Recent weeks' developments in and around the Gaza Strip raise an important issue for debate within Israel and among its supporters. Does Israel still have an overriding strategic interest in Palestinian unity? In the immediate future, should one of Israel's objectives regarding the Palestinians be the restoration of a unity government uniting Fateh and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza? And in the longer run, is it in Israel's interest that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank be ruled by a single political actor or institution?
Looked at exactly one year after the abortive Mecca agreement that briefly created a Palestinian unity government this is not a simple issue. It bespeaks a number of complex possible scenarios and questions. Beginning with the obvious, neither Israel nor its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, should wish to see the West Bank and Gaza unified under Hamas rule. This would empower Muslim extremists on two borders with Israel and in immediate proximity to sister organizations in Cairo and Amman whose rule there, should they ever take over, would constitute a major threat to Israel.
To the extent that Fateh has become a peace-oriented organization and can deliver on a stable two-state solution, Israel does have an interest in restoring Fateh rule in the Gaza Strip. Yet Fateh is too weak and corrupt to carry out a counter-coup in Gaza and take over from Hamas on its own. Under present circumstances, the only conceivable way to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under Fateh rule would be for Israel to conquer and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, then turn it over to Fateh. Not only would this strategy be extremely costly in terms of Israeli and Palestinian lives, but it would cast Fateh in the role of quisling or collaborator with the enemy, thereby hurting its chances of ruling successfully and making peace with Israel. Conceivably, an international force might be introduced into reoccupied Gaza in order to soften this impression by placing the returning Fateh rulers in the international rather than Israeli camp.
An additional scenario is that heralded by the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad (and indirectly by the Olmert government in Israel and the international community): a West Bank-based Palestinian-Israeli peace wherein the West Bank prospers under the bounty of international aid and Gaza wallows in poverty. As a consequence (according to this scenario), either Hamas voluntarily foregoes its rule over Gaza or the people of Gaza rise up, overthrow Hamas and restore Fateh rule.
Objectively speaking, however, the likelihood of a successful Olmert-Abbas peace process is extremely low. Nor is Hamas likely to step aside in deference to a West Bank peace or to humanitarian suffering in Gaza.
This brings us to a fourth scenario: reverting to the status quo ante of a Fateh-Hamas unity government, more or less as constituted in the Mecca agreement of February 2007. Yet not only did this sort of coalition government fail once, dissolving into civil war; it was never a candidate for a peace process, embodying as it did radically different Palestinian approaches to Israel, with Fateh's ostensible willingness to make peace contradicted by Hamas' rejection of a two-state solution.
Here we come full circle to the present situation. In the absence of a military solution to Hamas' aggression from Gaza--short of a major ground offensive that could prove extremely costly without guaranteeing long-term quiet and stability--more and more Israeli strategic thinkers are suggesting that we explore the possibility of a long-term hudna or ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. Were such an effort to be undertaken and prove successful, it would have the immediate effect of ending any possibility of Palestinian unity.
And there would be additional strategic consequences. On the one hand, peace and quiet would reign in the Sderot and Ashkelon regions of Israel that border on the Gaza Strip, as well as in the eastern Egyptian Sinai, bordering on Israel and Gaza, and of course inside the Strip as well. This is no mean achievement in terms of the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, the leadership status of Abbas and Fayyad would be challenged by Hamas' "success" and by the Hamas ceasefire model; nor could Abbas and Fayyad even pretend to be negotiating in the name of Gazan Palestinians. In other words, the peace process would suffer a setback and Fateh rule in the West Bank might be called into question. Meanwhile, Hamas would exploit the ceasefire to continue building up its military forces in the Strip, unimpeded by the IDF. This could have very negative long-term consequences for the balance of forces in the broader region.
Finally, we confront proposals by certain Israeli right wing strategic thinkers who are convinced there is no near-term possibility of a successful peace process and seek, as an alternative, to revert to a pre-1967 scenario in which Egypt is drawn into exercising dominant influence in Gaza and Jordan in the West Bank, thereby separating the two under different Arab national flags. The recent Hamas-engineered mass breach of the border into Sinai added additional Israelis from the center to this camp insofar as they perceive an opportunity for Israel to transfer Gaza's economic and infrastructure dependency from Israel to Egypt.
