The PR War in Gaza

It's hard to imagine a more vivid postcard of Palestinian deprivation than the scene this morning at the sun-bleached crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. After masked men blew a series of huge holes in the border fence late last night, thousands of Palestinians streamed through the holes and swarmed the streets of the Egyptian border town of Rafah, clearing local shops of whatever they could manage to buy and carry off: milk, powdered detergent, the occasional motorcycle. Hatchbacks stuffed with cramped Palestinians looked like clown cars as they sped deeper into Egyptian territory along the Sinai coast. For many Gazans, the crossing was the first taste of freedom in months; the border has been tightly sealed after the Islamists in Hamas swept to power last June. Some reports put the number of Gazans who managed to cross in the hundreds of thousands; although many later returned, thousands are likely to have vanished from the besieged coastal strip permanently. Amid the chaos, Egyptian border police looked on helplessly or sympathetically, for the most part appearing to sanction the exodus.

The Egyptian border debacle is just one more reminder that the law of unintended consequences tends to rule in the Middle East, despite the best intentions of U.S. policymakers. It is also an illustration of just how difficult it will be for George W. Bush to realize his hopes for a "West Bank First" strategy that aims to turn Gazan public opinion against the Islamists--much less his goal of a comprehensive peace agreement. The Bush administration's strategy since Hamas swept to power in local elections two years ago has been to squeeze the Islamists by depriving them of the aid money the Palestinian economy usually depends on to operate. For a while at least, the tactic seemed to be working, at least on some superficial level. In public-opinion surveys, the Islamists' popularity has been slipping by a point or two with each month that passes, according to Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Yet over the last few weeks, increasing Israeli crackdowns in response to intensifying rocket fire from Gaza threaten to push Palestinian public opinion back in the other direction. Last week Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that the Jewish state would tighten its "closure" policy, sealing remaining crossings to Gaza and preventing fuel and other supplies from entering the coastal strip. "As far as I'm concerned, the residents of Gaza can walk if they don't have gasoline for their cars," Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Tuesday, before later easing the blockade slightly.

That kind of bluster might satisfy Olmert's frustrated Israeli constituency, but it won't do anything to help Bush reach his goal of a Palestinian state by the time the president leaves office. Over the last few weeks, the Islamists have looked much more adept at playing the public-relations game, using powerful television images to stoke international sympathies. After Gaza's sole power plant shut down due to lack of fuel, Gazans held candlelight vigils to protest the closure policy and the images were beamed around the world. Israel maintained that the blackout was staged, and argued that most of Gaza's electricity comes from Israel and Egypt, not the Gaza plant. Still, Gazans had made their point: humanitarian organizations condemned the policy as collective punishment, and U.N. relief workers warned they would run out of supplies within days.

Palestinian frustration with Gaza's economic crisis has only been compounded by increasing Israeli military raids into Gaza, often in search of Palestinian rocket teams. In some cases, the raids have unintentionally made heroes out of otherwise unsympathetic characters. Consider the case of Mahmoud Zahar, currently the most powerful Hamas figures in the Gaza Strip. His public image could hardly be less attractive; Zahar often seems to enjoy his chilly abrasiveness. One of the movement's leading hawks, he displays a deep suspicion of most Westerners, journalists included. A New York Times reporter once asked the Islamist, who is a medical doctor by trade, about his field of expertise. "Thyroids," Zahar replied. "I'm very good at cutting throats."

Yet even some secular West Bankers I talked to last week were a little choked up when they heard the news that Zahar's 20-year-old son, Husam, a militant in Hamas's Izzedine al-Qassam militia, was killed during a recent Israeli incursion into northern Gaza. Husam is the second of Zahar's three sons to have been killed by Israeli forces; in 2003, Zahar's son Khaled died when an F-16 dropped a bomb on his father's house in an assassination attempt. This time an Israeli military spokesman quickly insisted that the killing hadn't intentionally targeted Husam, but it was too late to influence the effect on Palestinian public opinion. "I feel sorry for him," said one secular Palestinian friend, who is generally no fan of Zahar's. Even President Mahmoud Abbas--who is still fuming about the Islamists' June coup in Gaza--offered Zahar his condolences, which the Islamist quickly accepted. It was the first time Hamas and Fatah leaders had said anything supportive about each other in months.

Late last week I stopped by the mourning tent for Husam Zahar, just around the corner from his father's Gaza City house. A long line of Palestinians filed into the green tent to shake hands with the Hamas leader; the well-wishers included many Fatah supporters alongside the clusters of bearded Qassam brigades militants with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. As the Gazans shook hands with Zahar, a loudspeaker crackled in Arabic: "This is what happens when Bush visits! Bush gave them permission to do this!" Outside the tent, a bank of television cameras recorded the spectacle and prepared to feed the images to the wider world.