Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Continued Failure in Gaza

The recent Israeli raid on the flotilla bringing aid to Gaza, that resulted in the deaths of nine civilians, more injuries, and near-global condemnation for Israel's actions, has brought a lot of attention to Gaza in the past few days. Unfortunately, much of the discourse has centered around the specific incident itself (who fired first, whether Israeli troops were right to protect themselves, etc.), and not about the politics and conditions in Gaza overall. There's a larger debate about the occupation itself that I won't get into here (there are obviously countless sources you can look to for that debate), which is quite crucial to this whole thing. However, the situation in Gaza itself is one that has been largely neglected by the Western press, particularly the politics of Gaza.

I don't need to rehash the point that Palestinians in Gaza are living in horrible conditions. So many others have done so - there is a level of poverty and starvation inconceivable to most people occurring on a daily basis in Gaza. That's the reason the flotilla came with supplies. Israel has effectively blockaded Gaza from the outside world for the past few years - particularly since Hamas' election win. Prior to the blockade, around 4,000 goods entered Gaza. After the blockade, only 80 or so were allowed in. After the flotilla raid, Israel expanded this list to include dangerous items like soda, juice, jam, spices, shaving cream, potato chips, cookies, and candy.

The argument is, since Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization, and Gaza is Hamas' stronghold (versus the West Bank, where Fatah has more power), the blockade on Gaza is reasonable. Through coercion, this policy will eventually lead to Palestinians rightfully abandoning the terrorist Hamas group. Now, it's not entirely clear that Hamas is committed to war with Israel at all costs - they have defined parameters for a peace settlement that are not necessarily all that far off from those from the UN, the Geneva Accords, etc. And, while the blockade is touted as a security measure, leaked documents suggest it is really just economic warfare. The effects, of course, have been devastating. In 2009, the annual GDP per capita in Gaza was barely over $1,000, while it was almost triple that in the West Bank ($2,900). For reference, the same numbers were close to $30,000 in Israel and almost $50,000 in the US.

So, given all that information, is this blockade immoral and unjust? Well, I won't bother with that. Because I don't need to. Fact is, the policy is simply stupid. Yet it continues.

Say what?

Okay, so here's the problem. Everything we know from scholarly research on the Middle East and political Islam shows that variation in behavior and actions are due to institutions, not culture or religion or structure. In other words, you can't explain why different Islamist groups act the way they do by using culture/religion, or economic development as the explanatory factor. On the other hand, these groups DO vary based on their political incentives. Where Islamist groups are incorporated into politics (but forced to compromise with others, who also compromise), they moderate. Where these groups are kept out of the system, they do not moderate.

This is what we see in so many countries. Where Islamist groups are allowed to be active participants in political contestation (Morocco, Yemen, Turkey, Jordan, Algeria, and, to some extent Egypt), they have incentives to moderate their views to ensure political survival. Where the groups are forced underground (Syria, Libya, and Tunisia), they don’t moderate.

Let's run down the list.
  • Jordan: two Islamist groups, IAF and Islah. IAF gets to participate in the political process and moderates (it doesn't on shariah law, but that is also due to the fact that the opposition coalition it is part of puts no pressure on it to moderate on this view - hence, the institution argument still works there), Islah is kept out and doesn't moderate.
  • Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood continuously moderates as it is allowed to participate...and then not allowed...and then allowed...and then not allowed. Mubarak isn't big on consistency, obviously.
  • Morocco: the PJD and Al Adl are the two Islamist groups. The PJD was allowed to participate, and it has moderated its views...they went so so far as to not seriously campaign in 2002 because they didn't want to win too much of the vote to piss off the regime. Al Adl has been excluded and has not moderated at all.
  • Turkey: AKP has moderated significantly, even distancing themselves from Islamists over time, particularly since they took over the government offices.
So, this makes it pretty clear - Islamist groups moderate when it is in their interest to do so...when they pay a political cost if they don't, and get a political gain if they do. So, how does that play into the blockade? Simple...that policy has had one intended effect - isolating Hamas from politics. It's true, of course, that Hamas was allowed to participate in Palestinian elections. They won them in 2006. But, the US and Israel (and Egypt, as a blockade partner) have, since then, kept them out. They negotiated with Fatah. They openly backed Fatah in domestic politics. They essentially tried to erase Hamas from the political sphere.

In that sense, they created ZERO incentives for Hamas to moderate. Hamas sees no light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. If the offer was, instead, moderate and you'll get to voice your grievances and participate in politics, this strategy could have worked (like it had in all the other cases). But there was no assurance that they would ever get to play ball. And whether people like it or not, allowing Islamist groups to legitimately participate in the political game seems to be the one thing that causes them to moderate. Unfortunately, unless the US, Israel, and Egypt substantially change their policy, there seems to be little hope that Hamas will ever go down that road.

1 comment:

falcon said...

A question for you Brown Hornet: What is the difference between "islamic" and "islamist." I think I know the answer, but I'd like a more authoritative response.