The obvious problem with these scenarios is that Cairo and Amman are not interested. Egypt has enough problems of its own with its indigenous Muslim Brotherhood without adopting Hamas. Jordan already has too large a Palestinian population for its own demographic good without returning to rule over the West Bank. They want the Palestinian issue to be solved by Israel, not themselves.
To sum up, Hamas rule in Gaza is dangerous for Israel, which needs a stable two-state solution unifying Gaza and the West Bank. Hence Israel has a strategic interest in Palestinian unity under Fateh. But it has few ways to make this happen. Of all the diverse scenarios that touch on the issue of Palestinian unity, the one that is increasingly likely--in view of ongoing aggression from Gaza--is an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip with the objective of eliminating Hamas rule there. But if it fails to dislodge Hamas or end the violence emanating from Gaza, it sows even greater Palestinian disunity.- Published 11/2/2208 © bitterlemons.org
Palestinians themselves are first and foremost to blame for the breakdown in their internal relations and the split between Fateh and Hamas and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is especially true of the fierce military clashes in Gaza that led to this division between the two major Palestinian factions and the two main areas of Palestinian territory.
However there are also significant external factors that have provoked this domestic division. Hamas, for example, was partly encouraged to oust Fateh from Gaza by regional interests, including those of the regional Islamic Brotherhood Movement that Hamas is part of, those of Syria, which hosts the Hamas leadership and those of Iran, the main provider of military, financial and other kinds of support to Hamas.
But the most significant external factor is of course Israel. Over the past seven years, the parties in power in Israel, that is the Likud under Ariel Sharon and then Kadima under first Sharon and now Ehud Olmert, have made clear their opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state on all occupied territory including East Jerusalem. One tactic that Israel has pursued in order to undermine Palestinian aspirations for such statehood has been to divide the Palestinians and their territory.
That is not a new tactic. One only needs to look at the Israeli settlement project over the years to understand that, in the main, this has been a deliberate attempt at dividing Palestinians from each other in order to make the occupied territory less viable as a single entity. From the mid-1970s, Israeli settlements were thus located between major Palestinian population concentrations in both the West Bank and Gaza. Together with the settler-only roads and, more recently, the roadblocks and the separation wall, Israel has now successfully severed the connection between the major population centers in the West Bank as well as between East Jerusalem and its Palestinian hinterland. Include the settlement project in the Jordan Valley and it is clear that Palestinians are isolated from the outside world as well as each other.
Meanwhile, the unilateral evacuation of settlements from Gaza by the Sharon-led government was part of a grander strategy to divorce the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. This was perhaps intended as the coup de grace in undermining any potential for the emergence of a single Palestinian state in the occupied territories. The West Bank was kept under direct Israeli control and Gaza was kept under a complete Israeli siege. The 2005 US-sponsored Agreement on Movement and Access--which dealt with the Palestinian territories as one integral unit and stipulated the need to enhance the movement of persons and goods between Gaza and the West Bank, from Gaza through Israel to the outside world and from Gaza to Egypt and the rest of the world--was thus, consistent with this strategy, completely ignored.
In addition to the practical obstacles confronting any Palestinian state, Israel also gains from Palestinian disunity in the detrimental effect this has on the Palestinian negotiating position and general performance. The most obvious recent example is the Israeli response to Palestinian demands that Israel fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, as demanded at the Annapolis conference. While the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has had notable and recognized successes in fulfilling its own obligations under the roadmap in the West Bank, Israel has been quick to point out that the PA has not done so in the Gaza Strip. No matter how much success the PA has in the West Bank, its lack of control over Gaza will inevitably count against it in its endeavor to fulfill its security obligations under the roadmap. Thus Israel has a ready stick to beat the Palestinians with the minute it feels any pressure to act rather than talk.
The Israelis are mistaken, however, if they think Palestinian disarray will serve them in the long run. On the contrary, if the two-state solution is the only viable option to end this conflict as most countries in the world seem to think it is, then Palestinian unity, both politically and territorially, is vital for all concerned.- Published 11/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
For once I'm not so optimistic
by David Kimchi
As an Israeli looking at Palestinian society, I must be guided by certain basic facts. One is that there is no possibility of a peace agreement between our two peoples as long as Gaza and the West Bank are two separate and hostile entities, ruled by different governments with no meaningful dialogue between them. I also believe that one can say as a fact that a majority of Palestinians do want to see a peace agreement between our two peoples and would welcome a two-state formula based on a just solution of the core issues, and that this majority includes many of those who voted for Hamas in the last elections. They voted for Hamas for reasons we know very well, reasons that do not necessarily include strict adherence to the fundamentalist religious ideology expressed in the Hamas charter. I am sure that not all Palestinians who voted for Hamas want to see Islamic Sharia law regulating their lives.
