Mostly, though, Gazans have reacted to the pragmatic reality around them. Gaza’s economy had tanked before the coup, thanks to their election of an unrepentant terrorist group to power. It has declined sharply from that point since the coup. While the Gazans see aid returning to the Hamas-less West Bank, the closing of commercial crossings at Karni and Rafah have cut deeply into their finances. The World Bank estimates that Gaza has lost $20.6 million in a single month due to the disappearance of Fatah security at Karni. Israel won’t reopen Karni with masked Hamas gunmen staffing security positions on the other side.
The resulting price hikes and food shortages will only get worse as a result, and the only way to change that will be to get rid of Hamas. Egypt won’t open Rafah to any great degree for the same security reasons as Israel. Gaza can’t get shipments anywhere else; the Israel military controls Gaza’s coastline.
As a result, Fatah has become much more popular in Gaza than ever before. They have almost double the support of Hamas, although interestingly one-third of Gazans support neither party. Mahmoud Abbas has an almost two-to-one advantage over former PM Ismail Haniyeh in voter trust, 63-37. Even more significantly, Sallam Fayed — the new PM that Hamas declared illegitimate — has a 62-38 advantage in trust among Gaza voters.
The ascendance of Hamas has been an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinians, so much so that some have begun to question whether they wouldn’t be off under Israeli occupation. Hamas, like most terrorist groups, has never had to deal with compromise, and they can’t kill everyone who disagrees with them without massacring most of their own people. They don’t have the cult of personality that kept Arafat’s kleptocracy intact, and as Gaza continues to become a living nightmare, the Palestinians are realizing that the only way forward is to reject those who have gotten them to this point.
Fatah lost because of corruption and incompetence, and Hamas seemed to promise something better. Now that Hamas has proven to be corrupt, incompetent, and dangerous the Palestinians are once again looking towards something better. What is crucial now is that Fatah embrace real change for the Palestinian people. Prime Minister Fayyad seems like someone who can reform the corrupt practices of the former PA and restore some order. While many see Fatah as not much better than Hamas, it does have the legitimacy needed to get things done. There aren’t many in Palestine who don’t have some connection to terrorism — so asking to deal with someone with perfectly clean hands just isn’t realistic. If Fatah wants to play ball, then play ball we should.
Hamas is isolating itself, which is the inevitable consequence of such a revolution. While Palestine has been seen (and justifiably so) as a failure of democratization in the Middle East, over the long term, that may not be the case. Democratization implies that voters in the Middle East may make choices that we don’t like, but also will be saddled with the consequence of those choices. So long as the democratic process itself doesn’t end up being destroyed, self-interest will lead to better leadership over time — right now the result of Hamas’ election has been to marginalize Hamas and to create more momentum for reform. While the costs have been great, especially to those stuck in Gaza, over the long term it may be a net benefit to the Palestinians.
The lessons here for American foreign policy are crucial. We’ve made a point of propping up regimes like the Mubarak government in Egypt as a hedge against Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood — however, it’s that autocracy that feeds terrorism by stifling free expression. If that autocracy were to end, would that end up leaving populist Islamist movements in the position of winning, but they having to moderate themselves or face electoral backlash? That seems to be the case in Gaza. The big question is whether allowing Islamist movements to compete in free elections wouldn’t undercut the democratic process itself — if so, then there’s no pressure to reform and the risks of turning a relatively stable state like Egypt into another Afghanistan becomes a very real threat. It all seems to depend on the level of education and civil society — free elections in Egypt might be more likely to moderate groups like the Muslim Brotherhood over time then the same might in places like Saudi Arabia.
Right now the potential for reform in Palestine is high, but the road will be long and difficult. So many of the barriers to peace are cultural — the Palestinian culture has been turned into a glorified death cult rather than a viable polity that building a new sense of civil society will have to begin from the ground up. Social conditions like the subjugation of women that means that there are thousands of young, uneducated, angry, and sexually frustrated males feeding the ranks of terrorist groups will have to change. It will be a long and difficult process. However, the only other outcome is for the bloody status quo to continue, and even the Palestinians appear to have had enough of that.