By Ramzy Baroud

Judging by its size, the Gaza Strip may look too small to matter in the ongoing regional intrigues involving Israel, the United States, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. However, the 365 square kilometre coastal strip, which has been under Israeli-Egyptian siege for over ten years, outweighs its size many times over in the ongoing political gamble involving the region’s most powerful players. The many players that are involved are all motivated by sheer self-interest and self-preservation.

Israel has maintained the upper hand thus far, watching alliances emerge and others fold, manipulating the various variables as it sees fit, and ensuring that the outcome is always in its favour. But what exactly does Israel want? Shortly after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza. The siege has remained in place since, and has grown to define the status quo. Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli adviser to the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, aptly described Israel’s motives behind the siege ten years ago: ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’ That single quote came to define the standard of cruelty with which Israel treats Palestinians. Yet, there is more to it than an expression of Israeli malice.

First, Weisglass’s near-starvation diet has been in effect ever since, with little done to remedy the suffering of Gazans. Second, with time, the Israeli siege also became an Egyptian blockade, thus making the most populous Arab country an accomplice to the Israeli plan to control Palestinians. Third, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah learned not only to co-exist with the Israeli siege on Gaza, but also to benefit from it.

The West Bank-based authority is controlled by the Fatah Movement, credited with launching the Palestinian revolt decades ago. But times have changed. The movement, now dominated by an aging, quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is experiencing a power struggle within its ranks, while fighting hard to keep its Hamas rivals weak, isolated and discredited.

Egypt’s share of and role in the siege cannot be underestimated. Since his ascent to power following a military coup against an elected government on 3 July 2013, General - now President - Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved quickly to deepen the isolation of Gaza, and, by extension, Hamas. Sisi’s coup managed, decisively and violently, to overthrow a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Cairo, but not its Palestinian affiliates in Gaza.

Hamas, widely seen as the Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood, still reigned supreme in the besieged Strip despite determined Israeli attempts at destroying it, and any semblance of resistance there. Three major onslaughts launched by Israel (in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014) killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of Hamas fighters and leaders, but the political balance has remained firmly in Hamas’s hands.

With time, the Israeli siege became an Egyptian one, all with the tacit approval of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and with Arab approval. Some Arab Gulf governments, which wanted to ensure the complete demise of the Brotherhood, saw in Hamas’s survival a threat to their own existence. Now into its eleventh year, the siege has become a shared Israeli-Palestinian-Arab long-term investment. However, this is not a matter of politics or ideology only.

Following various popular uprisings in several Arab countries, Arab regimes with no democratic mandates moved quickly to suppress any dissent, no matter how seemingly harmless. Bloggers were dragged to jails; poets were imprisoned; peaceful activists were shot; and thousands disappeared in massive purges to ensure the failed uprisings do not resurface.

Meanwhile, Israel continued with its illegal land grab and Jewish colonial expansion, unhindered. With plans set in motion for ‘security coordination’ between Israel and the PA to crack down on dissenting Palestinians, the Israeli plan to annex most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem was developing without many obstacles. Except, of course, Gaza, which symbolised a kind of resistance that could not be eliminated – neither by starvation, incarceration nor firepower. Nearly, 5 000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during Israel’s three major offensives in the past decade. Yet, although much of the Strip was destroyed as a result of Israel’s deadly wars, the spirit of the resistance there remained strong, and eventually, it rekindled the resistance of Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Further, despite every attempt at creating two different political entities in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in both regions continued to be bonded by their resistance.

Israel, nonetheless, succeeded. While it could not defeat Gaza, it managed to turn the siege on Gaza into an Arab affair, too. The Arab region has been experiencing rapid changes in recent years, where three civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the spread of militancy and ‘terror’ has reached almost every Arab country. The political uncertainty in the USA wrought by the election of Donald Trump, however, has offered a rare opportunity to some embattled Arab regimes. Even prior to Trump’s unexpected election victory, the USA was in the process of redefining its rule in the Arab world, and a ‘pivot to Asia’ was already downgrading US leadership and influence in the region. Trump’s ascendency, however, has mixed the cards like never before. Washington, which had governed the Middle East through clearly defined doctrines, now seems to have no doctrine, only impulsive decisions made by a Twitter-obsessed president.

