Complete Loss of Direction in Gaza Strip
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Jakarta Post, Indonesia
Last week's Palestinian raid into Israel and the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip show the complete loss of direction of all the players in the area, Palestinians and Israelis alike. Hamas was in the process of consolidating its election victory, having just barely obtained sufficient funds to run the Palestinian Authority's government.
It was actively moderating its terminology vis-a-vis Israel and negotiating with Palestine Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas over a joint platform that would unite several Palestinian organizations in a coalition government. The situation was tense, especially against the background of Israel's persistent attacks against militants, which hit a large number of innocent Palestinians, but it appeared to stabilize.
And then came the June 25 attack coordinated by Hamas' military wing inside Israel. While the attack must have been in the pipeline for more than two months, the timing was perfect: It served to prevent any moderating move by Palestinian Authority PM Ismail Haniye during his negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas.
The military wing of Hamas, supported by Hamas abroad under Haled Mashal, has now effectively sidelined both Hamas PM Ismail Haniye and President Mahmoud Abbas, the only leaders who have been legitimately elected by the Palestinian people to represent Palestine. The result of this blatant subversion is total chaos among the Palestinian leadership where nobody is in charge anymore and nobody is responsible.
As usual, the lack of Palestinian unity plays into Israel's hands, which has always refused to differentiate between the various factions in Hamas. Deeply invested in this crisis primarily to recover its abducted soldier, Corporal Shalit, Israel has decided to use the opportunity to dismember the Hamas government in the PA and deal Hamas a fatal blow.
With the Palestinian leadership effectively neutralized and Israel in the Gaza Strip lashing out at Hamas, the horizon looks as bleak as it rarely has before. If Israel will keep up its indiscriminate pressure, the Hamas government in the PA may fall.
Israel's apparent insistence, at this time, not to exchange Palestinian prisoners no matter what, makes it extremely difficult to negotiate for the release of the Israeli soldier. Afraid of setting a precedent that would encourage further acts of abduction, Israel is sitting tight. It does not help that releasing Palestinian prisoners would empower Hamas, which would be able to show success where Mahmoud Abbas has failed consistently.
Because of the hopeless situation of the families of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the writing for some dramatic development was on the wall. The Palestinian street wants their release no less than Israel wants the release of its soldier and is willing to support even radical moves like the abduction and bear the consequences.
For this reason it is likely that the crisis, if at all, will eventually be resolved through some kind of future commitment by Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. An immediate release, as demanded by the military wing of Hamas, is not likely to be on the cards.
Unless Israel is able to release its soldier through military action alone it is difficult to see how Hamas cannot come out as a winner on the Palestinian street; a winner who soon may be out of government but a winner nevertheless.
Israel has again fallen into the trap of trying to impose its own strategic wishful thinking on its neighbors. Just like Israel in 1982 wanted to set up a Lebanese government under Bashir Gemayel who, as a Christian, would have been more favorably disposed toward the Jewish nation than any of the alternatives, it now wants to remove Hamas from the Palestinian government, preferably get rid of it altogether and empower, once again, Mahmoud Abbas who appears to be the least (and weakest) of all evils.
Just as the effort failed miserably in Lebanon, it will not succeed in Palestine — the Palestinians will not let themselves be disenfranchised, Israel's moves are continuously radicalizing the Palestinian street and Hamas has all the public support it needs to keep the abducted soldier to bargain for a Palestinian prisoner release.
This crisis will not end soon, and the Palestinian missile attack on Ashqelon, an Israeli city out of range until July 4, was another serious escalation. The present Israeli government may not be creative or courageous enough to seek its way out of this mess by means other than force.
The Palestinian leadership, to the extent it exists, is too weak and divided to do anything meaningful, moderating or lasting. It is the citizens of Palestine and Israel who will continue to suffer the consequences.
The writer is a retired (Israeli) diplomat who served in South East Asia from 2000-2003.