Gaza: The jailed state

The world cannot afford to stand by while the Israeli army and Palestinian militias fight their unwi

As hundreds of Israeli families leave the town of Sderot in southern Israel to escape Hamas-designed Qassam rockets and mortars, Palestinians in turn are fleeing the wrath of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, which in the past week have killed more than 30 people, many of them civilians. This latest bloodshed in the besieged Gaza Strip comes hard on the heels of deadly inter-Palestinian battles between Hamas and Fatah that Palestinian security forces have been unable to contain.

These events leave the impression that the political leadership within the unity government has neither the will nor the capability to enforce a ceasefire and maintain its effectiveness. Some within Hamas are even saying that it would be in the interests of the Palestinian people to dissolve the Palestinian Authority here and now, because it has proved incapable of alleviating the Palestinians' misery or finding an enduring solution to the conflict with Israel.

While leaders of Fatah and Hamas are united in making strides towards reconciliation, the resistance shown by their supporters has forced Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and President Mahmoud Abbas to order the training of large numbers of police and army to secure the borders and bring order to the unruly state.

The government of national unity had been seriously weakened by the resignation of the Palestinian interior minister, Hani al-Qawasmi. Selected for the key post because he was independent of both groups, Qawasmi believed he had been rendered powerless to implement measures agreed in Mecca on 8 February 2007 in a signed deal between Fatah and Hamas sponsored by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The emergency summit had been called by King Abdullah following heavy fighting between Hamas and Fatah factions that had claimed about a hundred Palestinian lives.

During the Mecca summit, the king asked Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, why his movement couldn't recognise the State of Israel. Meshal's response was that this standpoint was not that of Hamas, but of the higher leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the worldwide Islamist movement. Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which believes that the land of Palestine is held under an Islamic waqf - meaning that no Palestinian, whatever his position, has the right to relinquish any part of it to non-Muslims. For this reason, Hamas has always spoken of relations with the Israelis in terms of a long truce, or what in Arabic is called a hudna.

When the obdurate non-acceptance of Israel led the international community to enforce sanctions against the Hamas-led government, the Palestinian population paid a high price. Some 70 per cent live below the poverty line and many rely heavily on handouts from the United Nations and international aid organisations. Many had been clinging to the hope that the recently formed unity government would revive international confidence in Palestinian governance and lead to the lifting of sanctions.

But Hamas's landslide victory in January 2006 had empowered its leaders to assume that they were not obliged to listen to other voices within Palestinian society. Cronyism and favouritism were the selection processes by which unqualified people were appointed to plum jobs. Freih Abu Middein, a former minister, well-known lawyer and leader of one of Gaza's largest clans, described the level of corruption within the Hamas movement after one year in office as being on a par with that of the much-maligned Fatah administration.

There was no improvement in services or lifestyle. Salaries were paid only in the first two or three months, and then they dried up. This alienated many Palestinians who felt that Hamas was not taking on board their concerns about the movement's handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They believed Hamas had to deal with the reality on the ground - that Israel, like it or not, exists. This is borne out each day as Palestinians undergo rigorous checks at the border. European observers may control the checkpoints, but Israelis monitor from a distance. And Israel has overall authority for the checkpoints, which are being closed several times a week.

As if all this weren't enough, al-Qaeda has emerged in the theatre of Gaza. In a video released and broadcast by al-Jazeera, al-Tawhid wa'al-Jihad - an al-Qaeda affiliate and the kidnap group that has held the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza for more than two months - demanded the release of al-Qaeda activists. Its list included Abu Qatada, the militant Palestinian-Jordanian imprisoned in the UK and described as Osama Bin Laden's man in Europe, and Sajida al-Rishawi, the Iraqi woman who played a role in the bombing campaign that targeted Jordanian hotels in late 2005.

Johnston's kidnappers gave a glimmer of hope to family and friends when they used the password "Mombasa", the name of Johnston's cat. It appears he is being held by the same group that held two Fox News journalists to ransom in 2006. They were released after two weeks.

But the demands made for Johnston's release, the style of the video and other tactics bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda's operations worldwide. The video has confirmed fears that al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the chaos and lawlessness to extend its reach into the Palestinian territories, and specifically the Gaza Strip.