The American retreat offered the kind of political space that could be filled by those vying to control the region. With Israel remaining on top of the pyramid, an alliance involving Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia began moving into a clear formation to achieve dominance through destroying some foes, isolating others and out-manoeuvring the rest. According to this new ‘vision’, Hamas, which could not be defeated by sheer force, could be relegated into an ineffectual political entity through an alliance with Mohammed Dahlan.

Once upon a time, Dahlan was the strongman of Gaza, commandeering ten security branches, torturing resisters and controlling the Strip in a way that was both consistent with the interests of his Fatah party and also with Israeli diktat. A few months after it won the elections, Hamas reportedly pre-empted a coup by Dahlan, and, since then, controlled the Strip alone. That was when the Israeli siege became complete. Dahlan fled to the West Bank, and a later power struggle within Fatah led to his dismissal by Abbas, who also accused him of a coup attempt in 2011. In 2012, Dahlan settled permanently in the UAE. Following the Egyptian coup in 2013, Dahlan and Sisi found common ground: initially to defeat Hamas, and eventually to coopt Hamas.

As Arab countries began moving to fill the gap left by receding US foreign policy, the political machinations began intensifying in an unprecedented fashion. Abbas quickly lost favour with Cairo, and Dahlan became Fatah’s strongman, as far as Egypt was concerned. Abbas’s sin was his refusal to join forces with Dahlan, with the ultimate objective of defeating Hamas. Meanwhile, with Abbas and Hamas failing to achieve even a minimal form of unity, Abbas remains confined to the West Bank, desperately trying to find new channels to win political validation.

The ‘Dahlan plan’ then emerged. A leaked document, widely reported in Israeli and other media, purported to show that Dahlan and Hamas had been negotiating the return of the former strongman to Gaza, to head a government there in exchange for an Egyptian easing of the siege. According to the plan, Hamas would remain in control of Gaza’s interior ministry and would not disarm, but, in the words of Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el, Israel, at least, ‘would have a partner in Gaza who supports reconciliation’.

Overwhelmed by the unexpected move, Abbas is now trying to make life even more difficult for Palestinians in the Strip, hoping to exert more pressure on Hamas to end its possible partnership with Dahlan. A few months ago, Abbas slashed salaries for thousands of employees, many of whom were loyal to Fatah, and to Dahlan, in particular. More recently, the PA refused to pay for much of the electricity that Gaza is supplied by Israel, leading the Israeli government to order yet more electricity cuts to the Strip. The suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is now compounded.

Unemployment in the Strip is already among the highest in the world, presently estimated at forty-four per cent. Those who are employed still struggle to survive, with eighty per cent of all Gazans said to be dependent on humanitarian assistance. In 2015, the UN warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. A Red Cross report in May 2016 warned of another ‘looming crisis’ in the public health sector, due to the lack of electricity. The energy crisis has extended from electricity supplies to include even cooking gas. Following the most recent energy reduction which started on 11 June, Gazan households now receive two to three hours of electricity each day, and not even at fixed hours.

Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, sounded the alarm on 14 June when she warned that ‘the latest power cuts risk turning an already dire situation into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe’.

To think that Palestinian leaders are involved in tightening or manipulating the siege to exact political concessions from one another is dismaying. While Israel is invested in maintaining the Palestinian rift, Palestinians are blinded by pitiful personal interests and worthless ‘control’ over occupied land. Between Israel’s dismissal of international calls to end the siege and the Palestinians’ pathetic power game, Palestinians in Gaza are isolated, unable to move freely, or to live even according to the lowest acceptable living standards. The suicide rate in the Strip is at all-time high, and despair is believed to be the main factor behind the alarming phenomena.

Failing to subdue Gaza, Israel has succeeded in spreading the burden of tormented Palestinians there by enlisting the support of Palestinian as well as Arab hands, each playing a role in a dirty game of politics that has no regard for human rights, life or dignity.

*Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, media consultant, author of several books, and the founder of ‘PalestineChronicle.com’. His books include Searching Jenin, The Second Palestinian Intifada, and, his latest, My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.

