WHAT HAPPENS when one and a half million human beings are imprisoned in a tiny, arid territory, cut off from their compatriots and from any contact with the outside world, starved by an economic blockade and unable to feed their families?
Some months ago, I described this situation as a sociological experiment set up by Israel, the United States and the European Union. The population of the Gaza Strip as guinea pigs.
This week, the experiment showed results. They proved that human beings react exactly like other animals: when too many of them are crowded into a small area in miserable conditions, they become aggressive, and even murderous. The organizers of the experiment in Jerusalem, Washington, Berlin, Oslo, Ottawa and other capitals could rub their hands in satisfaction. The subjects of the experiment reacted as foreseen. Many of them even died in the interests of science.
But the experiment is not yet over. The scientists want to know what happens if the blockade is tightened still further.
WHAT HAS caused the present explosion in the Gaza Strip?
The timing of Hamas' decision to take over the Strip by force was not accidental. Hamas had many good reasons to avoid it. The organization is unable to feed the population. It has no interest in provoking the Egyptian regime, which is busy fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother-organization of Hamas. Also, the organization has no interest in providing Israel with a pretext for tightening the blockade.
But the Hamas leaders decided that they had no alternative but to destroy the armed organizations that are tied to Fatah and take their orders from President Mahmoud Abbas. The US has ordered Israel to supply these organizations with large quantities of weapons, in order to enable them to fight Hamas. The Israeli army chiefs did not like the idea, fearing that the arms might end up in the hands of Hamas (as is actually happening now). But our government obeyed American orders, as usual.
The American aim is clear. President Bush has chosen a local leader for every Muslim country, who will rule it under American protection and follow American orders. In Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, and also in Palestine.
Hamas believes that the man marked for this job in Gaza is Mohammed Dahlan. For years it has looked as if he was being groomed for this position. The American and Israeli media have been singing his praises, describing him as a strong, determined leader, "moderate" (i.e. obedient to American orders) and "pragmatic" (i.e. obedient to Israeli orders). And the more the Americans and Israelis lauded Dahlan, the more they undermined his standing among the Palestinians. Especially as Dahlan was away in Cairo, as if waiting for his men to receive the promised arms.
In the eyes of Hamas, the attack on the Fatah strongholds in the Gaza Strip is a preventive war. The organizations of Abbas and Dahlan melted like snow in the Palestinian sun. Hamas has easily taken over the whole Gaza Strip.
How could the American and Israeli generals miscalculate so badly? They are able to think only in strictly military terms: so-and-so many soldiers, so-and-so many machine guns. But in interior struggles in particular, quantitative calculations are secondary. The morale of the fighters and public sentiment are far more important. The members of the Fatah organizations do not know what they are fighting for. The Gaza population supports Hamas, because they believe that it is fighting the Israeli occupier. Their opponents look like collaborators of the occupation. The American statements about their intention of arming them with Israeli weapons have finally condemned them.
That is not a matter of Islamic fundamentalism. In this respect all nations are the same: they hate collaborators of a foreign occupier, whether they are Norwegian (Quisling), French (Petain) or Palestinian.
IN WASHINGTON and Jerusalem, politicians are bemoaning the "weakness of Mahmoud Abbas".
They see now that the only person who could prevent anarchy in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was Yasser Arafat. He had a natural authority. The masses adored him. Even his adversaries, like Hamas, respected him. He created several security apparatuses that competed with each other, in order to prevent any single apparatus from carrying out a coup-d'etat. Arafat was able to negotiate, sign a peace agreement and get his people to accept it.
But Arafat was pilloried by Israel as a monster, imprisoned in the Mukata'ah and, in the end, murdered. The Palestinian public elected Mahmoud Abbas as his successor, hoping that he would get from the Americans and the Israelis what they had refused to give to Arafat.
If the leaders in Washington and Jerusalem had indeed been interested in peace, they would have hastened to sign a peace agreement with Abbas, who had declared that he was ready to accept the same far-reaching compromise as Arafat. The Americans and the Israelis heaped on him all conceivable praise and rebuffed him on every concrete issue.
They did not allow Abbas even the slightest and most miserable achievement. Ariel Sharon plucked his feathers and then sneered at him as "a featherless chicken". After the Palestinian public had patiently waited in vain for Bush to move, it voted for Hamas, in the desperate hope of achieving by violence what Abbas has been unable to achieve by diplomacy.