A likely point of entry is the sprawling secret tunnel network connecting Egypt with Gaza. More than a year ago, Mahmoud Abbas sounded warning bells that al-Qaeda was becoming active in small cells in Gaza. Palestinians do not welcome the idea of extreme elements on their soil, as they wish their fight to remain within the boundaries of the Palestinian territories.

One name widely talked about in connection with the kidnapping of the British journalist is that of Dagmoush, a clan once allied to Hamas. But, according to sources, Mumtaz Dagmoush, one of the clan's leaders, has recently switched allegiance to Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. His close relationship with Hamas was severed after a Hamas activist killed a member of his immediate family. In revenge, Dagmoush threatened to reveal information about the dirty jobs carried out on behalf of Hamas, including the murder of Moussa Arafat, head of Palestinian military intelligence, killed in a raid on his house in Gaza in 2005.

The government of national unity has been much criticised for its response to the Johnston kidnapping, in particular its failure to make make Dagmoush feel under any kind of pressure. In the light of both this and the deteriorating relationship between Hamas and Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas is likely to feel that he has no option but to dissolve the parliament and call an election for both parliament and the presidency. Such a move would have to be approved by both Fatah and Hamas, otherwise Gaza and the West Bank could all too easily face a situation similar to the one in Somalia, where clans and warlords hold sway and determine the daily life of the people.

This places a heavy duty on the international community to address the chaos. The effects of the situation in Gaza could reach far beyond the confines of the Palestinian territories. There is considerable peril in allowing al-Qaeda's newest recruits to operate in Gaza.

The Palestinians urgently need international financial support and a just solution to their crisis. Recent fighting in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and affiliates of al-Qaeda (led by a Palestinian) has already claimed the lives of nearly a hundred civilians and soldiers. Al-Qaeda's new allies in Gaza are banking on the desperation of Palestinians inside the occupied territories to spread throughout the region.

Zaki Chehab is the author of "Inside Hamas" (published by I B Tauris in the UK and by Nation Books in the US)

Key dates in history of the Gaza Strip
Research by Shabeeh Abbas

1949 Egypt occupies strip following 1948 Arab-Israeli War

1956 Occupied by Israel after Suez War, in which Israel, France and Britain attack Egypt. International pressure forces Israel to withdraw in 1957

1967 Recaptured by Israel in Six Day War. United Nations calls on Israel to withdraw

1970 First Jewish settlement in Gaza

1987 First Intifada. Hamas is formed

1993 Oslo Accords. First Intifada ends. Palestinian Authority takes control of strip

2000 Ariel Sharon visits al-Aqsa Mosque, sparking the Second Intifada

2005 Israel withdraws troops but maintains control of the strip's borders and airspace

2006 Hamas wins elections. Crippling economic sanctions imposed on new government because of its refusal to renounce violence and recognise Israel. Clashes between Hamas and Fatah militants become commonplace

2007 Fatah and Hamas form unity government but fail to prevent factional fighting. Israeli air strikes continue to kill civilians

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

Photo: Getty Images
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The free market? There's no such thing

There's no such thing as the free market - it's a delusion of left and right, argues Bryn Phillips.

A very long time ago, some wide-eyed utopians dreamed a seductive dream. A dream of a perfect world. A world without coercive constraints on economic activities, where the intrusive hand of government would be eliminated. They conceived of an economy governed by the same laws that operate in nature. And they called it the free market. And over time the left began to believe in this fantasy as much as the right. For the right it is a call to arms against the domination of the ‘villainous’ state; for the left it is the rot at the heart of our ‘inequitable’ economic system. Yet while they disagree on its desirability, both positions assume that a ‘non-regulated’ market can even be possible. One of the key insights of the Hungarian philosopher Karl Polanyi, however, is that there is no such thing as a free market. There never has been, and there never can be. Let me explain.

