It was a heart-wrenching story. Hundreds of thousands of people, trapped for endless years in an open-air jail and recently subjected to an airtight siege, blew up their prison wall and poured out to freedom.
A 24-year-old man named Fares Al-Ghoul talked to the Chicago Tribune. "It was like a dream," Al-Ghoul said. "Suddenly in the morning we found out that we could travel. Everybody started to rush to the border, and I found my way inside. We walked a few kilometers but we were not tired. I was ready to continue walking forever. I wanted to explore everything. It was a taste of freedom."
Freedom. It's the ultimate American ideal. It's what George W. Bush says he launched his "war on terror" to defend. But because this is Gaza, and the people are Palestinians, their freedom isn't worth defending. Al-Ghoul is not going to walk forever, or even for more than a few days. He and the rest of his fellow prisoners are going to go back to their jail. And we're going to forget about them.
America can't deal with the Gaza breakout, because it shows that Gaza is a jail that we own the key to. The crisis undercuts our simplistic narrative about the Middle East. If the noble "war on terrorism" turns out to include keeping a million and a half people locked up indefinitely, it's better not to think about it. The inmates should just return to their cells, behave themselves, and wait for further instructions. If it takes 40 more years for them to get out, so be it.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Ronald Reagan's famous injunction to Mikhail Gorbachev and Robert Frost's line speak to something deep in the American conscience. But when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that conscience is asleep. Even the sight of hundreds of thousands of desperate people, one-fifth of Gaza's entire population, rushing out to buy oil and medicine and cement doesn't awaken it.
Of the mass breakout, the Associated Press wrote, "It ... reminded the world that 1.5 million Gazans, many already bitterly poor, cannot remain locked up indefinitely." It may have reminded the world of that, but it certainly didn't remind America. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Hamas for the crisis and issued a call to deal "creatively" with the situation, a response the respected moderate Lebanese commentator Rami Khouri called "an ethical weapon of mass destruction." "Why 'creatively'? Is this a kindergarten finger painting class?" Khouri wrote. "Why not deal with the Gaza situation on the basis of more compelling adult criteria, such as legality, legitimacy, and humanity?" The Washington Post ran an editorial that attacked Hamas for derailing the peace process, belittled Palestinian suffering (it referred to a "humanitarian crisis" in scare quotes), scolded Gazans for "blowing up international borders," and concluded by testily demanding that they stop making trouble and wait for the "peace process" to go forward (that is, go back to jail and wait for another few decades). The Congress and the presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican, ignored the Gaza crisis, or weighed in with predictably pro-Israel statements.
Even the most progressive candidate, Barack Obama, went out of his way to take Israel's side. In a letter to U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Obama urged the United States not to allow a resolution condemning Israel's illegal collective punishment of the Palestinians to pass unless it also acknowledged Palestinian rocket attacks, which Israel's latest closure was a response to. "Israel is forced to do this," Obama wrote.
Obama's objection to the resolution as one-sided was legitimate -- up to a point. Of course the Palestinian rocket attacks that have killed 18 Israelis in four years are morally indefensible. But as usual with American pronouncements about anything involving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Obama's letter completely failed to address the context of those attacks, including the harsh Israeli military actions (including extrajudicial executions) in Gaza that have killed more than 816 Gazans, including 379 noncombatants, since January 2006. And, of course, it failed to mention the most crucial fact: Gaza has been under a brutal occupation for decades.
But even leaving those matters aside, Obama's claim that Israel was "forced" to impose a total siege on the population of Gaza to try to end rocket attacks by Palestinian militants is simply false. Israel was not "forced" to do that any more than America was "forced" to invade Iraq. Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself against the Qassam rocket attacks. But it was not forced to cut off power, medicine and food to do that. It chose to impose that siege (with Bush's obvious, if unspoken, blessing) because it hoped that by punishing the people of Gaza, they would overthrow their Hamas-led government.
One need not defend Hamas to recognize that "sending a message" by punishing the people who live under its rule is a textbook case of collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not only confirmed that this is Israel's policy, but unabashedly revealed its purely retributive nature. "We won't allow a situation in which people in Sderot walk around in fear day and night, while Gazans lead a completely normal life," Olmert told members of his ruling Kadima party. "We won't allow for a humanitarian crisis, but have no intention of making their lives easier. And the harder their lives, excluding humanitarian damage, we will not allow them to lead a pleasant life. As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza's residents can walk and have no fuel for their cars, as they live under a murderous regime."
Forget Olmert's pious cant about "not allowing for a humanitarian crisis." The truth is that Gaza has been in such a crisis for years, as Israeli journalist Amira Hass documented in her 1999 book "Drinking the Sea at Gaza." The furor over Israel's latest blockade obscures the fact that Israel has long used collective punishment as a tactic in Gaza. As Hass shows, Israeli policies during the Oslo years had the effect of slowly strangling Gaza. Israel had complete control over the Gaza economy. Gazans couldn't work or visit sick relatives without Israeli permission. Israel could make life in Gaza better or worse with the flick of a pen. And most damningly, Hass shows that contrary to Israeli claims, Israel's stifling closures (the Strip was completely sealed 18 times between 1994 and 1996, for example) were not carried out solely because of security concerns, but for various strategic reasons.
