Analysis |

Hamas Looking for an Opening to the West Bank

By demanding that Israel lift the siege on Gaza, Hamas signals willingness to renew ties with the West Bank. Israel is not pleased.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas  and Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal are seen together during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal are seen together during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011.Credit: AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

What did Hamas mean by its demand to lift the blockade and open all the crossings? Clearly it meant opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt and the cargo crossings with Israel. But what about the movement of people through the Erez crossing with Israel?

When Hamas became sole ruler of the Gaza Strip in 2007, it sought to open Gaza to the Arab and Muslim world via Rafah. It wanted freedom of movement through Rafah for its own members, who had effectively been 
imprisoned in the Strip for years by Israeli travel bans; it also wanted to alter the Oslo Accords’ economic provisions by enabling cargo to enter Gaza via Rafah.

These aspirations fit with its de facto goal of establishing an Islamic mini-state in Gaza (even if only as a necessary step toward “liberating all of Palestine”). After Israel, the West and the Fatah party refused to recognize the results of the 2006 Palestinian election and strove to oust Hamas from power, Hamas became driven by the desire to prove it could nevertheless rule Gaza. It continued talking and conducting armed operations like a resistance movement, but successfully governing Gaza became an end in itself. And with the connection to the West Bank severed, it was only natural to think of Rafah as its gateway to the world.

Hamas, with considerable justice, says the economic blockade was imposed on Gaza only to punish it for gaining power. Since 2007, Israel has banned shipments of agricultural and industrial goods from Gaza to the West Bank, Israel and other countries (with a few exceptions) and limited the amount and type of goods allowed into Gaza. These bans wiped out entire industries and impoverished farmers, business people, workers and merchants who depended on ties with Israel.

The logical response to this economic blockade was developing the smuggling tunnels. The tighter and more absurd the blockade became (for instance, imports of toilet paper and children’s books were banned), the more sophisticated the tunnel economy became.

Nevertheless, Gaza wasn’t open even before Hamas took power: The ban on Palestinian movement in and out of it began much earlier. When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it canceled all permits to work in Israel previously given to Gazan residents. And long before that, in 1991, Israel began steadily reducing the number of Palestinians allowed to travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

The Erez crossing and ties to the West Bank never even entered Hamas officials’ minds. Limited by its own narrow viewpoint, the Hamas government never demanded a restoration of Palestinians’ freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank, making do instead with freedom of movement via Sinai.

For a brief while, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt seemed to justify this approach: Significant numbers of Palestinians were able to travel overseas via Egypt, and foreigners could enter Gaza from Egypt. But the military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt’s subsequent destruction of the tunnels, did away with this feeling of freedom, forcing Hamas to “rediscover” the West Bank and seek ways to reintegrate into Palestinian politics. The unity government – in which Hamas gave up any direct involvement in governing – was one expression of this; the demand to “lift the siege” is another.

Today, many Palestinians interpret this Hamas demand to include reopening Erez and renewing ties between Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas officials have been ambiguous, speaking merely of “opening the crossings,” but they aren’t deaf to what people in the street are saying.

The demand to renew ties between Gaza and the West Bank fits the PLO’s (collapsing) program for a two-state solution. For Hamas, admitting that it has effectively accepted this program isn’t easy. But the leaders of the PLO and Fatah – which for years also failed to demand Palestinian freedom of movement – have now taken up the gauntlet. Long after the war started, they finally announced pan-Palestinian support for Hamas’ demand to end the blockade.

And this is precisely why Israel’s political and security establishment views the demand to end the separation between Gaza and the West Bank as unacceptable: It has long since stopped hiding its intention (which it has been gradually implementing for 10 years now) to create two separate Palestinian political entities.

Amid all the death and destruction in Gaza, it’s hard to imagine a Palestinian political battle for restoring freedom of movement and ties between Gaza and the West Bank. But it’s also hard to imagine the Palestinians agreeing to keep living in the giant prison known as the Gaza Strip.

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