then launched a military operation in Gaza and arrested at least 64 elected officials of Hamas in the West Bank.

President Bush in November 2006 promised to arrange $86 million in military assistance to be delivered to the Fatah-controlled security forces. This was later changed by the House appropriations committee to $86 million in aid to the Fatah-led government. In the meantime, there were hundreds of arrests of Hamas supporters, and, as a result, a civil war between Fatah and Hamas.

Two months later, on 17 January 2007, Israel sealed the Israel-Gaza boundary completely, marking the start of the debilitating siege and suffocating sanctions on the people of Gaza. This siege has endured since then, until Hamas fighters broke out of the world’s largest “open air prison” on 7 October.

16 years of sanctions and siege

The impossible argument that Hamas must be destroyed for peace to flourish negates the fact that Hamas, while popular, is not in power in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – yet these remain flashpoints for Israel. Israel has not learned the lessons of its past and ongoing military operations, let alone the sanctions and the siege.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are still supportive of Hamas, while Fatah remains hugely unpopular, given its track record.

Since Hamas’ election in 2006, a new generation of Palestinians has grown into adults. And even though Hamas was elected before they were born, they will likely continue to support Hamas.

Therefore, it may be worth asking if we would still be at the same crossroads if democratically elected Hamas had been given the time, space and chance to enter the political process and govern without debilitating sanctions.

Siddiq Bazarwala is the founder of The Gaza Fund, an advocacy group committed to peacefully ending the occupation, blockade and sanctions against Palestinians.