Democracy Lab

Clueless in Gaza

It’s time for the Palestinians to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections.

On July 17, six years of Palestinian unification talks met their demise as Hamas, the far-right militarized movement and ruling party in Gaza, swiftly rejected an ultimatum by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to come to truce with its political rival Fatah. 

Efforts to patch up differences between the two groups are anything but new. Three agreements have been signed by both sides under Saudi, Qatari, and Egyptian patronage. Dozens of reconciliatory meetings have taken place. And yet Gaza remains politically separated from the West Bank. For many, Palestinian reconciliation has become a mantra, an elusive goal that is taking the Palestinians nowhere at a time when talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians are set to resume. 

Fatah, the party in control of the West Bank, is consistently at odds with Hamas over the Israel-Palestine peace process and who represents the Palestinians. This difference in perspective has led to profound disagreements over management of Palestine, most visibly manifesting in the organizing of presidential and parliamentary elections -- which are supposed to be held contiguously every four years. With the 2009 elections disrupted again and again by disagreements over electoral law, President Abbas, backed by Fatah, has been ruling Palestine with a long expired mandate. 

In an effort to present a unified front capable of combating the Gaza Strip blockade, the Palestinian National Authority (PA) is making a stand to call for elections. During a meeting to discuss U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Israel-Palestine peace efforts with David Carroll of The Carter Center, a senior Fatah official said that August 14 (coinciding with the resumption of Israel-Palestine peace talks on the same day) would be Hamas's "last chance" to embrace unity.

But Hamas isn't having any of it. In a statement to local media, a Hamas political advisor, Yusif Rizqah, called the ultimatum "worthless," with special mention of the fact that there has been no communication between political leaders since Abbas has been "busy in meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry." Speaking to AFP, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri went on to assert that Abbas had "no legitimacy to negotiate in the name of the Palestinian people on the core issues." Spokesman Ihab al-Ghossein added that "the Palestinian people will not accept those who negotiate on its behalf without a mandate." 

The kicker, however, is that if Hamas continues to refuse to participate, then whomever Fatah puts forth, either Abbas or his successor, will have sufficient authority to directly negotiate the final-status issues, e.g. borders, Jerusalem, and refugees, with Israel. 

Speak to any Palestinian politician or media pundit nowadays and you will certainly hear fancy phrases about the necessity to achieve "reconciliation" between the two groups. But with this cool response from Hamas, the time has come to change the discourse. Hamas-Fatah talks have been held sporadically under Arab mediation since 2008, but they have resoundingly failed to achieve anything. Nor is there any reason to believe that they will. 

Since there is clearly little incentive for the sides to overcome their disagreements, it is imperative to change the discourse from reconciliation to elections in order to end the Fatah-Hamas split. True, Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006. Since then, however, it has refused to hold any elections in the Gaza Strip under the pretext that mending the ties with Fatah must precede elections. 

But reality has caught up with Palestinians. Unification efforts need to take a backseat in light of the harsh consequences of delay and stagnation. Signs of frustration with Hamas have recently become more visible, making a change in tactics crucial. The Syrian conflict has meant a reduction in aid from Iran after Hamas publicly sided with the Syrian rebels against Tehran's ally Bashar al-Assad. This has cost Hamas its ability to pay the monthly salaries of civil servants and policemen. The illegal tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt also recently collapsed, which was relied upon to blunt the impact of Israel's blockade. Today, 39 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents living below the poverty line, self-immolation has become the last resort for many. A Palestinian health official said that around 30 cases of attempted suicide are received monthly in Gaza hospitals. 

Hamas appears to have run out of options to meet the costs of running a viable government. 

Incidents of clashes between Hamas's police force and Palestinian civilians are also on the lips of every Gazan. The fear of Hamas, which previously found pride in its ability to impose law and order to what has been a lawless territory, seems to be vanishing. A pro-Hamas commentator has recently called for taking a "decisive position" to respond to this phenomenon, a comment reflective of the Islamist group's concern about its waning control. 