Rather than signalling any major, dramatic or radical change in direction, the new ‘charter’ (officially called ‘A Document of General Principles and Policies’) of the Palestinian group Hamas formalises what has existed in terms of the party’s policies and practices for more than a decade, superseding its old charter which has largely been outdated, irrelevant and an albatross around the organisation’s neck.
 
The new document, which took two years to debate and draft (but has been in the making since 2006), replaces the ‘Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement’, which was authored by a single individual in 1988, and adopted barely nine months after Hamas’s founding. Hamas has variously defended, been apologetic about and embarrassed by the 1988 charter, but, for mysterious reasons, has not been able to get rid of, or even amend, it. The group’s spokespersons have often said broad consultation was too difficult within its security constraints – even though it regularly holds leadership elections that encompass its members in various parts of the world. In 2006, in the run-up to elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the first Palestinian Authority (PA) election that Hamas contested, the party issued an election platform that articulated changes in its positions from that contained in the original charter. But the platform was not comprehensive enough to be regarded as superseding the charter, and Hamas leaders themselves never referred to it in this way.
 
The platform did highlight the irrelevance and embarrassment of the old charter, and sparked a debate within the organisation on a range of issues – from the role of religion in the Palestinian struggle to the nature of a future Palestinian state. That debate culminated on 1 May 2017 with the launch of the new document. The process leading up to the launch was vigorous, and produced some issues of sharp disagreement within the movement. The 1 May document attempts to balance those debates within the Hamas constituency, and still provide a vision and strategies in a manner that will keep the organisation united, and allow all its members to feel satisfied.
 
Since the launch, much attention has been paid to the clause that accepts a Palestinian state along the 4 June 1967 border – essentially confining a future Palestinian state to the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. The clause, however, does not actually go as far as ‘accepting’ the 1967 borders or a two-state solution, but notes that ‘Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967...to be a formula of national consensus.’ The clause was qualified with its ‘rejection of the Zionist entity’, support for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees – including to their homes in Israel, and rejection of ‘any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea’. It is debatable whether the 1967 border ‘formula’ ever was one of ‘national consensus’ among Palestinians. In the past few years, especially, after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly rejected any notion of a two-state solution, former US secretary of state John Kerry lamented its end, and US president Donald Trump refused to endorse the well-worn US support for such a solution, Palestinians have increasingly been arguing that a two-state solution is not possible, and the current reality is that there is already a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea that is governed by Israel. Despite the language in the document, however, after the launch Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al, interpreted it as supporting a two-state solution. This contradiction between the charter’s insistence on Hamas’s ultimate goal being the ‘liberation’ of all of British Mandate Palestine, and the seeming acceptance of a two-state solution could prove to become a difficulty for the movement in the future, even though the notion of a two-state solution has already been articulated by Hamas spokespersons, including by its founder Shaykh Ahmed Yassin and by Mesha'al. The document’s position might be viewed as support for a two-state solution as the first phase towards a single state.
 
This is not the most significant aspect of the document, however. Perhaps most significant (and the most radical change) is the language and tone that describes Hamas as a nationalist Palestinian movement rather than as part of a global Islamist one. This begins with the description of Palestine as ‘the land of the Arab Palestinian people’, while the old charter regarded Palestine as ‘an Islamic Waqf [endowment] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day’ – somewhat mirroring the Zionist conception of Israel as the land of all Jews. No longer. While Palestine is still ‘a land whose status has been elevated by Islam’, it belongs, according to Hamas to Palestinians, not to Muslims. Even in its characterisation of itself, Hamas now views itself as a ‘Palestinian Islamic national liberation and resistance movement’. The positioning of the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Islamic’ are not accidental. ‘Its goal is to liberate Palestine and confront the Zionist project. Its frame of reference is Islam,’ and there is no proclamation of ‘The universality of the Islamic Resistance Movement’ as in the old document. This new orientation is likely the reason that references to the Muslim Brotherhood (whose name and slogans peppered the earlier document) have been dropped. There is a glaring question that the document does not answer, however: if Palestine is ‘the land of Arab Palestinians’, what would be the place of Jews in a future Palestinian state.
 
