As Hamas and Fatah representatives met this week to discuss the possibility of Fatah joining a new Hamas-led government (one which analysts say is unlikely to be formed until at least May) the World Bank and the European Union stepped in to provide a total of $185 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.
The World Bank Tuesday said its $42 million grant to the Palestinian Authority was designed to "avoid suspension of basic services to the Palestinian population."
The aid came even as Israeli security officials were reportedly drawing up a recommendation that Israel gradually ban all Palestinians in Gaza from working in Israel, cut off power, fuel and water supplies to Gaza and allow the Palestinians there to open a seaport and airport, eliminating Gaza imports and exports through Israel. Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office and a former member of the Israeli military’s Intelligence Corps, said there are "all kinds of ideas floating about in the Israeli establishment."
"There are other people who are charged with maintaining humanitarian assistance who are saying there is a point at which we shouldn’t push them [the Palestinians]," he said. "We have a need to thread the needle very carefully between doing too much and too little. We don’t want starving Palestinian children and we don’t want Hamas to be perceived as a success. We can’t even allow them to prosper in terms of their ability to deliver services. … You can say cut them off and put up the highest practical fence. But that could lead to a complete economic and social catastrophe."
Lerman said Israel is seeking "a very fine balance" in which it works with Palestinian society while denying funds to a Palestinian government in the hands of Hamas.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, dismissed the suggestion that Israel would cut off electricity and water to Gaza because of the length of time the Palestinians would need to replace them.
"It’s not a realistic plan," he said. "And internally, it would not prevent the Palestinians from getting bigger rockets to shoot at us. It would also increase the possibility that Gaza would become like southern Lebanon [a haven for Hezbollah terrorists who intermittently attack Israel] and that Hamas would follow the Hezbollah strategy. … It is one of those amorphous reports; it is impossible to assess how serious it is." Mordechai Kedar, a senior research assistant at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he does not believe Fatah will join a Hamas government but that some people identified with Fatah might join the government to serve in such positions as managers of ministries. It is these people, Kedar said, who would act as intermediaries with the Israeli government in dealing with issues that affect Palestinian daily life, such as electricity, water, food and work permits.
"Let’s say some chickens in Gaza became sick with the chicken influenza," he said. "Do you think Israel won’t talk to them? Or if a girl from Nablus needs treatment in an Israeli hospital? So for daily life, no doubt there will be cooperation."
But he said it is unclear how Fatah and Hamas would get along. Kedar pointed to this weekís meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council (on which Hamas has 74 members and Fatah 45 after Hamas’ Jan. 25 upset election) at which Fatah members stormed out when Hamas members acted to nullify the extra powers given to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by the former Fatah-dominated PLC.
Steinberg said that despite the rift, he believes Fatah will join the government because its members don’t want to lose all of the power they have held and the money that goes with it. And he said Hamas is seriously interested in having Fatah join because "they need Abbas and Fatah."
"That is the facade through which they will be able to get funding from Europe and international access," he said. "They need each other."
The international community has made it clear that it would continue to give Hamas the cold shoulder until it renounces violence, accepts Israel’s right to exist and accepts prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements. That message was reportedly hammered home last weekend when Hamas representatives met in Moscow with Russian officials. The meeting ended with upbeat assessments from Russian officials and conflicting statements from Hamas representatives.
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said one reason for the confusion is that there are several Hamas people who are speaking, and that it is "unclear what the rules are going to be" because Hamas has yet to form a government. But he said he understands that Hamas leaders are now "beginning to open to the possibility of making decisions that they had not planned to make until much later, such as saying something positive about the road map" to peace adopted by the international community.
Also under consideration, he said, is the possibility that Hamas would "recognize Israel indirectly" by endorsing the Saudi peace proposal that said the Arab world would recognize Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 borders. He added that by early fall the Hamas government might recognize Israel even if Hamas "as an institution" does not.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported Tuesday that the U.S. Agency for International Development found that Israel’s closing of the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel for half of January and since Feb. 21 was costing the Palestinians $450,000 in agricultural losses each day. And it said $120,000 of that was from the greenhouses Jewish settlers left behind.
Israel said the closing was because of security concerns and it offered to open another supply route, which the Palestinians rejected, the news agency reported. Steinberg said there has been "credible evidence of tunneling" near the Karni crossing and that Israeli officials fear it may be an attempt by Palestinians to stage a terrorist attack there.