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    November 17, 2008 Edition 41                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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The collapse of the mediation effort between Fateh and Hamas
. A rift too deep        by Ghassan Khatib
The Islamist movement is under the strong and correct impression that time is on its side.
  . Everything is linked        by Yossi Alpher
Hamas leaders in Gaza presumably recognize that neither Egypt nor Israel has a working strategy for dealing with them.
. After Hamas bailed, will Egypt be next?        by Joharah Baker
Palestinians are in dire need of national unity and are, at this point, seemingly hell-bent on never achieving it.
  . A game with open cards        by Smadar Perry
At the end of the day, reality will compel the renewal of reconciliation efforts.

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A rift too deep
by Ghassan Khatib

The failure to convene the Palestinian reconciliation dialogue, scheduled for November 10 in Cairo, between rival Palestinian factions is an illustration of two important realities.

First, it shows the depth of the domestic Palestinian crisis, particularly between Hamas and Fateh. Second, it illustrates the weakness of Egypt in its influence on major Arab-Arab issues.

Egypt is still working to reschedule the talks and hasn't given up yet. Nevertheless, the fact that Hamas felt able at the last moment to turn down the Egyptian invitation indicates that Cairo is struggling with the issue.

One immediate reaction to Hamas' move was to blame Syria, which, according to some analysts, wanted to exact a price for the recent US raid inside Syria. However, the failure of the talks seems to indicate other and more serious causes.

First, Hamas is not really losing out in this ongoing crisis with Fateh and needs better incentives to reconcile. In other words, there can be successful mediation only if Egypt can find and present a win-win formula. Fateh will gain automatically from the unification of the West Bank and Gaza under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. What Hamas gains is less clear.

The Islamist movement is under the strong and correct impression that time is on its side. There are many reasons for this. First, the ceasefire that was successful for five months and has only been interrupted recently (and which will likely be renewed) gave Hamas the opportunity to consolidate its control over Gaza.

Hamas was helped in this regard by the boycott and siege that Israel and the international community imposed on Gaza. The siege is only weakening the private sector, the backbone of the social support for Fateh and the peace camp in Gaza. Meanwhile, unable to trade in any traditional manner, some 100-200 tunnels have been dug under the border to Egypt. These are under the direct or indirect control of Hamas, which not only operates its own tunnels but decides who can operate others and taxes them to boot. The siege, with its consequences, is shifting the balance of power among Gazans decisively in favor of Hamas.

In addition, Hamas has not forgotten that even with a Saudi guarantee, the unity government that was agreed in Mecca did not succeed in ending the siege or even in securing a minimum of trade and normal economic life in Gaza. It is almost impossible for Hamas to concede on any point without a guarantee that the siege will end, something Egypt is unable to provide.

Any deal for reconciliation will need to ensure some kind of power-sharing agreement that would include control over the security forces. Fateh would thus gain a foothold in Gaza. But would Israel, currently very much in control of the West Bank, allow Hamas to gain the same in the West Bank? Hamas believes not, certainly not in the security sphere.

In fact, recent structural developments within the Palestinian security organizations in the West Bank have generated an integral role for chasing and containing elements from Hamas and its allies, not only as far as their possible military activities are concerned, but also in the social and economic arenas.

From the other side, the only card the PA is gambling on is continued peace negotiations in the context of the Annapolis process. Abbas and Fateh hope these negotiations will empower them enough to regain the initiative in domestic Palestinian politics. Hamas, and probably everybody else, has realized that this tactic is backfiring. In other words, the continued failure of the peace process accompanied by the ongoing consolidation of the occupation in parallel with holding negotiations only favor Hamas.

Thus, the rift between Fateh and Hamas and the consequent division of the Palestinian territories into the West Bank and Gaza are probably beyond the ability of Egypt to heal, especially since the factors responsible for the rift are still, and will remain, in effect. Bridging the gap between Hamas and Fateh will require that regional and international players, not least Israel and the US, play a supportive role.- Published 17/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons 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.