There is, of course, a hard core of Hamas activists who will never accept Israel living side-by-side in peace with a sovereign Palestinian state. In mosques, schools and in their media they have preached jihad against the Jews. The Hamas charter states, "There is no solution for the Palestinian problem other than jihad. All the initiatives and international conferences are a waste of time and a futile game." Yet the Hamas leaders have declared that if the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas were to succeed in reaching an agreement with Israel, they would agree that it be brought to a referendum of the Palestinian people and would abide by the decision of the majority. That declaration gives hope that Hamas' opposition to any peace agreement between Palestine and Israel can be overcome, provided the two opposing forces--the largely secular Fateh and the fundamentalist-dominated Hamas--can be reconciled.
The difficulties lying in the way of such reconciliation are plain to see. Any attempt to achieve it would encounter strong opposition from the Fateh rank and file who have neither forgotten nor forgiven the brutal manner in which Hamas ousted Fateh from Gaza. Nevertheless, a renewed understanding between Fateh and Hamas is an essential prerequisite for the peace process to possibly succeed.
Israel would oppose a return to the unity government and has threatened to break off peace negotiations if that happens. The position of the government of Israel is clear: Hamas is a terrorist organization; it does not recognize the right of Israel to exist; it does not accept previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Hamas, therefore, is an enemy and must be dealt with as such.
The position, however, of many Israelis, especially those in the peace camp, is much more ambivalent. The fundamentalist fanaticism of the hard core is repugnant in their eyes, yet they understand that no magic wand exists that can make the Hamas ultras disappear, nor can it be done by a massive military operation; they realize that Hamas is a factor that must be taken into account.
The Israeli peace camp believes that the majority of Hamas supporters are not fanatic, that they would welcome a peace agreement and that Israel should reach out to them. The likes of Khaled Meshaal are beyond the pale, but surely not all Hamas officials share his extremist views. The peace camp believes, as I do, that if only progress can be made in the Annapolis process then more and more Hamas voters will "see the light" and support the efforts of President Abbas to bring peace to their land.
The key, therefore, to the present double impasse--Fateh-Hamas, Israel-Hamas--lies in progress in the negotiations. Here we still have a long way to go. The Arab governments must be much more forthcoming in their support. They must address the problem of Hamas opposition to the peace negotiations. US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must live up to their promises. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, having weathered successfully the Winograd report, must now demonstrate that he is serious about peace by 2009 and that means changing facts on the ground--removing roadblocks, dismantling outposts, freezing construction in settlements--as well as making progress in the final status negotiations with Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala).
If the Annapolis process can produce a political horizon for the Palestinian people and if hope for a better future can be attained, then, possibly, Fateh and the pragmatist parties will do much better in the next Palestinian elections and the hardliners will be weakened, enabling Fateh to restore its authority in Gaza.
Unfortunately, however, there exists an alternative scenario. Hamas resumes suicide attacks and escalates its Qassam rocket offensive, leading to a massive riposte by the IDF and an end to the negotiations. Both Israelis and Palestinians will then be the losers.
Which is it to be? Unfortunately, it can go either way. For once, I must admit, I am not so optimistic.- Published 11/2/2008 © bitterlemons.org
David Kimche was director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. He is presently chairman of the Board of Directors of the Israeli daily Maariv and president of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Falling into a trap
an interview with Rafiq Husseini
bitterlemons: There has been criticism that Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will be fruitless because of the divide between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What is your response to this?
Husseini: This is a pretext. Palestinians, led by the PLO, the president of the Executive Committee of the PLO and the president of the Palestinian Authority, have the full right to negotiate with Israel. Once we negotiate a deal that is acceptable to the president and the PLO it will be put to the people. So the objection is not valid.
bitterlemons: Israeli critics of the peace process say that the PA cannot fulfill its obligations under the roadmap since it does not have control over Gaza. What do you think of such criticism?
Husseini: Again, this is a way to get out of negotiations. There are obligations on both sides. The Palestinian side has done almost everything that it is obliged to do. The issue of security in Gaza is a difficult one, and we can't do it because we are not there any more. But that does not mean that we are not working very hard to achieve security in the West Bank. Security is a process, not an end result. It is an ongoing process that we are working very hard on.
