WASHINGTON - As President George W. Bush returned from his visit last month to Israel to reinvigorate the Annapolis process, the international media was dominated by reports of Palestinian militants firing rockets into Gaza, and Israel's response -- an unprecedented blockade of the territory to effectively squeeze the population to turn against the Islamist group Hamas.
For more than three weeks, an area slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C. was plunged into chaos and darkness, a humanitarian crisis whose magnitude intensified with each passing day.
Gaza's 1.4 million residents received a respite from the siege last week when Hamas blew holes through Gaza's border wall with Egypt, temporarily easing the impact of Israeli restrictions on fuel, electricity, medicine and food.
But the border breach also blew apart Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak's "experimental" policy to pressure Palestinians and -- contrary to intention -- appears to have only further entrenched Hamas in Gaza and weakened Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's ability to lead in the U.S.-supported peace negotiations. According to experts, Gaza's most recent crisis has undermined the Annapolis initiative endorsed by Washington, a process for which neighbouring Arab states have already expressed varying degrees of scepticism.
"The escalation of the siege in Gaza was of course inhuman, but it also did nothing to improve the security of the neighbouring Israeli population," wrote former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy in the American Prospect magazine. "It undermined the peace process that was supposed to have been relaunched and weakened the ability of the Arab states to support that process."
By creating a border crisis with Egypt as the reticent intermediary, Hamas managed to deflect criticism of its management of Gaza, and perhaps most importantly, prove that it could play the "spoiler" role if continually ignored. Egypt was put in the uncomfortable position of taking some measure of responsibility for the Rafah crossing, going so far as to meet with Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Cairo to facilitate movement of Palestinians on the border.
"Hamas earned a degree of respect for action even from its opponents in Gaza, further consolidating its control. Now Hamas is trying to force Cairo to acknowledge that control and to deal directly with Hamas to solve the border crisis," wrote New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger.
Egypt is committed to a peace treaty and security cooperation with Israel. It receives two billion dollars a year in aid from Washington, in part to stem the flow of militant groups that pose a threat to Israel's security. But analysts believe the border move made Hamas look creative and effective at playing a weaker hand.
"The stark reality currently facing the Egyptians," wrote Michael Walid Hanna of the Century Foundation think-tank, is "that Egypt cannot stabilise the border without the active and constructive cooperation of Hamas. The events that led to the stabilising of the border have cast Hamas in the role of an official counterpart to the Egyptian authorities, much to the chagrin of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah supporters. Meanwhile, Egypt's, Israel's, and Fatah's greatest point of leverage -- the ability to undermine Hamas's grip on power through a blockade of Gaza -- is now irreparably damaged."
Israel's policy has also come under attack by human rights advocates who argue it amounts to "collective punishment".
French-Israeli journalist Charles Enderlin, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace last month, described the policy as "conscience engraving", a part of Israeli military doctrine to "engrave" in the minds of Palestinians that "violence doesn't pay".
Wrote Karen Koning AbuZayd, the commissioner general for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in the pages of the Guardian:
"In today's Gaza, how can we foster a spirit of moderation and compromise among Palestinians, or cultivate a belief in the peaceful resolution of disputes? There are already indications that the severity of the closure is playing into the hands of those who have no desire for peace. We ignore this risk at our own peril."
She continued: "What we should be doing now is nurturing moderation and empowering those who believe that Gaza's rightful future lies in peaceful co-existence with its neighbours. We welcome the new to resuscitate the peace process, revive the Palestinian economy and build institutions. These pillars, on which a solution will be built, are the very ones being eroded."
Gaza's unemployment rate stands at nearly 40 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, a territory where rates are already among the highest in the world.
M.J. Rosenberg, of the dovish Israel Policy Forum, said: "In 2008, the only way to resolve disputes between nations is through direct negotiations. That means that all the problems posed by Hamas in Gaza can only be resolved through negotiations that will end the Israeli occupation, create a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its shared capital and ensure the security of both Israelis and Palestinians. As the Israelis say over and over again, it needs a partner. In fact, it has one in Mahmoud Abbas. But, being essentially powerless, he is not a partner Israel can hold responsibility for very much."
Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2005 only to be isolated by the West, violently seized control of Gaza in June and has been locked in a power struggle with Abbas's Fatah group, which controls the West Bank. Washington has presumably placed its full confidence in Abbas, but the Fatah leader still faces challenges from Hamas, as well as from some elements of its security force.
"The Army of Palestine", which says it is a unit of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, claimed responsibility for Monday's suicide attack in the southern Israeli town of Dimona. An Israeli woman, along with the suicide bomber and his accomplice, were killed. Fatah denied any involvement in the attack.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said the Monday bombing would not derail U.S.-backed peace talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the first in seven years to tackle so-called final status issues, including statehood borders.
The events in Gaza have overshadowed the Annapolis process thus far, and threaten to undermine them in the future.
© 2008 Inter Press Service