Since Hamas took over, and the West decided to try to bludgeon it into submission, the crisis has gotten even worse. In effect, the slow strangulation simply became faster. It's like a macabre social science experiment sanctioned by the civilized West, a clinical study of whether you can get people to do what you want by depriving them of necessities. Rocket attacks? Turn the thermostat down to 48 degrees. More attacks? Let raw sewage flow in the streets. Still more? Cut power to the hospitals.
By punishing all Gazans for the indefensible actions of a few, Israel and its ally America are validating the argument used by the militant Palestinians who insist that all Israelis are fair targets because they all serve in the Israeli army, or the jihadists who insist that all Americans are fair targets because they vote and are therefore responsible for their government's actions. One of the ironies of the situation is that in Israel these policies are openly criticized, as in this Haaretz column by Bradley Burston; in America, these points are almost never raised.
If it were just a matter of morality, we could ignore the agony of Gaza. After all, we countenance immoral actions all over the world. But this isn't a matter only of morality, but of national security. For we are seen by the Arab-Muslim world as Israel's co-jailers -- and ultimately, we are. We support and pay for Israel's occupation. If we were to demand that that occupation stop, sooner or later Israel would be forced to comply. The people in the region know this, and they are deeply angry and frustrated, and as a result some of them are driven to fight us. There is no troop surge big enough to defeat the jihadis and anti-American militants our Middle East policies are breeding.
The Gaza jailbreak represents the end of Bush's delusional attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Annapolis is now dead, killed before it even started. The fatal flaw of Bush's approach was that it assumed that dividing the Palestinians would lead to peace, when just the opposite is true. Bush and Olmert planned to squeeze Gaza until Hamas collapsed, while simultaneously pumping up Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority. They reasoned that by getting rid of the extremists in Hamas, they would smooth the way to make a deal with the moderates in Fatah.
But this approach was doomed for two reasons. First, Olmert is unwilling or incapable of taking the steps required to strengthen Abbas -- certainly not fast enough to make his Fatah party a viable alternative to Hamas in Palestinian eyes. (The announcement on Jan. 24 that Israel is freezing all settlement growth was a positive development, but too little, too late.) And Bush, "the greatest friend Israel has ever had," is not about to put the pressure on Olmert that alone could force his hand. Second, Hamas is not going away. Collectively punishing the people of Gaza, far from causing them to rise up and throw out Hamas, as Bush and Olmert fantasized, only further radicalized them. American and Israeli intransigence and ineptitude have only succeeded in strengthening the hard-liners and weakening the moderates.
By destroying the wall, Hamas instantly gained enormous prestige among Palestinians -- and proved that it cannot be excluded from political discussions. And, perhaps most significantly, it also opened what could be an entirely new economic and political frontier with Egypt.
For his part, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is in an extremely delicate position. He also bears responsibility for the plight of the Gazans, as a paid-off collaborator in the U.S.-Israeli policy. But Mubarak is also hostile toward and afraid of empowering the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is an offshoot. He allowed the Palestinians to burst through into Egypt only when Arab and Muslim anger over his collaboration with the United States and Israel became too great to resist. But now that the precedent has been set, it will be extremely difficult for Mubarak to return to the status quo ante.
Egypt is moving to reclose the border and has closed shops to discourage Palestinians. But if Mubarak closes the wall and Israel imposes another blockade, or invades the Strip, and he refuses to open it again, he will be perceived as a traitor and collaborator -- possibly threatening his regime. Mubarak will try to work out some compromise that will absolve him of full responsibility for Gaza but will keep the border porous enough to serve as a safety valve from the Gaza pressure cooker. Of course, any such safety valve strengthens Hamas.
The Rafah breakout shows the limits of Washington's policy of trying to cajole and bully "moderate" Arab regimes into doing our bidding. Right-wing commentators are fond of disparaging the "Arab street," but people power, it turns out, can still make a decisive difference in the Middle East. When popular outrage gets too great, even bought-and-paid-for despots like Mubarak have to yield to it. The situation closely parallels what happened during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Israel tried to bomb the Lebanese into overthrowing Hezbollah. The moderate Sunni regimes initially condemned Hezbollah but were forced by public outrage to reverse course, just as Mubarak was.
In the end, the road to peace remains the same. The United States and Israel need to accept Hamas' offer of a cease-fire. Then they need to bite the bullet and accept that even though Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and renounce terror, it is a rational actor and can be persuaded to accept a two-state deal so long as the final goal of a viable Palestinian state, as described in the Arab League plan, is clearly on the table. And they need to bring Fatah and Hamas back together and negotiate final-status issues -- Jerusalem, security, borders, refugees -- with both at the same time. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley argued recently in the Washington Post, so long as each of the three players in what they call the "Middle East triangle" regards a gain by either of the other two as their loss, no progress is possible. But if each of the three players can be made to understand that a gain for one is a gain for them all, then a deal could be possible.
The recent Gaza jailbreak showed that a deal is urgently necessary. The pot just boiled over. It hasn't exploded yet, but if it does, it won't just be the Palestinians and Israelis who get burned.