Saturday, February 22, 2014, was a historical day for the Ukrainian people. It marked the end of almost four months of demonstrations against now-overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych. His relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his policies of restricting freedom of speech, and his silent support of police brutality have caught the world’s attention. The newspapers told the story of the West and the EU against the Kremlin’s Eurasia, 70 victims in just a week of demonstrations, and the opposition’s fight against corruption and for a stronger democracy.
Beyond these headlines there are the roots of Ukraine’s political turmoil, which extend down to the pockets of most Ukrainians. One out of four citizens is living below the poverty line, and many are probably worried about their next meal more than they are about changing an article in the constitution. The release of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko may help unite the divided opposition. In any case, the people of Ukraine get all the credit for standing up, and taking the first step in the journey toward rehabilitating the country’s economy and government.
Some in the Middle East see the developments in Kiev, and wonder if the people of Gaza may be inspired to do the same. Although Hamas Prime Minister Haniyeh has ruled the Gaza Stip for twice as long as Yanukovich has Ukraine, some similarities do stand out.
One thing that both places definitely share is soaring poverty rates. Unemployment rates in Gaza hit 32.2 percent on February. The government employs some, and others work for the UN or international NGOs. Beyond these there’s very little private sector activity to mention. Factories have been closed for years. There is an almost complete dependency on Israeli imports, and a general ban on exports. Parents and children take to street corners, begging for 20 shekels ($6) to afford a meal for their entire family.
For over five months about 50,000 public sector workers have been unpaid. Things deteriorate fast.
Beyond their economy, both Gaza and Ukraine’s governments were democratically elected, but since have consistently defied basic principles of civil liberties and equality. Freedom of speech has been restricted in Gaza for years – this article, for example, had to rely on anonymous sources, as Gazans fear the grave consequences of having their name published.
Corruption is also prevalent in both places. Every year there are 25,000 new graduates from Gaza’s universities, but only alumni who are members of Hamas should bother applying for jobs. Teachers, policemen, and government bureaucrats are only employed from within the party. The rest can make a choice: either join the ranks of street beggars, or seek a job through a friend of a friend in Europe or Canada.
A third option is to spend days in coffee shops, while dreaming of a political transformation.
Hope for change is where the Ukraine and Gaza are completely set apart. Past attempts to overthrow Hamas were either crushed, or went by almost unnoticed.
On November 12, 2007, a large demonstration with over 200,000 participants was conducted in memory of Yasser Arafat, but was forcibly dispersed by Hamas gunmen, who fired into the crowd, killing six civilians and wounding more than 80.
On January 4, 2013, the people again took to the streets, with hundreds of thousands angry at Hamas’ human rights abuses, economic shortages and lack of democracy. The so-called “one million-man demonstration” did little to nothing to topple Hamas. “Tamarood-Gaza” (literally “rebel Gaza”) is a movement that began later on 2013. Active mostly on social media, they’re viewed as another unfulfilled promise to take down the government. Individuals who dare speak up against Hamas often end up with a bullet in their kneecap, or worse.
Much like in Ukraine, external actors play a meaningful role in shaping Gaza’s economic, social and political future. Egypt currently adds a great deal to the suffocation of Gaza’s economy, as well as the restriction of its military armament. Its most significant step is the closure of the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s southern border, and sealing the tunnels through which daily goods and arms were smuggled in during past years. Added to Egypt’s (and Israel’s) pressure is the loss of old allies. Syria is no longer home to Hamas’ political leadership, and Iran is more cautious and hesitant in its support, as it tries appealing to the West in the Geneva nuclear talks.
These circumstances have weakened Hamas, and recent polls reveal that only 25% of Gaza’s population would vote for it now. It’s not just the corruption, the human rights abuses, the stifling economy and the international isolation. Hamas’s main strategy against Israel has always been “armed resistance.”
While that line appealed to many during the 2006 elections, it is losing popular support among Palestinians. According to a recent poll by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) 56.3% opposes the resumption of violence against Israel, compared to 45.5% on 2008. The support of terror operations dropped to 29.3%, compared with 49.5% on 2008.
Unlike in Ukraine, Gaza’s people can only do so much to overturn the status quo. However, popular opposition is only one of many challenges Hamas is currently facing. So will the Islamist movement continue to fight the current, or will it change course? Some Hamas members argue that their movement will never flex its positions, since it is a prisoner to its own extremist ideology. Others claim that hard circumstances make room for hard compromises and choices.
Although many in Israel and elsewhere would like to see Hamas disappear altogether, that is not going to happen. Just like the pro-Russia bloc is an integral part eastern Ukraine, Hamas is an authentic part of Palestinian society. If Hamas flexes at all, it is likely to go only as far as moving forward with national reconciliation with the Fatah (which controls the West Bank and leads the PLO, which represents the Palestinian people internationally and in negotiations with Israel). This in turn would make it possible to hold elections.
An overwhelming majority of Palestinians (90.3%) support reconciliation, even at the price of international sanctions, according to another JMCC poll.
Since the coup of 2007 in Gaza, numerous attempts to end national division have all come to nothing.
The current crisis that Hamas faces has the potential to somehow moderate it into accepting the terms of its rival Fatah: a unity government and scheduled elections in both West Bank and Gaza.
Last but not least there is an additional factor that will affect the likelihood of reconciliation, and the future of Gaza in general. A great deal depends on the outcome of current peace talks between Israel and the PLO. If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fail to forge an agreement and find their middle ground, the mainstream in Gaza might be drawn to the extreme.
Their living conditions would continue to deteriorate, and eventually there wouldn’t even be anyone left to beg from on street corners. When 1.7 million Gazans rise up against Hamas, it’ll be their last resort. It may end up like Kiev, or might turn into a mini-Syria. Before that happens, there is an opportunity for democratic change in Gaza. There is a chance for a historic ending to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However slim or unlikely these opportunities are, for the sake of all of us, Israelis and Palestinians alike, let them not be missed.
This article was was first published in The Jerusalem Post.