The United States and Europe have unblocked aid to the Palestinian Authority after the eviction of Hamas. But since the Oslo peace process ground to a halt, the key question remains. Is Israel prepared to withdraw from the territory it occupied in 1967 and allow the creation of an independent Palestinian state? There seems little ground for optimism.
The international community has decided in a rare display of unity that it must save President Mahmoud Abbas. It has offered to resume aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA), relieve the suffering of civilians and reopen talks to strengthen the position of moderate Palestinians. Even the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, suddenly thinks Abbas might be a partner for peace. After ignoring years of reports on the bad situation in Gaza and the West Bank from organisations as diverse as the World Bank, Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation, have the United States and the European Union finally woken up?
It has taken an overwhelming victory by Hamas in Gaza to end the torpor. The US and Israel have not stinted their provision of military assistance to Fatah, authorising the import of weapons for the presidential guard and security forces (1). But to no avail. The flight of most of Fatah’s military leaders – Muhammad Dahlan, Rashid Abu Shabak and Samir Masharawi – who took refuge in the West Bank or Egypt rather than stand by their troops, is only one factor in the shattering defeat. Another is Fatah’s inability to reform itself, give up its status as the party of state in a non-existent state, and become a conventional political force. Nepotism, corruption and clan loyalties still blight the organisation founded by Yasser Arafat.
But the ferocity of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza also reflects the unravelling of Palestinian society, exacerbated by 15 months of international boycott. There were summary executions, vengeance and pillaging, and each side accused the other of being in the pay of foreign forces. On 12 January, at a meeting in Gaza with Dahlan, the crowd condemned Hamas as Shia puppets (2). Hamas responded by accusing Fatah of being Israeli or US agents or kafirs (infidels). The Israeli journalist Amira Hass noted: “Both camps are turning all civilians into hostages, and sentencing them to death in their street fights, sacrificing the struggle for Palestinian liberation on the altar of their rivalry” (3). Palestine is paying a high price for bringing combat, with its cult of violence and male chauvinism, back into the political arena.
In an email on 12 June the Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj wrote: “There is so much hatred and tribal calling for revenge. It is not just a political militaristic power struggle… We all have been defeated by Israel and that feeling of humiliation is now venting out against smaller enemies within ourselves. Israel has further brutalised us through torture and oppression and has caused so much pain and trauma that now, as before, is showing the ugly face of toxic and chronic violence.”
Children of the intifada
The Israeli journalist Gideon Levy described the legacy of 40 years of occupation: “These violent young men, whom we saw killing each other so cruelly, are the children of the winter of 1987, the children of the first intifada. Most of them have never been outside of the Gaza Strip. They saw their older brothers beaten and injured, their parents imprisoned in their homes, without jobs or hope, for years. Their whole lives have been lived in the shadow of Israeli violence (4).”
Is there any way to halt the wreck of Palestine? It would help if, just for once, US and EU statements were followed by action and the international community imposed the creation of a Palestinian state. In June 2002 even President George Bush agreed to peace founded on two states living side by side. But nothing has been done since.
In 2003-04 the Israeli government repeatedly claimed that the only obstacle to peace was Arafat. They besieged the leader, forcing him to retreat into a small office space in his Muqata headquarters in Ramallah. Ariel Sharon accused Arafat of being “our Bin Laden”. The international community said nothing.
When Arafat died in November 2004 Abbas took over as the head of the Palestinian Authority. This most moderate of the Palestine Liberation Organisation leaders was determined to restart the peace process, but his attempts to create an opening went unnoticed. More settlements were built on the West Bank, and so was the separation wall. Checkpoints turned a short journey between two villages into an ordeal. The scene was set for a Hamas victory in the general election in January 2006.
Hamas won over voters by stressing its participation in resistance against occupation; its welfare network; and the unfailing loyalty of its officers. But Palestinians did not vote for the Islamists because they were against the idea of peace with Israel, or because they wanted suicide bombers. All opinion polls agree that a majority of Palestinians wanted a solution founded on two states. Even Hamas got the message. Its election manifesto was different from its charter, which (like the PLO equivalent in the 1960s) advocated the destruction of the state of Israel. Several Hamas leaders confirmed that, under certain conditions, the movement was prepared to accept the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
Immediately after the election the US and Israel took measures, approved by Europe and assisted by a faction of Fatah, to thwart the outcome of the poll. Hamas wanted to form a government of national unity but US pressure prevented any such agreement. Economic sanctions punished the Palestinians for voting the wrong way. But all this had no impact on Hamas’s financial and military capability, as the fighting in Gaza has demonstrated. It worsened poverty in Palestine and speeded the disintegration of its institutions.
