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jeffrey simpson

Gaza, or the Gaza Strip as it is sometimes known, is a hell hole, as anyone who has been there appreciates.

About 1.7 million people, half of whom live in poverty, are crammed into a tiny area, with little by way of an economy and even less by way of sympathy from neighbours these days.

Israel ridded itself of the place some time ago, understanding it could no longer run the strip even with Israeli settlements there. They closed up, the Israelis departed and Gaza was left to be part of the Palestinian non-state with it and the West Bank, a situation that ended when the people of Gaza voted for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority got elected in the West Bank.

Egypt, now again under de facto military rule, wants nothing to do with the militants who run the strip and has closed the border between itself and Gaza, including the tunnels. Hamas's relations with its former supporters, Syria and Iran, had deteriorated.

In a place with such a meagre private economy, public employment is crucial. But so broke was Hamas's government that an estimated 43,000 public employees were without pay for months, and in frustration this group, hired since Hamas took control in 2007, have prevented some of the other 70,000 from receiving their pay. Basic services – fuel, electricity, water, sewage – were intermittent at best before the onset of hostilities between the Hamas government and Israel. In this fighting, more than 700 people in Gaza have died, perhaps 20 times the number of slain Israelis – the usual sort of rough ratio of deaths in these conflicts.

There had been a chance for the dismal status quo to be adjusted, but predictably it was lost, predictably because in the Palestinian-Israeli saga too many narratives are so deeply entrenched that they cannot be changed.

In April, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority ended their estrangement, at least temporarily. A new government would have been led by Fatah, the much more moderate group that runs the West Bank. Hamas would have held no positions of power, a recognition of the group's weakness. Gaza would have been governed by a Fatah-led government instead of one only under Hamas.

The new government made pledges of non-violence, acceptance of past agreements and recognition of Israel. And, of course, it promised to deliver services more effectively than had been the case in Gaza under Hamas. It would have been led by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas who, despite being the PA's most moderate leader in history, still gets the back of the hand from the Israelis.

Here, on paper, was an opportunity, but Israel considered the new arrangement a threat because Hamas might gain a foothold in the West Bank, and it was better for Israel to keep Hamas bottled up in Gaza than let any part of it spread elsewhere. Divide-and-conquer has been the preferred strategy of many a politician and military leader through the ages.

Instead of changing the status quo, nothing happened. The borders to Gaza stayed closed. Efforts to pay the civil servants in Gaza foundered. The narrative of Hamas as a terrorist group confounded any attempts to construct a different dialogue, although the Obama administration had hinted it might work with the new government, a position denounced by Israel and its faithful echo chamber in Ottawa.

The anchored status quo returned with a vengeance as Hamas, penned up in Gaza and fearful of being overthrown by public disenchantment, played its familiar, useless card as custodian of the Palestinian cause by returning to violence. The rockets it launched at Israel produced a fierce counterassault by Israel.

Just about every country, apart from the two combatants (and Canada), are calling for ceasefire. One will eventually occur, since Hamas cannot possibly win a military victory and Israel could but does not want to win one, since it would mean occupying Gaza, the price for which would be too steep in blood and the end game of which would be to hold territory at a huge cost in treasure.

The result, when the ceasefire comes, will be the deepening of the self-destructive narrative from Hamas as the heroic victim and from Israel as the beleaguered country only trying to defend itself.

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