Despite speculation that the document would attempt to placate Israel and western powers, it makes no serious attempt to do so. Even its strong emphasis that the ‘conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion’ and its accusation that it is Zionists who have co-opted Judaism and Jews in service of its ‘colonial project and illegal entity’ reflects a change in the way the movement views Jews and Zionism, and is guidance provided to its own constituency, rather than a placatory gesture to outsiders. Indeed, the three demands that the West (through the Middle East Quartet, comprising of the UN, USA, EU and Russia) have made of Hamas since 2007 have been emphatically rejected in the charter. The demands were that Hamas recognises Israel; renounces violence; and accepts all previous agreements made by the PLO and PA with Israel. Instead, the charter emphasises that ‘There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity’; insists that ‘At the heart of [means of resisting occupation] lies armed resistance’; and rejects the Oslo Accords ‘and all that flows from them’.
 
Of course, the rejection of the Oslo presents a contradiction. The charter affirms a role for the PA (a creature of Oslo) ‘to serve the Palestinian people and safeguard their security, their rights and their national project’. Further, the movement contested elections for the PLC (another Oslo creation), plays a role as part of the PA, and has expressed no intention to extract itself from the PA and refuse to contest future elections.
 
If we ignore the opportunity Hamas provides us to do interesting analyses of a new document, its release is a rather ‘ho hum’ moment. In itself, it says nothing new, and only documents what has already become a reality within the movement through decade-and-half shifts in thought and practice. At most, it will allow its spokespersons a sigh of relief that they no longer have to defend the old anti-Semitic and irrelevant document. The timing of its release does has some significance. While it will be seen as Mesha'al’s swan-song (he did not contest the recent leadership election, whose results will be announced later this month), it also happens when more militant leaders are rising, and they have expressed no criticism of the document. Yahya Sinwar, for example, a leader of Hamas’s armed wing, the 'Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who spent twenty years in an Israeli prison, is now the group’s Gaza leader and the ‘prime minister’ in the territory. His embrace of the document indicates that the political and military wings of the movement are united in supporting it, and it is not an imposition by ‘moderates’ on the rest of the organisation.
 
If Hamas was unconcerned about how its critics in Israel and the West might view its new charter, it should be concerned about criticism from Palestinians, particularly the disappointment (and even anger) expressed by some at the seeming acceptance of the two-state solution. For many Palestinians who have become weary of the shenanigans of the PA, Fatah and the PLO, who oppose the PA’s ‘security coordination’ with Israel, and who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel had hoped that Hamas would not compromise its support for armed resistance, and would clearly express support for a one-state solution. For some in this group, the new document does not distinguish Hamas from Fatah in terms of its vision for the future (even though that’s not a correct reading of the relevant clauses).

Hamas’s Usamah Hamdan to be keynote speaker

After the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region, Political Islam took centre stage in many respects, as numerous actors in the region claimed their Islam as the inspiration or basis of their political activity. This manifested during various elections, coups, and civil wars. Perhaps the most recent of these has been the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, which seeks to undo the post-Ottoman Sykes-Picot architecture of the MENA region.

These developments over the past four years have resulted in the MENA region, and the Muslim world more generally, experiencing a profound conceptual rethinking, including a re-evaluation of notions of global ethics, citizenship and democracy, capitalism and economic development, imperialism, and liberation.

By Fawaz A. Gerges

In an important and alarming report to the United Nations Security Council early July, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that an increase in tensions between Lebanon and Israel could lead to a new war with potentially devastating consequences for the entire region.

The UN chief cited dozens of instances when the two antagonists - Israel and Hizbullah - almost broke out into war, and accused them of violating the 2006 ceasefire resolution that ended the 34-day July war in 2006. While Hizbullah continued to maintain "a substantial military capacity", Ban said, Israel continued to violate the ceasefire by conducting daily flights over Lebanon, and refused to withdraw from the disputed border village of Ghajar.

By Fawaz A. Gerges 

Exactly a year ago, in June 2009, the then-recently installed American president, Barack Obama, made a landmark speech in Cairo symbolically to "reset" US relations with the Muslim world. He eloquently addressed critical challenges facing the US in the Muslim world and rhetorically offered a new paradigm, a new beginning, for managing relations between "America and Islam". The speech sent a clear message:

"I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

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