Everything is linked
by Yossi Alpher

As is so often the case when the Palestinian issue is involved, it is impossible to view any one incident or dynamic in isolation. A week or so ago, Hamas torpedoed the Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian unity talks by refusing to come to Cairo. But Hamas also contributed in the past week to escalating violence between Gaza and Israel, possibly to distract attention from its anti-unity move. And Hamas is seemingly gearing up for an official end to its ceasefire with Israel on December 19 and a declared end to the presidential term of Mahmoud Abbas on January 9. In parallel, Israel's calculations regarding Hamas and Gaza are affected by all of the above as well as by the prospect of elections on February 10.

These are, in outline form, the bare facts and dates. The strategic reality runs deeper.

First and foremost, with the passage of time everyone--Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, the rest of the world--is growing accustomed to the existence of not one but two Palestinian political entities or mini-states, in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas cannot afford to openly support such a "three-state solution" lest it lose popular support. But it also could not accept the conditions Egypt set forth as a basis for unity talks. After all, those conditions bespoke a Gaza-West Bank reunification in which Hamas' grip on Gaza and over Palestinian security forces would have been weakened and Abbas' term of office extended.

On the other hand, Hamas leaders in Gaza presumably recognize that neither Egypt nor Israel--nor, for that matter, the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank--has developed a workable strategy for dealing with their militant Islamist mini-state. This gives them a measure of flexibility in responding to events and external challenges.

Egypt restricts movement of people and goods between Gaza and Sinai and periodically cracks down on the border smuggling tunnels, just as it suppresses its own Muslim Brotherhood, the "mother" of Hamas. Yet it also sponsors Hamas-Fateh reconciliation talks and Hamas-Israel prisoner-exchange talks.

Israel consistently avoids entertaining the notion of an all-out military offensive to eliminate Hamas. Yet it has no effective reply to Qassam and Grad rockets fired from Gaza. It repeatedly falls back on collective economic sanctions against the Gaza population despite the total absence of evidence that this harsh violation of basic humanitarian standards substantively softens Hamas decision-making regarding the launching of violence against Israel or even its rejection of Israel's very existence. And Israel's decision-making regarding Gaza is at least partially dictated by the fate of a single soldier, Gilad Shalit, in Hamas captivity.

Anyone who thought the current ceasefire would solve some or all of these strategic quandaries was mistaken. In both the Hamas and Israeli establishments there are powerful lobbies arguing that the "tahdiyeh" is a mistake. Last week's flare-up of violence reflected each side's rejection of the other's ceasefire conditions and understandings, as December 19 inches ever nearer and both jockey for position.

Thus Hamas' attitude toward the Cairo national reconciliation talks has far-reaching implications. If the Hamas leadership changes its mind and goes to Cairo, this presumably reflects not only acceptance of Egypt's pro-PLO terms but also a readiness to extend the ceasefire on conditions acceptable to Israel. If Hamas remains adamant in its refusal to discuss reconciliation along the terms proffered by Cairo with Arab League backing, then it is willingly entering into additional confrontation with Israel, Egypt and the PLO.

Presumably it would be doing so with the backing of Syria and Iran, who may seek to deliberately raise tensions in the region in anticipation of the inauguration of a new and untried American president who seeks dialogue with them. Everything is linked.- Published 17/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

After Hamas bailed, will Egypt be next?

by Joharah Baker

It has been a week since the ill-fated Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo came to a screeching halt even before the opening session; accusations as to who is to blame for their demise are still rife. Most fingers, however, are pointed at Hamas, who at virtually the last second called the whole thing off. It is a tight race as to who came out the biggest loser in this most recent botched attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but it is fair to say that Egypt, the sponsor of the talks, is pretty high up on the list.

For months, Egypt has tried its hand at bringing Palestinian factions--mainly Hamas and Fateh--to the negotiating table to somehow hammer out an agreement that would result in the formation of a national unity government. In theory, 11 factions were to travel to Cairo for the talks, but in practice, all but Hamas and Fateh have been marginalized given the dichotomized state of Palestinian society between the two rivals, the former in charge of the West Bank and the latter ruling the Gaza Strip.