That is on our side. On the Israeli side there are decisions--and they are decisions rather than processes--that Israel has to take as part of its obligations. The first one is to freeze the expansion of settlements, including their natural growth. This is a decision that needs to be taken. The second is to remove settlement outposts. They have not taken this decision. The third is to open Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem. Again, this is a decision Israel has not taken.
Israel has not really done anything to fulfill its obligations under the roadmap, while we have worked very hard to fulfill ours. Using the issue of security in Gaza is just a pretext.
bitterlemons: On the other side, Hamas argues that the PA under Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no legitimacy to negotiate since the Hamas government was dismissed, they say, illegally.
Husseini: The PA is not negotiating with the Israelis. The PLO has the mandate to negotiate and is doing so. The PA is an agreement between Israel and the PLO.
bitterlemons: Hamas could argue that having won PA elections it has a popular mandate that is not reflected in the PLO since it is not represented there and that popular mandate means negotiations are illegitimate.
Husseini: I think we are doing our best to include everybody within the PLO. But having perpetrated a coup only one year after being elected to the PLC makes it illegitimate for Hamas to ask any of these questions. Hamas has to rescind its coup first and then we can talk about inclusiveness rather than exclusion. Hamas has obviously been excluded because of the coup. It was the Hamas-led government that started the coup in Gaza. Thus we cannot agree that Hamas has any legitimacy. Such legitimacy can only be obtained if Hamas rescinds its coup and comes back to be part of the legitimate Authority led by President Abbas.
bitterlemons: How worried are you about this Palestinian division?
Husseini: We are extremely worried about it. We think we have fallen into a trap laid by our many enemies. Hamas was the vehicle for this trap. Once the coup took place it meant that there would be a split between Gaza and the West Bank, which is exactly what our enemies wanted to happen.
bitterlemons: You call it a trap. Who laid this trap?
Husseini: There are parties in Israel who are promoting the scenario of handing over control of Gaza to Egypt and thereby ending Palestinian unity. But we fell into the trap and in the end we have to blame ourselves for this disunity.
bitterlemons: Are unity talks ongoing? Is there any compromise in the making?
Husseini: I think it is very difficult to compromise on anything unless Hamas rescinds its coup. This is a condition that is very important. You cannot allow people to take Gaza hostage and then demand dialogue. Hamas has to accept the legitimacy of the PA and become part of it again. Then we can have a dialogue that reunites the Palestinian people.
bitterlemons: The demand to rescind the coup, what does this mean? People talk about going back to the situation before. Does this mean a return to the national unity government?
Husseini: It means that Hamas has to decide if it is part and parcel of the PA. If it is, then it has to accept the decisions of the head of the PA as long as they are in line with the basic law. Government formation is the prerogative of the head of the PA and Hamas has to accept that its government was dismissed and clearly state that it rescinds the coup. Then we can work on how to bring back unity.
Having said this, rescinding the coup does not mean we go back to the same conditions in Gaza as before and the lack of security, the corruption. None of this is acceptable. We have to build unity on the basis of no corruption and full security for the citizens of Gaza.
bitterlemons: Should the priority be to push forward the peace process or to build unity?
Husseini: I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. We want to push forward the peace process. We have this year to come up with some text for an agreement that is acceptable to Palestinians and Israelis. We need to push hard and give no excuses to anyone on the Israeli side to say that we are not serious or we are not for peace. If the peace process fails we want the world to know it is not because of us.
As for unity, it is very important and we will work for it. But the Hamas leadership in Gaza has to understand that there cannot be unity unless they rescind the coup.
bitterlemons: There has been criticism that the PA continues to talk to Israel even with the violence in and isolation of Gaza. Would a major Israeli military invasion of Gaza alter this picture?
Husseini: We feel there are significant forces in Israel that want us to stop talking. In my opinion, these forces are trying their best to influence Palestinian public opinion to pressure the leadership to end the peace process. That way, Israel can point the finger at us and blame us for the process failing. It is our obligation, and it is because we are wise, that we continue talking in spite of the conditions Israel is creating around us.
That does not mean there will not come a time when we stop talking. But at the moment, there are forces in Israel who want us to end the process and we will not fall into this trap. We will talk and if the process fails, it should be they that are blamed, not us.- Published 11/2/2208 © bitterlemons.org
Rafiq Husseini is chief of staff of the Office of President Mahmoud Abbas.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.