Mati Gomis-Perez, AFSC's country representative for Israel and Palestine, on why we're failing to build peace in the region.
It’s been 10 years since the victory of Hamas in the legislative elections that were held in the occupied Palestinian territory in 2006. Since then, many things have happened.
Those of us who were there remember it was a cold, but bright, sunny day in which 77 percent of eligible Palestinians turned out to the election booths, despite checkpoints, walls, and denials of permits to move around. Although isolated problems were encountered, for the most part, the elections were free, open, and as safe as the conditions allowed.
The smiling faces of Palestinians depositing their ballots and the sense of satisfaction among electoral officials for a job well done was incredible. International observers and media outlets were present, with the world watching very closely as to how Palestinians would vote.
But when the results were announced district by district at the Ramallah Cultural Palace that night, it became clear that Fatah had lost the elections. Hamas had won. Everyone in the hall sat still as if the world had stopped turning.
The Palestinians exercised their right to choose freely (or as freely as they could under Israeli occupation), but as the last decade has shown, they chose wrongly. Very wrongly. There have not been elections since then.
When the Palestinians chose Hamas as their ruling party, by and large, they were choosing another alternative, fed up by years of nepotism and negotiations led by Fatah that had taken them nowhere. Palestinians were thinking about their own future and not so much about the interests of the international community as a whole.
In this instance, they were mistaken in thinking that the world would respect their choice. A week after Hamas’ victory, former President Carter called for the world to give the newly installed party a chance. Nobody was listening.
An unsustainable approach in Gaza
Since then, Palestinians have been largely divided politically. Fatah lost the election but refused to let go of its power and is unequivocally supported by Western powers. Hamas has grown more intransigent, imposing their rule on Palestinians in Gaza. The international community, despite efforts made to help in the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah after their armed confrontation in 2007, has not been successful in creating the conditions to overcome such divisions.
Some will commemorate 2017 as the 10th anniversary of the Israeli-imposed blockade in Gaza. But it is necessary to recall that Israel has been using the blockade as a political card way before 2007. In her book "Drinking the Sea at Gaza," Israeli journalist Amira Hass reminds us that Israel has been closing the Gaza Strip on different occasions and for varying lengths of time as a collective punishment since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. What we had in 2007 was a blockade imposed by Israel, the occupying power, but the difference this time was that it was sanctioned by the international community. Since then, three brutal military attacks have taken place in Gaza, the last one killing more than 2,000 Palestinians.
Since the 2006 elections, all kinds of mechanisms have been created to bypass the de facto authorities in Gaza to avoid providing material support to what western powers consider a terrorist organization. Donors still accept that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority pays the salaries of civil servants in Gaza who are not showing up for work. Under the pretext of covering Gaza’s humanitarian needs, the international community has allowed—and has contributed to—deepening this humanitarian crisis, which has no end in sight.
At the time of Hamas’ victory in 2006, I was working for a governmental aid agency, and I was one of those bureaucrats who implemented the sanctions that “the Quartet” (U.S., Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union) declared on the new government. I was part of the group that canceled projects of organizations that partnered with the ministries of the newly elected government—projects that provided rice, sugar, and other assistance to families facing hardship. I was one of those who had to explain that we could not do this or that anymore, not because there wasn’t a need (there certainly was) but because the new ministers belonged to the wrong party.
I witnessed discussions about how to continue paying salaries to civil servants and bypass the elected government. Today, 10 years later, now that I work at AFSC—a Quaker organization—I still have to look carefully at what we do in Gaza and be ready to say “no” to needs-based projects because of the limitations that counter-terrorism legislation imposes on our work.
This approach is unsustainable. And it isn’t working. We want to create the conditions for peace and justice, but we can´t work with only one of the parties needed at the table to make that happen.
Time to change
Since 2003, when the Bush administration initiated a military crusade to bring democracy to the Middle East and to liberate the Arab people from tyrannical rulers in certain countries, the region has descended into chaos. Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are about to become failed states. Rulers in Egypt and Jordan have tightened their grip on their populations. Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to grapple for control and influence in the region. And in large part, ISIS is the most recent product of that military crusade.
In this chaos, women, children, and others have been slaughtered all over the region. Millions of Arabs have been forced to flee their homes. And the region is now fragmented along sectarian and political lines. It’s bleeding out.
I certainly cannot provide a solution to the problems of the Middle East and to the complexity of the Palestinian situation. I will not pretend to have a list of recommendations other than the obvious: Isn’t it time to change strategy since our current one is failing?
And I urge every one of us in U.S. and Europe to consider: How much more suffering are we ready to justify and tolerate in the name of our own security, in the name of our concept of democracy, in the name of our own prosperity?