ANALYSIS / PR Success of Gaza Flotilla Could Be a Trap for Hamas

The Palestinian Authority and Egypt watch as the ripples from the 'freedom flotilla' could dissipate into a minor PR success for the Gaza leadership and prove to be a trap.

The success of the "freedom flotilla" has created a few ripples. Many more goods will be entering Gaza, coriander and pasta will cease to be symbolic and even cement and iron will reach building sites waiting for years for a fresh start. Hamas has achieved a new international status, and the Palestinian Authority has had to praise the flotilla and demand the full cessation of the blockade. Turkey has revealed itself to be the Palestinians' new friend and Israel has found itself pushed into a corner.

It isn't the idea of armed resistance, the muqwama, the Qassam rockets or the terror attacks that brought Hamas these achievements, but the marketing of the humanitarian crisis. From now on every rocket launched from Gaza into Israel will only erode this success. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas is aware of the trap. Unless there is a political achievement to be used as leverage for influence and control, the success becomes temporary and ultimately forgotten.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas

After it was announced the blockade would be eased, Hamas stated: "We think these steps to lift the siege on land are merely throwing sand in the eyes of the world."

Hamas is demanding the full lifting of the blockade and especially the opening of the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Egypt is in no hurry.

"Opening the Rafah crossing point in full will be done only after the occupation of the Gaza Strip has ended," declared Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

Opening Rafah to all goods and people would be chalked up as another Hamas achievement, one Egypt is not prepared to grant - not until Hamas and Fatah sign the Egyptian reconciliation document.

Signature needed

Hamas has been dragging its feet for more than half a year since Egypt handed it the comprehensive document, which, inter alia, includes arrangements for holding elections; the expansion of the Palestine Liberation Organization so Hamas will have significant standing; the building of joint military bodies; and a system of compensation for everyone who was harmed in the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

The most difficult provision for Hamas to digest is the necessity of adopting agreements the PLO signed and agreements it reached both with Israel and in the context of the Arab initiative. Agreeing to this means recognition of Israel, even if that's not stated explicitly.

This is the dilemma Hamas faces. Without signing the agreement it will continue to control Gaza the way it has for the past three years - with no orderly budget, with no recognition and, above all, without a chance of trying to expand its influence and control to the West Bank.

Thus, from a situation in which it won a sweeping victory in the 2006 elections, which could have enabled it to control both parts of Palestine, it has had to make do with managing the crisis in Gaza. Without a return to the important political race in the West Bank, it can claim only a humanitarian success, but not a political or diplomatic achievement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is intimately acquainted with the trap Hamas is in and therefore he, too, is in no hurry. Last month he decided to hold elections for the Palestinian parliament on July 17 - and then announced their postponement to an unknown date. Was this a decision or a "recommendation" from Israel and the United States? Both countries worry they could again face a government in which Hamas is an important, if not dominant, element.

We will know the truth only when Abbas or his successors publish the 70-volume chronicles of his term in office in which he daily notes the details of his conversations and musings. Abbas, in an interview to the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, said he has "reached the age at which he can no longer continue to serve in his position" and "very much misses quality time with his family and especially with his grandchildren,." He is not eager to end his tenure, but wants to avoid a war of succession, which is liable to crush Fatah and paint Hamas as the only orderly alternative.

Won't mention Fayyad

When asked who his successor will be, he refrains from even mentioning the name of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Abbas has said: "He is doing excellent work." Abbas admits he is not watching the World Cup matches, he prefers religious television and he reads religious philosophy. But, at 75, he's very good at arm wrestling. While he continues to pay $13 million a month for the power station in Gaza, he is planning projects worth $400,000 million to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip and through the good offices of Salam Fayyad, he is running the boycott of Israeli goods, which he believes is likely to double Palestinian production in the local market and create some 100,00 jobs for Palestinians. Together with the Egyptians, he is maintaining the freeze on the market in Gaza.

Last week Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa visited Gaza and heard suggestions from Hamas as to how to continue the reconciliation process. The disagreement between the sides depends on a seemingly procedural issue: Will Hamas' reservations concerning the Egyptian document be included in the reconciliation document, as it is demanding, or will they be dealt with after the document is signed, as Abbas and the Egyptians are demanding? The compromise apparently emerging is that an additional agreement between Hamas and Fatah will be formulated in which its reservations will be listed, and that agreement together with the Egyptian document will be the source of authority for implementing the reconciliation. Despite the tough rhetoric between the sides this compromise could lead to a breakthrough.

If achieving Palestinian reconciliation is a challenge, its implementation will present an especially explosive challenge for Israel and the United States, as well as for the PLO and the PA. Israel will have to decide whether it will repeat the mistake it made in 2006 and boycott the Palestinian unity government or adopt the American policy, which does not spurn dialogue with Lebanon even though Hezbollah is a senior partner in the government.