Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Explaining Gaza

Noah Pollak assembles several arguments about the causes of the situation in Gaza I've been meaning to address. First is his list of the factors leading to the rise of Hamas:
"First, Israel defeated the intifada; second, Arafat died; third, Mahmoud Abbas was elected the new PA president; and fourth, Israel removed itself from Gaza. The latter three in particular served to strengthen Hamas -- not Fatah. The reality of the fractiousness of the Palestinian cause was already coming into view in 2005, before Hamas was elected, when more Palestinians were killed in internecine fighting than in battle against Israel. It might be gratifying to make a post facto declaration that in 2005, the old hands among the Palestinians had their territory under control until the Bush administration, which can’t do anything right, forced inadvisable changes on them. But that idea is simply a flight of fancy."

All of this has more to do with Hamas's rise in the Gaza Strip than the 2006 Parliamentary elections. I still think the Hamas victory in those was a fluke caused by a strong protest vote against Fatah corruption and splits within Fatah which made it possible for Hamas to win seats on a plurality basis. Pushing for elections was still the right thing to do, as it was the only way to produce a government with the legitimacy to pursue a peace process. The fact Hamas won does not change that dynamic, but merely shows how problematic Palestinian leadership issues can be.

These two paragraphs, however, are pathetically racist:
"Among the Arab countries today in which there is a modicum of internal stability, each is controlled by an Arafat-type figure -- an anti-democratic strongman who is able to crush all challenges to his authority. Likewise, among those Arab countries that aren't ruled by a despot, the political dynamic is also consistent: In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Gaza, sectarian violence is the dominant form of political expression. It’s true that Arafat’s authority was weaker in Gaza than in the West Bank, but in Gaza there was always another strongman present to keep a lid on things: the Israeli occupation. When Israel disengaged in the summer of 2005, suddenly Gaza was without any master at all, and that’s exactly when the territory started going full-tilt toward the Hobbesian state of nature it now finds itself in.

"And so to blame recent Bush administration choices for this lawlessness -- or more precisely, to invent stories about administration choices -- is more than a bit much. Even if the PA elections in 2006 hadn't occurred, I doubt the battle we are seeing today wouldn’t have happened. The fight is foreordained by Gaza's demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat's death, and Israel's unwillingness to police the territory. The Bush administration is simply along for the ride -- as is Israel. And the reason why Abbas has never been able to emerge as a leader of the Palestinians is because his weakness is similarly foreordained. Consensus-based political leadership is anathema to the Arab world. We're seeing that rather starkly today in Gaza."

The frame story here is that the Arab world is culturally unsuited for what Pollak calls "consensus-based political leadership." Within this, he situates Gaza as an example of a place doomed to anarchy by, "demography, its political and religious extremism, Arafat's death, and Israel's unwillingness to police the territory." However, I'm pretty sure those factors have nothing to do with Arab culture in is manifestations from the Gulf to Morocco.

Stability in most of the Arabian Peninsula is maintained precisely by "consensus-based political leadership" lubricated by oil wealth. That's the essence of the tribal model which is still prominent in many of those areas. Beyond that, Pollak doesn't mention Kuwait, which has developed a rather vibrant democratic culture which frequently challenges and beats the royal family. The sectarian violence of Lebanon and Iraq was not foreordained, but arose from specific conditions in each country. In Lebanon, the governing system allocated power by religious group, which ultimately led to discrimination when the demographic balance shifted. In Iraq, there was a concerted effort by radical Sunnis to provoke a civil war with the Shi'ite majority which finally took hold during 2006, with the destruction of the Askariyya Shrine in Samarra as a major turning point.

Pollak concludes by saying that the problem was "attempting to drag the Arabs of Palestine, against their will, into western political modernity." The Palestinians have for some time had one of the most politically sophisticated cultures in the Arab world. That's why people actually voted, and a party out of power won and took office. The violence sense then has been caused by the weakness of institutions, with security services loyal to factions rather than the quasi-state, a situation which more closely resembles the late Roman Republic than most of the Arab world. There's also been a division in power between the Presidency and Prime Minister's office dating from American and Israeli attempts to sideline Arafat, together with manipulation from a Damascus-based exile leadership whose authority has proven stronger than that of those elected by the actual Palestinians. Foreign powers do play games with weak governments in areas where they have interests, and there's also nothing new about that.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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