HAMAS now has its greatest opportunity to advance the cause of Palestinian self-determination by shifting the centerpiece of its strategy to establishing a sovereign Palestinian nation-state in the Gaza Strip. With the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the peace talks hopelessly stalled and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership in disarray, HAMAS should reject the failed “Two-State Solution” and seek a new path to Palestinian statehood. Only by establishing a fully constituted Palestinian state that wins recognition in the international community can HAMAS ensure the survival, growth and self-sufficiency of Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens. Having been democratically elected as the Palestinian Authority majority in the 2006 elections and functioning as the governing authority in Gaza, HAMAS must now transform its organization into an instrument of Palestinian self-governance that consolidates the institutions of a modern nation-state. Winning national sovereignty for Gaza is the most effective path to defeat the Obama administration and Israel’s attempts to politically isolate HAMAS as a “terrorist organization” and reduce Gaza to an island of economic desolation. Ultimately, HAMAS cannot survive as long as Gaza remains an “occupied territory” in which Israel controls its tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, its northern and eastern border crossings and its population registry. Thus HAMAS must alter the political dynamics on the ground by affecting a strategic shift focused on winning national sovereignty to thwart U.S-Israeli condominium over Gaza. Statehood for Gaza would not only be a critical “test case” for Palestinian self-rule and HAMAS’s leadership but a strategic enterprise that accelerates HAMAS’s struggle for an expanded Palestinian state inclusive of the West Bank.
A shift in HAMAS’s strategy to win nationhood for Gaza will require a comprehensive plan to recalibrate its political, diplomatic and economic assets. The template of HAMAS’s new strategy must be anchored by five core components: 1) Holding a successful national referendum in support of nationhood for Gaza, 2) launching an international diplomatic offensive to win recognition of Gaza’s national sovereignty, 3) declaring a unilateral cease fire with Israel, 4) eliminating Israeli control over Gaza’s tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, its border crossings and population registry, and 5) developing a comprehensive economic development plan for Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens.
Call for Referendum on National Sovereignty
Gaza’s road to statehood must begin with a call for a national referendum of its citizens to affirm support for creating a sovereign Palestinian nation-state. A strong victory in a transparent national referendum would mobilize support and legitimacy in Gaza and throughout the Palestinian Diaspora for national sovereignty. The referendum campaign would also provide HAMAS with a platform to articulate its long-term agenda for nationhood and shift the debate in the international community concerning a new path for Palestinian self-determination.
International Diplomacy in Support of a Palestinian State in Gaza
Building on the momentum of a successful referendum HAMAS must launch an aggressive international diplomatic offensive to argue its case for national sovereignty. HAMAS’s approach must be directed toward achieving two critical goals; persuading countries to formally recognize its demand for sovereignty and building international pressure to eliminate Israel’s control over Gaza’s tax revenue, territorial waters, airspace, border crossings and population registry. Gaza is currently designated by the United Nations as an Israeli “occupied territory”–a claim Israel disputes because its troops are no longer stationed in Gaza. But Gaza cannot be an “occupied territory and “non-occupied territory” at the same time. As the legitimately elected leadership and governing authority in Gaza HAMAS has every right to assert the aspirations of its citizens for nationhood. As the United States, Israel and the PA President Mahmoud Abbas refuse to recognize HAMAS as the elected Palestinian Authority leadership in violation of the Oslo Accords, HAMAS should not be bound by the agreements signed in Oslo. If HAMAS and Gaza’s citizens approve a referendum for statehood, they should have the right to exercise self-determination in Gaza separate from the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority. What is of paramount importance is that HAMAS wins recognition by some countries of its sovereignty–even if it is only a handful of nations initially. By taking its case before the United Nation’s and other international bodies, HAMAS has the potential to convert the widespread international support for its self-determination into a successful global diplomatic campaign. Moreover, HAMAS can leverage the support of key European nations that in the past have supported its participation in the peace process.
Ending Israel’s “Effective Control over Gaza
Israel continues to exercise control over Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, its governmental functions and administrative functions, such as the population registry of Gaza and West Bank residents, electromagnetic fields (which impact Radio, TV and telecommunications), migration, trade, tax system, currency policies, water and electricity supply. Israel claims these actions do not constitute “effective control” over Gaza because its troops don’t occupy Gaza. Further Israel insists its extended authority in Gaza was agreed to by the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo Accords. Israel also argues that Gaza is not a sovereign state, therefore the Geneva Conventions and Hague standards that clearly designate its “effective control” over Gaza as actions of an “occupying power” are not applicable to a non-state territory. HAMAS must take the position that it is not a party to the Oslo Accords and therefore not bound by its provisions. Furthermore, once Gaza claims its national sovereignty, Israel’s effective control over Gaza will clearly constitute violations of Gaza’s sovereignty. While the legalities of international law concerning Gaza’s status will be argued ad infinitum, only substantial international political pressure on Israel will force Tel Aviv to roll back its span of control over Gaza. Nevertheless, HAMAS must take the critical first step toward proclaiming its own sovereignty to change the terms of the debate.