The Israeli leaders, both military and political, were overjoyed. They were interested in undermining Abbas, because he enjoyed Bush's confidence and because his stated position made it harder to justify their refusal to enter substantive negotiations. They did everything to demolish Fatah. To ensure this, they arrested Marwan Barghouti, the only person capable of keeping Fatah together.
The victory of Hamas suited their aims completely. With Hamas one does not have to talk, to offer withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of settlements. Hamas is that contemporary monster, a "terrorist" organization, and with terrorists there is nothing to discuss.
SO WHY were people in Jerusalem not satisfied this week? And why did they decide "not to interfere"?
True, the media and the politicians, who have helped for years to incite the Palestinian organizations against each other, showed their satisfaction and boasted "we told you so". Look how the Arabs kill each other. Ehud Barak was right, when he said years ago that our country is "a villa in the jungle".
But behind the scenes, voices of embarrassment, even anxiety, could be heard.
The turning of the Gaza Strip into Hamastan has created a situation for which our leaders were not ready. What to do now? To cut off Gaza altogether and let the people there starve to death? To establish contacts with Hamas? To occupy Gaza again, now that it has become one big tank trap? To ask the UN to station international troops there - and if so, how many countries would be crazy enough to risk their soldiers in this hell?
Our government has worked for years to destroy Fatah, in order to avoid the need to negotiate an agreement that would inevitably lead to the withdrawal from the occupied territories and the settlements there. Now, when it seems that this aim has been achieved, they have no idea what to do about the Hamas victory.
They comfort themselves with the thought that it cannot happen in the West Bank. There, Fatah reigns. There Hamas has no foothold. There our army has already arrested most of Hamas' political leaders. There Abbas is still in power.
Thus speak the generals, with the generals' logic. But in the West Bank, too, Hamas did win a majority in the last elections. There, too, it is only a matter of time before the population loses its patience. They see the expansion of the settlements, the Wall, the incursions of our army, the targeted assassinations, the nightly arrests. They will explode.
Successive Israeli governments have destroyed Fatah systematically, cut off the feet of Abbas and prepared the way for Hamas. They can't pretend to be surprised.
WHAT TO DO? To go on boycotting Abbas or to provide him with arms, to enable him to fight for us against Hamas? To go on depriving him of any political achievement or to throw him some crumbs at long last? And anyway, isn't it too late?
(And on the Syrian front: to go on paying lip service to peace while sabotaging all the efforts of Bashar Assad to start negotiations? To negotiate secretly, despite American objections? Or continue doing nothing at all?)
At present, there is no policy, and no government which could determine a policy.
So who will save us? Ehud Barak?
Barak's victory in this week's Labor Party leadership run-off has turned him almost automatically into the next Minister of Defense. His strong personality and his experience as Chief of Staff and Prime Minister assure him of a dominant position in the restructured government. Olmert will deal with the area in which he is an unmatched master - party machinations. But Barak will have a decisive influence on policy.
In the government of the two Ehuds, Ehud Barak will decide on matters of war and peace.
Until now, practically all his actions have had negative results. He came very close to an agreement with Assad the father and escaped at the last moment. He withdrew the Israeli army from South Lebanon, but without speaking with Hizbullah, which took over. He compelled Arafat to come to Camp David, insulted him there and declared that we have no partner for peace. This dealt a death blow to the chances of peace, a blow which still paralyzes the Israeli public. He has boasted that his real intention was to "unmask" Arafat. He was more of a failed Napoleon than an Israeli de Gaulle.
Will the Ethiopian change his skin, the leopard his spots? Hard to believe.
IN THE dramas of William Shakespeare, there is frequently a comic interlude at tense moments. And not only there.
Shimon Peres, the person who in 55 years of political activity had never won an election, did the impossible this week: he got elected President of Israel.
Many years ago, I entitled an article about him "Mr. Sisyphus", because again and again he had almost reached the threshold of success, and success had evaded him. Now he might feel like thumbing his nose at the gods after reaching the summit, but - alas - without the boulder. The office of the president is devoid of content and jurisdiction. A hollow politician in a hollow position.
Now everybody expects a flurry of activity at the president's palace. There will certainly be peace conferences, meetings of personalities, high-sounding declarations and illustrious plans. In short - much ado about nothing.
The practical result is that Olmert's position has been strengthened. He has succeeded in installing Peres in the President's office and Barak in the Ministry of Defense. In the short term, Olmert's position is assured.
And in the meantime, the experiment in Gaza continues, Hamas is taking over and the trio - Ehud 1, Ehud 2 and Shimon Peres are shedding crocodile tears.
Read also: 1967 - A Personal Testimony