The Big Question: Why is there such violence in Gaza, and is there any hope of a resolution?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because a massive and – for at least 90 minutes – peaceful commemoration in Gaza City called by the once dominant Fatah movement in memory of the late Yasser Arafat ended in bloodshed on Monday. Gunfire by the Hamas forces left seven of the demonstrators dead, shocking much of Gaza's already beleaguered and impoverished 1.4 million population.

On the face of it, the shootings serve once again to underline the depth of Palestinian political disunity; with two competing and opposed administrations. One in the West Bank is loyal to Palestine president Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, and another in Gaza, controlled by Hamas which won free and fair elections in January 2006, briefly shared power with Fatah between March and June this year under a coalition deal brokered in Saudi Arabia, and then seized full control of Gaza after a week of bloody infighting that cost more than 100 lives in June.

Secondly they can hardly fail to add to the sense of frustration felt by a Gaza public facing ever-deepening poverty, isolation, and for most Gazans imprisonment within its Israeli-controlled borders without even the compensating – if still extremely vague – prospect of the " political horizon" being dangled in front of their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank in the run-up to the forthcoming international meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, USA.

How desperate have things become?

Gaza is not actually starving. Although the refugee agency UNRWA is examining evidence that malnutriton is rising, and there is serious evidence of worsening conditions for medical patients, this is not a humanitarian emergency on the African model.

The basic provisions needed to sustain human life – and little more – are still being allowed by Israel through the two crossings of Sufa and Kerem Shalom.

But two examples may help to show how Gaza is deteriorating in ways that may soon become irreversible. One is the hollowing out of private sector industry and potentially agriculture as a result of the total closure by Israel since the Hamas takeover of the main Karni cargo crossing with Gaza. An estimated 75,000 workers-with maybe ten times as many dependents – have been laid off in sectors such as textiles.

Another is the disastrous examination results uncovered in UN schools – with failure rates of over 50 per cent in many basic subects like Maths and Arabic as a result of the recent conflicts and parental insecurity and unemployment.

Both illustrate the way in which young people in Gaza, the hope of an essentially enterprising and education-obsessed population, are being cut off from the long-term prospect of a better life. Not to mention, in the eyes of many, becoming a more likely prey for the armed groups.

So is this as bad as it gets?

Not necessarily. Two further dark shadows – both related – cloud the Gaza horizon. One is the still likely prospect – despite the reservations of the Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and the clamour of Israeli human rights groups that it would constitute "collective punishment" – that Israel will implement its decision to cut power to Gaza homes, for short periods at first, in a further attempt to stop the launches of Qassam rockets into Israel. And the second is the possiblity of a full scale military operation by Israeli forces in Gaza, which it declared a " hostile entity" in September.

What will happen?

There is considerable debate within the Israeli security establishment about this, with some arguing that Hamas should be confronted before what Israeli intelligence has suggested is its already formidable military strength grows even more. Others argue that Israel can ill afford to be bogged down once again in Gaza. Certainly the Qassams, which Hamas has shown little sign of wanting to halt, are a serious problem for Israel. Nor are they exactly popular among many Palestinians given that the Israeli response has cost many more lives in Gaza than the rockets themselves in Israel.

So is Hamas losing support?

The reliability of the polls can be disputed, but they do suggest that Hamas's popularity is on the wane, partly because of Hamas's fairly brutal suppression opponents; some at least of which is admittedly mirrored by Fatah in the West Bank. The sheer scale of Monday's Fatah demonstration is itself an indication. And the bloody aftermath will hardly have helped Hamas. When asked most Palestinians say that they want unity between Fatah and Hamas. And that is looking an ever less likely prospect unless Hamas suddenly decides to fulfil Mr Abbas's demand that it renounce its claim to legitimacy as the ruling authority in Gaza.

Does this mean the policy of isolation and blockade is working?

In one sense that argument is tenable. But there are big inter-related problems in taking it too far.

Certainly strategy in Jerusalem, Washington and to a large extent Ramallah, where Mr Abbas's emergency government is based, appears to be to demonstrate, including whatever is decided at Annapolis, that Fatah in the West Bank can reap dividends that Hamas cannot in Gaza.

The first problem – quite apart from the human cost – is that even if Hamas gets still more unpopular, the mechanism for simply removing it by popular revolt is far from clear, particularly given its apparently well-equipped and trained forces.

It's difficult to see, for example, how elections, which Mr Abbas's promises from time to time, can take place in Gaza without Hamas's say-so, especially if they are likely to lose.

Secondly, many UN and other international observers believe that the impact of Israeli-US and EU policy has been to strengthen the more extreme elements in Hamas, while making them if anything more reliant on help from countries such as Iran.

One Israeli intelligence view is that Hamas is currently controlled by the leadership of its military wing. But even if that is not the case, the boycott has made it more difficult for pragmatists to make the case for dialogue – for example with Fatah.

Even some opponents admit that what they claim is Hamas's arrogance is built on strong support among its core constutuency of activists and the poor who have long depended for essentials from Hamas's social agencies and for whom the blockade has inevitably changed less than it has for the aspiring, working population.

Will things in Gaza get better?

Yes...

* Either the international community will rethink its boycott ...

* ... or Hamas will bow to pressure to accept international conditions such as recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence

* Mahmoud Abbas will achieve such a breakthrough in talks with Israel at Annapolis, and beyond that Hamas will inevitably have to bow to the popular will for a comprehensive peace

No...

* The Israeli and international boycotts will tighten steadily, destroying Gaza's economic capacity even further

* Israel will decide to launch a full-scale military operation as the rocket attacks continue, leading to renewed and bloody war in Gaza

* Hamas – especially if its popularity falls – will rely even more on repressive methods to subdue an increasingly restive population

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