The Hamas government in the Gaza Strip stiffened its resolve this week, announcing a boycott of all Israeli fresh fruit even as the United Nations declared a halt to all building projects there because it had run out of construction material for work that had employed 121,000 Palestinians.
Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip three weeks ago in a bloody fight with rival Fatah forces, Israel has virtually closed the Karni crossing. It had been the main commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. And Raphi Israeli, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said there are some in Israel urging that it cut off all electricity, water, food and fuel supplies to Gaza as well.
“No one could imagine the Americans providing the Germans during World War II with food,” Israeli said. “If they are your enemy, why provide them with food? If they are deprived of electricity and water and other things, they might come around” and renounce violence against Israel and recognize the Jewish state.
“They [Hamas] are responsible for their people. They are no longer an opposition group. They must care for their people, but they don’t seem to care. They said they won’t accept any more fresh fruit from Israel because they want to boycott all Israeli produce. That sounds like suicide. … If the Israeli authorities were smart …this would be an opportunity to put Hamas to a test” to see if it can run a country.
Palestinians in Gaza are feeling squeezed not only by Israel but by Egypt, according to Mordechai Kedar, a Palestinian expert at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He cited reports Wednesday of two explosions in a wall at the Rafah crossing that separates Gaza from Egypt. Media reports said Hamas gunmen rushed to the wall to prevent anyone from escaping into Egypt. Witnesses reported seeing a hole blown in the wall.
Israel Radio reported Wednesday that Egypt was beefing up its military presence at the Rafa crossing to prevent Palestinians from breaking through. On Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza protested at the crossing to demand its reopening; it has been closed since Hamas’ takeover. Egypt already had 750 Egyptian officers there.
Kedar pointed out that another 6,000 Palestinians are sitting just outside the Rafa crossing waiting to re-enter the Gaza Strip. Egyptian troops are preventing them from entering Egypt’s cities and from returning to the Gaza Strip.
“They have been there more than a month, waiting in [terrible] conditions, and the Egyptians won’t let them pass because of an agreement between Egypt and Israel and the Europeans about the operation of the crossing,” Kedar said. “Egypt is not willing to breach that agreement.”
The agreement calls for the Europeans to oversee the passage, but those monitors fled to Israel when Hamas seized control of Gaza. “Hamas is hinting to the Egyptians that it will not allow [Palestinians stuck outside the crossing] to sit there for long,” Kedar said. “Hamas is hinting to Egypt that it will make trouble. It wants to bring its people in and out, and it doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel. Yet it needs water and food and fuel and medicine and electricity and it is dependent on Israel. So it is applying pressure on Egypt to replace Israel [for those supplies]. … It wants to start being part of the Arab world through Egypt.”
Egyptian authorities adamantly refuse to help Hamas because it is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which seeks to topple the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“There are voices in Israel to maintain pressure on Hamas in Egypt … until it releases [Israeli Cpl. Gilad] Shalit and stops launching missiles” into the Negev, Kedar observed.
He added that Hamas was able to sufficiently squeeze the abductors of BBC reporter Alan Johnston to get them to release him, which demonstrates that it “has the leverage to exert law and order.” And it recently raided the headquarters of a drug gang in Gaza, seized tons of drugs and burned it.
“They are starting to act like a real government, so Israel can now address them like a government and say it should release our boy” and stop the rocket attacks, Kedar added. “There are growing voices like this in Israel, and if negotiations to release [Shalit] fail, those voices will grow louder.”
Among the critics of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader who this week convinced his party’s central committee to call early primary elections so he can solidify his position as Likud’s candidate for prime minister in the next election. “Some people have already written off Olmert” in the next election and believe it will be a race between Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
Although Barak is defense minister in Olmert’s government, Steinberg noted that he is “already challenging Olmert” and “acting as if he is going to be facing Netanyahu — and Netanyahu is attacking Barak.”
“There is a sense in the country that we are building towards [early] elections,” he said.Some of the criticism is being leveled at the Olmert government for agreeing to prop up the Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. The Israeli government ordered the release of $118 million in Palestinian taxes that it collected and refused to give to the Palestinians as long as Hamas was in control. And this week it ordered the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli said many Israelis are convinced that Abbas is not the moderate some in the West portray him. “He is a Holocaust denier … who a year ago when Hamas captured Shalit had 40,000 troops [in Gaza] and Hamas had only 5,000,” Israeli said. “If he wanted to, he could have imposed a curfew and searched house-to-house until finding and returning [Shalit]. Instead, he made demands of Israel in return for Shalit’s release.”