Unilateral Declaration of Cease Fire with Israel
HAMAS must unilaterally declare and observe a cease fire with Israel. A unilateral cease fire monitored by the United Nations and the European Union is absolutely critical to give legitimacy to HAMAS efforts to persuade the international community to recognize its demand for national sovereignty. It is also a key precondition to gain international support to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters and borders. HAMAS needs time and stability to consolidate its government, institutions and economy. If Gaza is to achieve nationhood, it cannot provide Israel with a convenient excuse to invade Gaza and visit devastation on its fragile state. Thus a cease fire is paramount to HAMAS and Gaza’s survival. A unilateral cease fire is also a necessary political trade off for HAMAS given its leaders will not likely recognize Israel’s right to exist.
A Comprehensive Economic Plan for a Palestinian State in Gaza
HAMAS must develop a long-term economic plan to deliver vital economic development projects, infrastructure and social services to improve the lives of Gaza’s citizens. With a total land mass of only 360 miles and a population of 1.5 million people, the Gaza Strip’s economy currently ranks 164th in the world with 80 percent of its population living below the poverty line. In 2009 Gaza’s per capita income was only $3,100. In 2010 Gaza’s parliament passed a budget of $540 million of which only $55 million are comprised of local revenue and taxes. The balance of the remaining $485 will likely be covered by contributions from the Gulf oil states and Iran. HAMAS must make an authentic effort to develop a national economic development plan that builds on its current strengths and assets and develops Gaza’s core national infrastructure to support sustained growth. A comprehensive economic plan will serve as Gaza’s blueprint to attract and coordinate international support for vital economic development projects and diverse NGO activities. HAMAS must also agree to provide unprecedented access and transparency to all its economic and financial activities in order to build trust and confidence with its potential international partners. As a nation whose land mass and population is equivalent to Luxemburg or Monaco, creating a viable nation-state in Gaza is both feasible and manageable. What is needed is a new mindset by HAMAS’s leadership that views Gaza as a nation-state and not simply a transitional liberated territory.
That HAMAS will pursue a separate path of national sovereignty for the Gaza Strip is extremely unlikely. HAMAS remains fully vested in the framework of a “Two-State Solution,” in the hopes that Al Fatah’s collapse in the West Bank will result in HAMAS gaining political and military control of both Palestinian territories. Al Fatah’s downfall would leave Israel, the U.S. and the Arab world with little choice but to recognize HAMAS as the only legitimate leadership of a Palestinian state. HAMAS’s is also playing for time. If frustrated Palestinians completely reject a Two-State Solution Tel Aviv’s only alternative might be the annexation of the West Bank into Israel, thereby transforming the Israeli people into a minority in their own nation—a One-State Solution Israel desperately seeks to avoid. For these reasons time is running out on Israel to reach an agreement on the establishment of a provisional Palestinian state based on the armistice boundaries, while deferring final agreements on the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the assignment of permanent borders.
HAMAS is in a race against time as well. Short of another Israeli invasion, the U.S., Israel and Egypt are tightening their chokehold on Gaza’s economy in an attempt to turn Gaza’s citizens against HAMAS’s leadership. At the same time Fatah and the Obama Administration is working hard to disenfranchise HAMAS in the West Bank. Al Fatah’s failed attempt to overthrow HAMAS in the 2007 Gaza civil war (backed by Israel and the U.S.) and Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza that killed 1,500 Gaza citizens should leave no doubt as to the lengths Washington and Tel Aviv will go to neutralize HAMAS. Waiting for Al Fatah to collapse in the West Bank or for the Palestinian movements to abandon a Two-State Solution in deference to achieving a Palestinian majority in an annexed Israeli state is a passive and losing strategy that plays into its adversaries hands. What HAMAS needs now is a forward leaning “breakout strategy” centered on its own One-State Solution for Gaza’s national sovereignty. Raising a successful Palestinian state in Gaza is the most potent weapon HAMAS can wield to extend its leadership in the West Bank and convert the vast reservoir of international support for Palestinian self-determination into a powerful force for change. As the legendary HAMAS leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin once said “A Palestinian state must be established on any inch of Palestine we liberate.”