Stop gap government

The governments of the West Bank and Gaza face conditions that make effective administration extremely difficult, even impossible. Both can be seen as ‘stop gap’ governments, trying to get by and keep their fragile authority together on a day by day basis. With the situation in Gaza desperate, why then does Hamas’ government seem so much more sustainable than Fayyad’s, and why does it still have so much more popular support?

Let’s take Fayyad first. His policy of ‘building institutions’ in the West Bank has been acclaimed around the world as a peaceful, practical step towards a Palestinian state. Kept in power by huge US political support and ground support led by General Dayton, the Obama Administration in particular is Fayyad’s biggest fan – leading to not entirely groundless charges of ‘US puppet’. Yet the inescapable truth behind this is that the infrastructure and institutions of a Palestinian state are meaningless without, well, a Palestinian state. Fayyad’s plan would work well in tandem with viable peace talks, (rather than the current clowning around), but not on its own, as Fayyad himself has admitted. Nathan Brown, writing in FP, makes some good further points: the Fayyad administration is not, in fact, building institutions, but is trying to improve upon those built during the Arafat years, sometimes without much success. Brown argues the level of governmental innovation was in fact higher before Fayyad came to power. Yet the most damning criticism of the Fayyad government is the total collapse of Palestinian democracy since 2006. Building the framework of Palestinian civil society, the West Bank government, in its illegitimacy, itself violates one of civil society’s basic tenets. Brown characterises the Fayyad plan as ‘stop gap damage control’. Much as US liberals might wish otherwise (the NYT is like a Fayyad fan club newsletter), limited civil society reform should not be mistaken for ‘quietly building a Palestinian state’.

It’s interesting to contrast this with a report by Yezid Sayigh on Hamas governance in Gaza, recently released by Brandeis (and available here). Hamas can also be regarded as a ‘stop gap’ government; trying to run Gaza under incredibly difficult conditions, without a functioning economy or much international support, the Gazan administration is scraping by. Yet Sayigh argues that the Hamas government has proved itself adaptable and efficient in creating as much of a functioning state as possible in the Gaza strip. Aided by the civil institutions they inherited when they came to power, the Gaza government has put them to work efficiently, drawing on Gazan university graduates to fill jobs and using its unbroken territorial control to achieve policy coherence. Gaza’s agencies show coordination and mutual support; Sayigh gives the example of their websites, which are accessible and encourage user participation. The report deals with the two main criticisms of the Hamas government – its tendency towards Islamism and authoritarianism, and its alleged economic corruption. While it is true that Hamas promotes an Islamist discourse, partly to counter the threat from Salafist groups within Gaza, Sayigh argues that this follows a process of ‘trial and error’ – in its treatment of NGOs, for example, the Gaza government has threatened those that do not comply with Islamic principles but has not actually sanctioned those who refuse. ‘Erdogan, not Taliban’ is the slogan (although it should be noted that Hamas’ complexity makes it difficult to determine how much support this view has). With regards to the economy, Hamas is faced with a budget of $540m and an income of $5m as well as the challenges of regulating a highly informal economy with virtually no banking system. A new elite has emerged based on the administration and key figures in the tunnel economy. Despite this, even figures unsympathetic towards Hamas in Gaza have been critical of corruption allegations, and they are widely regarded as being nowhere near as corrupt as Fatah.

Hamas’ achievements do not obscure the problems with Gaza. As this FP article points out, despite recent claims of improvement in the Palestinian economy, such models do not take into account Gaza, which is something of an economic black hole. The blockade, ‘a shame and a crime’, has atrophied its economy. Its GDP is 50% of what it was in 2000 and although there is some income from the tunnel economy the Gazan government is dependent on foreign aid, from the PA and from elsewhere (Muslim Brotherhood organisations, zakat collections, and very possibly Iran). ‘Relaxing’ the blockade is meaningless; it does not change the fact that Gazans are living in an ‘open-air prison’, and allowing crisps and children’s toys into Gaza is futile, even insulting, when most residents are too poor to buy the goods that line the shelves of shops. With the absence of industry and exports, once the mainstay of the Gazan economy, unemployment soaring, and no end to the siege in sight, the Hamas government faces huge challenges in economic management and planning.

Two ‘stop gap’ governments trying to get by in extremely difficult conditions – and one seems far more sustainable than the other. This is largely due to Hamas’ popular support; as Sayigh points out, the siege of Gaza would have to reach ‘medieval’ levels for its population to completely reject Hamas and the Gazan government to collapse. The Hamas government has worked hard to ‘impose a new political reality’ and establish itself as an inescapable presence in Gaza. This is a fact that the American foreign policy establishment is perhaps, slowly, beginning to realise. A recent report by CENTCOM’s Red Team (which is designed to propose foreign policy ideas running counter to prevailing thinking, but still) emphasised the importance of including groups like Hamas and Hizbullah in ‘their respective political mainstreams’. Their conclusion is that US assistance to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas (and a Lebanese force that includes Hizbullah) would be more effective than providing assistance to ‘entities’ that represent ‘only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace’. The report rejects the view that Hamas can only be overcome by force, quoting Aaron Miller: ‘Destroying them was never an option. Ignoring them may not be either.’ Red Team reports are supposed to be controversial, and military lobbying for engagement with Hamas is still a long way off. But the fact that the US military is thinking in these terms, however speculatively, is interesting.

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