But it is essential that such an effort -- when it happens -- should come to life with the clear goal of holding elections instead of becoming a random, short fit of public anger. Fatah's members in Gaza are under close scrutiny by Hamas's internal security apparatus, while other Palestinian factions are in no better straits. Members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) have been arrested and beaten by Hamas police for handing out leaflets critical of the ruling party's policies. Even Islamic groups are not safe; the pro-Hezbollah Islamic Jihad saw one of its field commanders die in clashes with Hamas's police force following a raid on his house. 

Hamas is responding to its apparent weakness and its failure to solve the public's problems in its habitual style: It rounded up dozens of what it described as collaborators with Israel amid much local media fanfare. Some of the collaborators were handed hasty death sentences. Few have already been executed while others find themselves imprisoned on death row. 

So what to do if Hamas is unwilling to play ball? 

Non-partisan civil society in Gaza includes around 860 NGOs and hundreds more smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) that are capable of pulling off waves of public protest. Indeed, Palestinian civil society activists in the West Bank and Gaza have repeatedly attempted to end the division and put pressure on Hamas and Fatah to bridge their rift. 

One movement, organized over Facebook in early 2011, succeeded in gaining the support of tens of thousands in Gaza and the West Bank who took to the streets to demand unity. These protests were received well in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority, which reportedly sent the protesters falafel sandwiches. (They were rejected, however, by hunger strikers protesting the detention of Palestinians by Israel.) Hamas initially approved the March 15 gatherings in Gaza City before hijacking the protest with its own partisan discourse and activists. When the disgruntled young protesters went to another location in the city, Hamas's riot police were waiting there with their batons. 

The failed 2011 attempt was an early reminder that Hamas is not willing to voluntarily relinquish its control of Gaza. But it also showed that Palestinians have had enough of the fighting. Efforts at promoting unity above all else run the risk of artificially papering over the genuine divergences of interest among various groups, leaving important differences to simmer unaddressed. The virtue of elections is that they allow for the peaceful articulation of such differences and (ideally) create conditions for the different groups involved to craft solutions. 

A Palestinian poll in March 2013 found a "dramatic reversal" in Palestinian attitudes towards reconciliation. Around half of the sample believed reconciliation was impossible and required regime change in either Gaza or the West Bank, or in both areas. The poll also showed that two thirds to three quarters of the Palestinians thought it was impossible for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile without a set date for elections. 

We cannot simply fault Israel for all the problems in Palestine. Elections in Palestine are therefore likely to be welcomed by the weary public. It will give them the final say over the destination of the Palestinian national movement and put an end to the six-year saga of wasted negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. 



Red Tide

Just how strong is China's navy, really?

In late July, Chinese President Xi Jinping shared his views on sea power and maritime territorial disputes. Beijing is amenable to "shelving disputes and carrying out joint development" in waters such as the South China Sea, where, according to the official line, it enjoys "indisputable sovereignty." It will employ "peaceful means and negotiations to settle disputes and strive to safeguard peace and stability," but it won't "abandon its legitimate rights and interests." Beijing asserts sovereignty over the waters, islands, and atolls within what it calls the "nine-dashed line," a line that encloses the vast majority of the South China Sea, including huge swaths of the exclusive economic zones belonging to Southeast Asian states.

Xi appears to be saying that China is prepared to postpone resolution of these disputes for the sake of working alongside Southeast Asians to tap the region's natural resources, and that it is willing to negotiate. That sounds reasonable. But he also seems to be saying that China has ruled out compromise and will continue building up its maritime strength to enforce its will. If Xi is sincere in all these statements, then the only real question left is when Asian powers will acquiesce meekly. In other words, China's neighbors need not formally surrender control of the waters and features within the nine-dashed line yet -- but in the end Beijing will give no ground. I suppose making Asians an offer they can't refuse is one way of getting to yes.

Levity aside, there's little reason to doubt Xi's sincerity about the importance China affixes to "core interests": shorthand for the interests for which the nation is prepared to fight, such as Taiwan and Tibet. And it is building up the capacity to fight and win. While there are many unknowns regarding the quality of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's equipment and crews, it boasts the most potential of any Asian navy.

China's maritime project is hurtling along at breakneck velocity. The PLA Navy's first aircraft carrier has taken to the seas. Shipyards are apparently starting to fabricate a second one, while the naval leadership has evidently settled on a design for guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), which ride shotgun with any carrier task force to defend against air, surface, and subsurface threats. The navy also has help from non-naval services. The nation's first unified coast guard debuted in July and immediately set sail to enforce Beijing's claims to islands and waters in the East and South China seas.