The concept of an economic sphere completely divorced from government and civil society institutions, Polanyi argues, is a “stark utopia”—stark, because the attempt to bring it into being is destined to fail and will inevitably bring about dystopian consequences for human beings and nature alike. However, there is a gulf of difference between a market and what Polanyi calls a market society. The first is a necessary part of any functioning economy, one of many different social institutions on which the common good depends; the second imperils human society by attempting to subject almost everything that social life depends upon to market principles: health care, legal security, and the right to earn a wage. When these ‘commodity fictions’ (Polanyi’s words, not mine) are treated as if they are genuine commodities, produced for sale in the marketplace, rather than inherent rights, our social world is thrown before the lions and major crises inevitably follow on. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Wall Street Crash, arguably being just two examples. 

The flip side to all this, Polanyi argues, is that human beings tend to mobilise in response to such crises, but the resulting resistance is not always necessarily democratic (think the New Deal)—it it is just as likely to be authoritarian and nasty. For all their wickedness, the Nazi Party came to power on a protectionist ticket, promising to restore order in the face of the social chaos created by the crash of the early 1930s. Looking at today’s world through this prism, isn’t free market ideology the common thread that links many of today’s problems too—global warming, rising anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and economic instability?

To any rational thinker, then, the very idea that markets and governments are independent and autonomous institutions is clearly dangerous nonsense. Government action is not some kind of Orwellian “interference” in the autonomous sphere of economic activity. In simple terms, the economy just cannot exist without the mediating influence of government and social institutions. It’s not only that society depends on schools, a legal system, and other public goods that only government can provide. It is that every major input the economy needs in order to function—land, labour, and money—originate and are maintained through sustained government action. The supplies of money that enable us to purchase goods, the employment system, the arrangements for buying and selling land, all are supported and organised through the exercise of government’s authority, rules, and regulations. Put simply, there is no such thing as a “free market”.

In light of this doesn’t the quixotic left need to stop tilting at windmills and see the world as it really is? It’s time we changed the terms of political debate and made it clear that the frustrating economic problems we face today are exclusively political problems. This means rejecting the illusion of a deregulated economy altogether. Instead of parroting the fallacious ideology of the free market, we need to close the book on this myth and tell an alternative story. 

As the academic Margaret Somers has pointed out, what happened in the 1980s in the name of “deregulation” was, in truth, simply “re-regulation”, this time by laws and policies completely opposite to those of the mid-twentieth century—of Attlee and Roosevelt. Those older regulations laid the foundations for greater social equality, a thriving middle class and increased economic and political security. The reality is that, between the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 and the present day, government continued to regulate, but instead of acting to protect workers and customers, it devised novel policies aimed to help multi-national corporations and the financial services industries maximise the returns on their investments, by reforming anti-trust laws, putting obstacles in the way of unionisation, and handing out bank bailouts without any conditions attached whatsoever. In 2008, 1.3 trillion pounds were transferred to the banks in the UK overnight—the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history—but nothing was asked for in return. You get the picture. 

The implications of Polanyi’s critique for the left are critical. If regulations are necessary features of markets, then surely we’ve got to stop fixating on the ‘regulation versus deregulation’ debate that has distorted political discourse for the last thirty years, and instead discuss what kinds of regulations we want to see put in place? Those designed for the exclusive benefit of capital and the billionaire class? Or those that jointly benefit workers, customers, and businesses? We must not ask whether the law should intervene in the market but rather what kinds of rules and rights should be expressed in these laws—those that recognise that it is the expertise and experience of employees that help make firms profitable and productive, or those that rig the race solely in favour of employers and centralised capital? 

The truth, of course, in the 1930s as now, is that the poor have always struggled to keep their heads above water in the face of forces that overwhelm them. Confronted by the economic failures and instabilities brought about by what political philosopher Maurice Glasman calls “market utopia”, we must be relentless in guarding against the threats which the advocates of free market ideology unwittingly present to democracy and peace. Unless there are some serious initiatives to chart a new course, we can only expect that the threat from the nationalist right and the anti-Semitic hard-left—that is currently growing across Europe— will grow stronger.

“Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves,” says Don Quixote, as he advances towards the windmills on the plain. Taking Polanyi seriously means the left needs to confront reality. Or the economic inequities it rallies against will prevail. Another major crisis will become inevitable. And we may well have no say in our destiny at all.