Needless to say, over the past several months Egypt has hosted both parties on its turf and in Palestine to negotiate the terms of an agreement, ultimately culminating in the scheduled and much-anticipated November 10 reconciliation talks in Cairo. While Hamas especially had several reservations over Egypt's draft proposal for the talks, its last-minute change of heart came as a surprise to many. The immediate reason given by the movement was the Palestinian Authority's refusal to release what Hamas says are over 200 of its members from West Bank jails. Even though the Palestinian government in the West Bank adamantly denies it is holding Palestinians on political grounds, saying all those in its prisons are being held on criminal charges, the accusation stuck and Egypt hastily announced that talks would be postponed at Hamas' request.

The question of blame is almost secondary when the grave consequences of this failure are considered. Palestinians are in dire need of national unity and are, at this point, seemingly hell-bent on never achieving it. Since Hamas was the obvious cop-out in the talks, all eyes are on it and why it believes it was in its best interest not to go to Cairo.

Finger pointing aside, the hard facts of the situation are enough to understand why achieving a national consensus is such a gargantuan task. For Hamas, any prospect of a national government obviously entails a relinquishment of the absolute power it now enjoys over the Gaza Strip. Hamas says it wants national unity and has its people's best interests at heart, which may very well be true. However, these sentiments seem to have been trumped by its own interests and desire to rule.

For Hamas, there is also the questionability of the broker, Egypt. Since its military takeover of the Strip in June 2007, the Hamas-Egyptian relationship has been turbulent at best, explosive at worst. The most tangible manifestation of this strained relationship occurred in January 2008 when Gazans stormed the Rafah crossing, tore down its fences and walls and stampeded into Egyptian territory in order to break the Israeli-imposed siege on the Strip. Several Egyptian policemen were injured in the melee before the crossing was resealed by Egypt.

The Rafah crossing has been a constant sore spot between the de facto Hamas government and Egypt, which has often found itself between a rock and a hard place. As one of the more moderate Arab states clearly aligned with the West, Egypt has often found itself under western and Israeli pressure to tighten its grip on Hamas, mainly by closing the crossing and clamping down on the hundreds of underground tunnels dug between Gaza and Egypt. Hence, Hamas has always taken Egyptian mediation with a grain of salt, interpreting its helping hand as one that is in cohorts with the PA to cast it aside, or at least neutralize its power. Power, Hamas believes, is its legitimate right given that it won Legislative Council elections in 2006 fair and square.

By postponing the talks, which many say was a decision taken by Hamas leaders outside, Hamas is hoping to buy time and therefore wait for international circumstances--i.e., the new American administration--that will perhaps shape up to be more acquiescing to its agenda. The so-called "external influences" are also said to be a factor in the decision, in this case Iran, which wants to maintain some sort of stronghold in the Palestinian arena through the Islamic movement.

The same can be said of Fateh. Already at an advantage with Egypt mediating, an Arab country that tows its political line and is looking for a moderate government to rule the Palestinians, President Mahmoud Abbas' main goal is to restore control over the Gaza Strip. Since Fateh's forces have already proven to be militarily inferior to Hamas', Fateh figured Egyptian mediation and international pressure were its best bet. It still does, especially now that everyone, including Egypt, is blaming Hamas for the failure of the Cairo talks. For Fateh, Hamas' bailout may have served its best interests, with international sympathies swaying even further toward the PA and the Arabs growing increasingly weary of the domestic Palestinian mess. Hamas' refusal to relinquish control--whether legitimate or not--may just have the opposite effect and result in the movement's complete loss of political control over Gaza.

Still, in the end, Palestinians are the ultimate losers in this futile match of wills. Egypt may very well wash its hands of further mediation efforts because it doesn't want another failure to its name. In refusing to sit down for talks, both Hamas and Fateh are taking risks that could result in a disastrous outcome, namely the demise of the cause they both claim to ardently defend.- Published 17/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Department at MIFTAH and a former editor of Palestine Report Online.