The major unknowns concern the quality of PLA Navy equipment and crews. First consider the hardware: You can flip open Jane's Fighting Ships or visit the fine folks at the consultancy GlobalSecurity to find estimates of what various armed services plan to procure, as well as technical characteristics -- ranges, payloads, rates of fire, and so forth -- illustrating how military gear should perform. We can estimate, for example, that by 2020, China will field over 70 conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines, along with 84 destroyers and frigates, two aircraft carriers, and an assortment of smaller but still lethal craft. But it's impossible to tell in advance how weaponry and platforms will function until put to the test of combat. (This is true even of your own hardware. Having been part of the first combat use of Tomahawk cruise missiles, I can tell you we heaved a small sigh of relief when that first volley of missiles went off as advertised.) Unable to test adversaries' equipment, foreign observers rely mostly on guesswork to foresee how enemy armaments will perform under real-world conditions and thus how great a threat they pose.

For instance, Chinese naval specialists have been touting the PLA Navy's latest DDG designs as comparable to the U.S. Navy's Aegis ships, which carry state-of-the-art systems in air and missile defense. Are they? This possibility spooks U.S. maritime strategists. China's naval ambitions remain largely confined to the China seas and Western Pacific, within reach not just of the fleet but of an array of land-based weapons. Used with submarines, missile-armed patrol craft, shore-based tactical aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, an Aegis-equivalent warship would establish a serious Chinese deterrent capability in East Asian waters.

Aegis is a combined radar, computer, and fire-control system that has been around for 30 years, ever since USS Ticonderoga, the U.S. Navy's first Aegis cruiser, put to sea. But since then the U.S. Navy has made constant improvements to the system. It's entirely plausible that Chinese DDGs -- most notably the Type 052D DDG unveiled in 2012 -- are equivalent to some generation of Aegis. But is the Type 052D a 1980s, 1990s, or more recent Aegis vintage? If it's a Ticonderoga equivalent, it poses only modest cause for concern. If Chinese weaponeers have managed to leap to near parity, however, the new DDG represents an ominous development indeed.

Until the PLA Navy starts operating at sea more and using its hardware under realistic conditions, it will be tough for outsiders to glimpse inside these black boxes. This is true not just of DDGs but of stealth fighters, anti-ship ballistic missiles, and myriad other PLA systems that appear impressive but remain mostly untried. Many unknowns linger.

The human factor is another difficult variable to track. Strategic competition and war are human endeavors. The finest ship, airplane, or missile is no better than its user. How mariners perform amid the stresses of battle decides the outcomes of struggles on the high seas, but to excel in battle demands constant training and practice in peacetime. Sailors need to go to sea, a lot, to hone their skills. Yet PLA Navy operations are sporadic compared with the hectic deployment schedules customary for U.S. seafarers. Long intervals in port interrupted by the occasional short cruise provide too little experience to make seamanship, tactics, and technical proficiency second nature. Performance suffers. It's especially tough to maintain a fighting edge when one considers how seldom full-blown naval engagements take place. The U.S. Navy last battled a peer navy in 1944, when it fought Japan at Leyte Gulf. The PLA Navy has never taken on a great-power opponent.

Presently, there's reason to question the PLA Navy's battle-worthiness. If the PLA Navy operates at a higher tempo over the next decade, keeping task forces at sea for weeks or months at a time, it will evolve into a formidable force. Prospective adversaries can judge how formidable by monitoring its performance during exercises and routine at-sea operations, much as Western forces kept watch on the Soviet Navy in its heyday. Navies encounter each other at sea by chance during routine operations. Such encounters afford the opportunity to take a prospective adversary's measure, examining everything from whether its ships' hulls are rusty -- a sure sign of a poorly maintained ship and an apathetic crew -- to how smartly the officers handle their vessels on the high seas. If the PLA Navy participates in the 2014 U.S.-led RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise, this will furnish another such opportunity. Bean-counting, then, is easy. Measuring combat effectiveness is a task of a higher, more subjective order.

