Three months after Hamas won a decisive victory in the elections for the Palestinian legislative council, and a month after the new Hamas administration was sworn in, it remains under immense political pressure from Israel and Israel’s Western allies to abandon the program on which it was elected and accept instead the West’s plans for the future of Palestine. While the world talks about the need for Hamas to accept the principles of non-violence, recognition of Israel and respect for agreements signed by earlier Palestinian administrations (most of which Israel has long since torn up unilaterally), there has also been another facet to the Israeli war on the Palestinians that has hardly been commented on in the world media: economic blockade and deprivation. To put it bluntly, Israel, the US and the European Union are trying to starve the Palestinians into submission.
The Hamas government inherited a desperate political situation from the outgoing Fatah government, including $700 million worth of debt and an empty treasury. To make matters worse,Israel immediately decided to punish the Palestinians for Hamas's victory by withholding $54 million each month that it collects as tax revenue on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf. This amount matches almost exactly the revenues required to pay the salaries of nearly 165,000 PA employees. Their March salaries were paid several weeks in arrears, and it is not clear how or when their April salaries will be paid. Because of the high unemployment in Palestine – over 50 percent in Ghazzah, with over 60 percent of families living below the poverty line – each of these salaries feeds several households. The impact of this pay being withheld will be catastrophic.
The US and the EU also followed in freezing their assistance to Palestinian institutions, while announcing an increase in its basic humanitarian assistance in order to make western aid agencies, such as the UN World Food Program, fulfil roles previously held by the PA and Hamas bodies. A considerable part of this increase is committed to "democracy building" inPalestine, which is a euphemism for supporting secular and anti-Hamas political groups in Palestine.
At the world conference on Al-Quds and Support for the Rights of Palestinians in Tehran last month, the Islamic Republic of Iran pledged to give the Palestinian Authority $100 million to make up for this lost funding. Following the Iranian lead, Arab countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also committed a similar amount. However, there are two problems with these donations: first, they do not make a significant contribution towards the $1.3 billion in foreign aid that the Palestinians received last year. Secondly, it is unclear how these funds will be channelled to Palestine. The US has said that it will impose sanctions on any financial institution that channels funds to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority while Hamas remains in office, on the grounds that Hamas is a terrorist entity. This effectively prevents banks and other institutions in the Arab world from dealing with Hamas or PA funds, as they are all plugged into the American-dominated international financial system. PA officials have been trying to arrange for employees to be paid directly from Arab League bank accounts, but this has not yet been confirmed as Crescent goes to press.
Hamas leaders, for their part, have rejected the US and European decisions to withdraw financial aid in response to their electoral victory. Abdul Aziz Duwaik, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, said on April 17: "We are being punished. Is this democracy? The results of the 25 January elections showed the world that Palestinians are not convinced by this whole process. We would like to change the rules of the game so our national rights are recognised, our well-being is recognised and our basic human rights are recognised."
There was also anger from ordinary Palestinians, who protested outside the offices of UN and EU bodies in the West Bank and Ghazzah after the suspension of payments was announced. Ghazzah PA spokesman Ghazi Hamad was quoted as saying that "We were hoping that the European would denounce Israeli atrocities against our people. Unfortunately they have linked aid to the needy and refugees to political considerations." However, there is widespread agreement among Palestinians that they should not give in to such economic blackmail by abandoning the results of their democratic election just because they were unpopular with their powerful enemies.
The economic suffering in Ghazzah has been particularly harsh, as the withdrawal of aid has compounded the effects of the Israeli blockade of Ghazzah since its withdrawal last summer. In particular, Ghazzans have been affected by repeated Israeli violations of the Agreement on Movement and Access between the PA and Israel brokered by the US in November which was supposed to guarantee free movement of Ghazzan goods through the Karni border crossing. So far this year, the Israelis have insisted on closing the crossing for more time than it has been open, supposedly for "security reasons". The result is that Ghazzan exports have not been able to leave the strip, and essential food and humanitarian items have not been able to enter.
Meanwhile Israel has also stepped up military operations against Hamas and other Palestinian leaders, repeatedly invading Palestinian towns and villages on the excuse of seeking to arrest wanted militants. Nearly 30 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed in such operations during April, prompting retaliatory military attacks by Islamic Jihad members in the form of martyrdom operations. These were then taken by Israel and its allies as further evidence of Hamas’s irreversibly terrorist nature, completely disregarding the context in which the attacks took place.
How this deadlock with be broken remains to be seen. Hamas is in the right in terms of moral justice, but the Israelis and their allies are in a dominant political position, while the Palestinians are under pressure because of the economic suffering being imposed on them. How Hamas will respond to this situation, given that assistance from Muslim countries is unlikely to be enough to make up for the deprivation being imposed by the West, remains to be seen.
One possible scenario is that Hamas could fall on their sword, accepting the dissolution of the present government and handing power either to Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group, eminently acceptable to the West, or to an independent government composed of technocrats and professionals not aligned with any political party. In this case, Hamas would still have some influence through their domination of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Another scenario has Mahmoud Abbas declaring a state of emergency and unilaterally dissolving the government and parliament. Such a scenario would be regarded by most Palestinians as a coup against the elected government, particularly as Abbas is now increasingly being seen as Israel’s ally on the Palestinian side, and this is a scenario that has been discussed approvingly by Israeli commentators. Exiled Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal caused anger among Abbas’s supporters last month when he hinted as such a plan during a press conference inDamascus late in April. However, such a step would only be possible once the conditions of the Palestinian people had got so bad that they would accept any measure to restore some degree of normality.
What is clear is that the Israelis and the US have decided that Hamas cannot be suborned into serving their interests in the peace process, and so will have to be destroyed one way or another, even if that involves inflicting untold suffering on all the Palestinian people.