The lessons of Iraq
The international community has forgotten the lessons of Iraq. A dozen years of sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein had no effect on its stability or the standard of living of its leaders but penalised ordinary people and sapped the state: officials abandoned their offices to earn a living, basic services stopped and tribal solidarity replaced the welfare state. When US forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 the state collapsed. There is no such thing as a Palestinian state, but the international boycott destroyed organisations that the PA had struggled to establish since 1993.
There was a way out of this deadlock in February when Hamas and Fatah signed the Mecca agreement brokered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. On 12 February, in an interview with the Saudi television channel Al-Ikhbariyya, Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, explained: “This is not the programme of a particular group. Each faction has its convictions, but as a government of national unity we have reached agreement on a political platform, which defines our national aims and our aspiration towards a Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders.”
This statement, with many others, confirmed a shift in Hamas’s position (5), which could be tested by the international community. Its flexible stance was backed by renewed support for an Arab peace initiative offering to restore normal relations with Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state (6).
Robert Malley, the head of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East programme and former adviser to Bill Clinton, wrote: “The success of the Mecca agreement will depend largely on the international response. Some commentators, while hypocritically hailing the efforts of the Saudi regime, are already demanding that the future government comply with previously imposed conditions. We hardly expected anything better from the Bush administration. But from Europe? Has it learned nothing from this collective failure? An agreement was reached in Saudi Arabia because there was no injunction on Hamas suddenly to change its ideology, which it will not do, but rather an encouragement to evolve pragmatically, which it might do. Hamas’s record is such that it deserves to be put to the test: is it prepared to accept and impose a reciprocal ceasefire? Is it prepared to give a free rein to President Abbas, duly mandated as the leader of the PLO, to negotiate with Israel? Does it agree to a referendum being held on any agreement Abbas may reach? And will it undertake to respect the result (7)?”
Oblivious to such warnings the international community blundered into a dead end. It maintained sanctions that only strengthened the most radical elements of Hamas and watched, unmoved, as Palestinian society disintegrated. The outgoing UN Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto, condemned this behaviour in a confidential report (8). The West treats Israel, with great consideration, almost tenderness. The Quartet (9) has become “a body that was all but imposing sanctions on a freely elected government of a people under occupation as well as setting unattainable preconditions for dialogue”. It has not put any pressure on the Israeli government over settlements and the separation wall.
When an Israeli soldier was taken hostage in June 2006 the international community hardly noticed Israeli reprisals, including the destruction of a power station and civilian buildings and a military offensive that killed hundreds. When Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers on the Lebanese border last July western powers sat back for 33 days while Israeli forces damaged Lebanon and its infrastructure. These, we are told, are examples of Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. Meanwhile the steady spread of settlements makes the creation of a Palestinian state improbable.
This chaos cannot guarantee safety for Israelis. The war in Lebanon last summer showed that they are vulnerable to well-armed, determined guerrillas. Rockets still fall on Sderot and the army’s inability to stop them is a serious setback, as Ze’ev Schiff, the (recently deceased) Haaretz military correspondent, acknowledged just before Hamas took control of Gaza. “Israel has in effect been defeated. Israel is experiencing something in Sderot that it has not experienced since the war of independence, if ever: the enemy has silenced an entire city and brought normal life there to a halt” (10). Recent events at Nahr al-Barid and other refugee camps in Lebanon, or in Gaza, where radical units linked to al-Qaida have taken root, should remind everyone that the wreck of Palestine will lead to uncontrolled radicalisation, a disaster for Israel and all the Middle East.
(1) Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “Fatah to Israel: Let us get arms to fight Hamas”, Haaretz, Jerusalem, 6 June 2007.
(2) All the Gaza Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, but Tehran’s support for Hamas in some sense justifies such accusations.
(3) “Sacrificing the Palestinian struggle”, Haaretz, 14 June 2007.
(4) Gideon Levy, “Flight from Gaza: Last to leave did turn out the lights”, Haaretz, 17 June 2007.
(5) See Paul Delmotte, “What Hamas really wants”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, January 2007.
(6) Contrary to propaganda from the Israeli government, often used uncorroborated by the media, this initiative does not provide for the right of return of Palestinian refugees. It calls for a just, negotiated solution to the refugee problem based on the UN General Assembly resolution 194.
(7) “Palestine, l’Europe face à ses responsabilités”, Le Monde, 13 March 2007.
(8) Alvaro de Soto, “End of mission report” (PDF), May 2007.
(9) Body set up in 2003 to coordinate action in the Middle East, bringing together the US, Russia, Europe and the UN.
(10) “An Israeli defeat in Sderot”, Haaretz, 8 June 2007.