A game with open cards

by Smadar Perry

The identity of the party responsible for the collapse of the national reconciliation effort between Fateh and Hamas is no longer relevant. All involved parties are now definitely permitted to throw mud at one another and announce "I actually wanted, tried, invested efforts and was blocked." Everyone will look justified.

This is a game with open cards. Hamas doesn't have the slightest interest in reconciling with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) or in permitting Fateh's security forces to enter the Gaza Strip. On the contrary, Hamas has every interest in stalling over the coming weeks in order to reach January 9, 2009 and declare that by international standards Abbas has become an illegitimate leader. The threats leveled against Gazans identifying with Fateh to cancel the memorial assembly honoring Yasser Arafat and even not to print posters of the "old man" clearly convey the mood in the Strip: Arafat and Abu Mazen are "out"; any attempt to bring about a reconciliation agreement is liable to weaken Hamas' grip and bargaining power.

On the other side, Fateh leaders similarly display little enthusiasm for legitimizing Hamas. For them, the draft national reconciliation agreement that was supposed to be signed ten days ago in Cairo is no more than a shaky leaf. Public legitimization of Hamas by Fateh would only strengthen Hamas' foothold in the West Bank.

Mahmoud Zahar, the impressive (in Israeli eyes as well) Hamas leader in Gaza, sees a triple conspiracy emerging before his very eyes: Israel, Egypt and Abu Mazen are discretely cooperating in a search for ways to get rid of him and his colleagues. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, in Zahar's eyes, succeeded in persuading Egyptian President Husni Mubarak not to open the Rafah border crossing. The same Olmert also convinced Abu Mazen not to release Hamas prisoners in the West Bank, and undertook to reinforce Abu Mazen's leadership as January 9 approaches.

In this open card game the three "conspirators", Abu Mazen, Israel and Egypt, assessed early on that the Cairo meeting would in any case end in failure. In that case, why shouldn't Israel prevent the departure of the Hamas delegation to Cairo? Why should Abu Mazen release Hamas prisoners in the West Bank? As for the Egyptians, not only are their security forces repeatedly confiscating huge quantities of weapons and ammunition in Sinai that were destined for the Gaza tunnels, but they are also warning of enhanced Russian-made rockets being fired at Israel. All the appeals to establish an independent Palestinian state aren't worth the paper they're printed on: the other partners recognize that Hamas/Damascus and Hamas/Gaza prefer to maintain the current situation of two mini-states--one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza.

Taghreed al-Khodary, the New York Times correspondent in Gaza, presents a sad and frustrating picture of 1.5 million residents. The Gazan man-on-the-street has been taken hostage by his leaders. It's hard to live with electricity outages and it's insufferable to manage with chronic shortages in produce, especially food, clothing and basic electric goods. What is smuggled through the tunnels costs three or four times the normal price; who can afford to pamper themselves by paying black market prices? Gaza, which has become a "city of underground malls", will find it difficult to leave the tunnels even if national reconciliation is reached. With the blessings of Hamas leaders there are reportedly 600-800 supply tunnels flourishing beneath the surface. Today you order and the day after tomorrow you receive your goods. You pay on the spot.

Were 1.5 million Gazans currently under siege to take to the streets, to demand to change the regime, to attempt to form a third party--neither Hamas nor Fateh but a political body dedicated solely to the welfare of the Palestinian people, one not dependent on directives sent from hundreds of kilometers away--then it would be possible to reach national reconciliation. But Gaza is not currently built for miracles. Even if they are miserable, people are afraid to challenge an armed, coercive leadership. The open card game between the West Bank and Gaza will not soon reach a happy end.

Experience teaches us that in the Middle East, never say never. Note that, while attempts to restore calm have collapsed, none of the involved parties has given up. At the end of the day, reality will compel the renewal of reconciliation efforts. New winds will blow from a new mediator: as matters currently stand, it is France that will take the plunge.- Published 17/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Smadar Perry is Middle East editor of the daily Yediot Aharonot.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.