But there's another, hidden variable at play. Whereas U.S. sea power is the domain of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, Beijing thinks about its maritime power more holistically. It's not just the PLA Navy and coast guard, but merchant shipping and even the country's massive fishing fleet. And the Chinese military backs up that fleet with shore-based implements of sea power, including anti-ship ballistic missiles furnished by the army's Second Artillery Corps and tactical aircraft from the PLA Air Force. It may appear whimsical to depict a fishing trawler as a threat to a warship bristling with guns and missiles, but fishermen can gather intelligence on foreign navies. Any U.S. Navy mariner of Cold War vintage will tell you about the Soviet AGIs, or trawlers packed with high-tech electronic sensors, that used to lurk off American seaports. When a U.S. task force emerged, the AGI would dutifully follow along, monitoring the force's movements, recording its electronic emissions, and gleaning all the data it could. Fishing fleets can also lay and clear sea mines, one of the most elusive menaces to modern navies. These are useful craft around the margins.

This all-encompassing concept of sea power lets Beijing dial up or down the degree of force it brings to bear at sea, as circumstances and competitors' actions dictate. Nor is this approach new or radical. Maoist China considered the PLA Navy a force for waging "people's war at sea," a coastal defense force meant to make things tough on powerful adversaries should they approach China's coasts. For a weak China obsessed with protecting its land, it only made sense to use every seagoing asset available to mount a seaward defense. Communist China, like imperial China before it, regards the fishing fleet and the global shipping fleet as an irregular naval auxiliary. Fishermen in particular are a sort of seagoing militia. For instance, Beijing touted their contribution to victory over South Vietnam's Navy during a 1974 clash in the Paracel Islands. This way of thinking about maritime defense persists even as the PLA Navy matures into a world-class force.

Case in point: Chinese fishing boats represented the vanguard of Chinese sea power at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, when China took possession of an atoll deep within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Chinese fishermen were first on scene. Only when a Philippine Navy frigate tried to arrest them for poaching did Beijing dispatch unarmed or lightly armed maritime-enforcement vessels -- the forerunners to today's coast guard -- to deter further Philippine action. A protracted standoff ensued, but ultimately the Philippine contingent withdrew -- leaving Scarborough Shoal in Chinese hands. Chinese hulls -- civilian, coast guard, and navy -- reportedly encase the atoll like a "cabbage," daring Manila to try to retake it.

That's textbook Chinese maritime strategy: minimal force, deployed by naval or nonnaval platforms as the situation and the naval balance warrant. China has stayed true to its Maoist traditions. It has kept its inventory of small craft strong and numerous, furthering both commercial and military purposes, even as it fills out the upper end of an oceangoing fleet with glitzy platforms like aircraft carriers and new destroyers. This continuum -- spanning from lowly fishing boats and patrol craft able to face off against weak Asian navies (like the Philippine Navy) to blue-water combatants able to duel peer navies (like the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force) on an equal footing -- is deeply embedded in China's maritime culture. While an economic downturn could slow down acquisitions, Beijing's basic approach will last as far into the future as the mariner's eye can see.

The PLA Navy, backed by the Chinese coast guard, shore-based air and missile forces, and unconventional auxiliaries from the commercial sector, can already make it tough and expensive for a peer navy to operate in China's geographical backyard. This is a force that could induce rivals to think twice before bucking China's will, and it outclasses lesser Asian navies by a wide margin. But will the Chinese navy venture outside Asia in force, mounting a standing presence in faraway theaters? Doubtful. Asserting control of China's environs is job No. 1. If Beijing's naval buildup continues along its current trajectory, the resulting force may let the nation put steel behind the many commitments it has taken on in the China seas, from the confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the north through the Malacca Strait to the south.

A successful naval buildup might leave ships to spare for a modest forward presence in the next-most-important theater: the Indian Ocean, the shipping lane for Persian Gulf energy supplies. Beijing sees no pressing need to venture beyond East and South Asia. So you're not about to see Chinese frigates patrolling the Mediterranean or Atlantic. Chinese leaders evince little appetite to help police an international system they deem unfair and irrational -- an artifact of Western dominance that China must amend over time. What Chinese want, and what Xi has said China will get, lies in Asia. From fighting ships to fishing boats, Beijing increasingly has the sea power to get it.

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