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Palestine - The Facts
On The Ground

Terrell E. Arnold
In the past few days mainstream media--that only notice Palestine when it interferes with their tranquility-have nearly foundered on a few questions: What happened in Gaza? Whose fault was it? And what will happen now? In US media, these questions are being asked and loosely answered in a scripted and oft-repeated format favored by Israel and the Quartet (the Middle East Roadmap peace team of the US, Russia, The European Union and the United Nations), but there is little apparent serious looking at the facts.
The simple facts are that, having won a free and fair election in January 2006, Hamas has put up with more than a year of rejection, insult and harassment by much of the outside world, especially the Quartet. Meanwhile the US and Israel have covertly done everything they could to topple Hamas or to convince it to recognize Israel and stop fighting back. While demonstrating some capacity to flex in the awkward political circumstances of Palestine, Hamas has refused to give on its main points of principle-basically concede nothing in advance, but be prepared to bring everything to the table. That position mainly violates the cardinal rule of the Palestine peace process: With the blessings of the Quartet, Israel can dictate conditions in advance of negotiations; Palestinians cannot.
To all but the stone deaf and totally blind in the outside world, it has been obvious that Fatah (with US and Israeli help) has worked assiduously on Hamas destruction. However, while obviously not comfortable with the hostility and the track record of Fatah (a history that after all got Hamas elected) Hamas made an effort to work with the losers in the January election to craft a national unity government. Fatah clearly was even less enthusiastic about the arrangement than Hamas. But a national unity government was cobbled together at Mecca with the support of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders.
That government was born under a constellation of dark stars. The first of those was the prevailing situations of Arab governments. While they may have given a polite blessing to the idea of a Fatah- Hamas unity government, mainstream media have noted widely that none of the Arab governments was comfortable with Hamas. The reported Arab government fear is that Hamas would form an Islamist government that, if copied by dissidents in Arab states, could Islamize those now "secular" societies. Hooked to alleged future interference with "secularism" is the charge that Hamas would obstruct any trend toward democracy in the region, while promoting Islamic fundamentalist regimes.
That is a set of arguments that play well with the present autocratic and elitist regimes of the region. None of them has so far had an election that is more than show biz in democratic or top leadership selection terms. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and others have been run by the same families or closed loop clans for generations. Hamas simply arouses fears of homegrown political opposition to the oligarchs, and that, for those regimes, is a bad idea. Given the pragmatic way it deals with its Palestinian constituents, the real Islamic character of Hamas is hard to define.
A companion to that star is in the crown of the United States. The US may not have many real friends left in the region, but those it has are the autocratic regimes that are surrounded by small and wealthy elites. Those people plug well into the international financial and economic power structure. They would not easily be replaced as reliable US friends; however, a not too sanguine look at individual country situations suggests that, if the existing governments fell, leadership cadres and public majorities are likely to emerge who could be much less attentive to US interests or actively hostile to them.
In that regard, Hamas is two pains in the American backside: In addition to the hazy threat to regional oligarchs, it has potential to interfere with the cozy relationship with Israel. Hamas makes US rejection on that ground easy by refusing, in advance, to recognize Israel or to stop fighting for the rights of the Palestinian people. It makes no difference to this American posture that Israel has not once conceded anything of significance in advance of negotiations. If George III had been able to effect such neat constraints on the colonists, there would never have been an American Revolution.
The third dark star in the Hamas firmament is the American and Israeli attitude toward "terrorists". Hamas is an insurgency that uses far fewer terrorist tactics on Israelis than the Israel Defense Force uses on the Palestinians. Neither the US nor Israel is prepared to accept the fact that the reason Hamas is now a political problem is that it mastered the process well enough to win a majority in a free and fair election. That most Israeli leaders, starting with David Ben Gurion, have been former terrorists or have condoned various forms of state terrorism against the Palestinians somehow gets lost in the US and Israeli postures. Those postures are at least tolerated, if not fully shared, by others in the Quartet.
The lodestar of this constellation is that Israel's Zionist leadership is not prepared to make any concessions to the Palestinian people at any time. That has been clear since David Ben Gurion launched the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. It has been particularly obvious in the new century, while, under the cover of occupation, and in continuous violation of international law, IDF forces have facilitated the progressive absorption of the West Bank into Israel.
The territory allegedly available in the West Bank for a Palestinian state has shrunk to less than 20% of Palestine; some say less than 10%. That remaining bit of territory is studded with illegal settlements, even one that hogs the heart of the ancient West Bank city of Hebron. The would-be Palestinian state is further chopped up by Israeli-only roads, blocked by effective no trespass rules for the Jordan Valley region, and controlled by hundreds of checkpoints.
Hardly anyone now believes that a Palestinian state is possible. Serious thinkers about the matter, such as the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, argue that nothing is viable but a one-state solution. Many Palestinians would prefer that, and probably most would if the Israelis treated them as fellow citizens and human beings. Long time Israeli peace advocates such as Uri Avnery suggest that is not likely; by their reckoning, Israel is a democracy for Jews only.
Under those stars, the facts on the ground in Palestine are harsh. Struggling to survive in a political economy rendered virtually penniless and ungovernable by western boycott and Israeli theft of revenues, Palestinian society simply descended into the anarchy that is predictable for the bottom-scraping poverty that the situation imposed. It is convenient for onlookers to refer to that situation as "civil war" because it relieves all outsiders of any responsibility.
What happened in Gaza was not a civil war; it was a battle to survive in which the lines were drawn by patterns of family, friendship and community. When the chips were down, Hamas simply demonstrated higher orders of cohesion and leadership than Fatah. In effect, the PLO revolutionaries of the 1970s and 80s had lost their touch. Actually Fatah's chief revolutionary, Marwan Barghouti, is locked for life in an Israeli prison while his insurgents, the Al Aqsa Brigades, are presently Fatah's best fighting force.
Ironically, Barghouti's force is now being armed and encouraged by Israel and the US to fight Hamas. However, even with weapons and financial support from the US and Israel, Fatah was the loser in Gaza. But perhaps the larger weaknesses were Fatah's corrupt leadership along with the fact that most Palestinians appear to see Fatah as unwilling or unable to defend or promote the interests of the Palestinian people.
Western media largely view events in Gaza and the West Bank through the optics of various outside interests. Friday's Washington Post, for example, says the Hamas victory in Gaza "illustrates failure of Bush's Mideast vision". In truth, if many Middle Easterners, especially the young, were polled, the vision of a more open and liberalized group of societies would find a great deal of resonance. What clangs are the efforts of outsiders to impose such changes by force and, as in Iraq, to have outsiders dictate what the rules of the game--including who will profit most from Iraqi oil--will be for the future.
The Week, that micro-media brief on everything worth talking about, takes the view that the Israeli pull out of Gaza gave the Palestinian people a marvelous opportunity to show how they could govern themselves, and they blew it. However, The Week ignores the fact that the Israelis officially pulled out but have continued forcefully to pound the region with bombings, targeted assassinations and ground warfare moves. That is to say nothing of rigorously controlling any traffic in or out. In fact the Israel Defense Force withdrew and turned Gaza into a range for target practice as well as an open-air prison for all who live there. That was on top of the economic privation caused by the western, mainly US and Israeli boycott.
Now it is time to take a clear-eyed look at the art of the possible. To stay alive, Hamas has taken control of Gaza, that being the center of its support, although it is worth remembering that Hamas also won a political majority in the West Bank. The immediate US, Israeli and Quartet decision is to use the outcome of Hamas/Fatah infighting as the defacto creation of a Hamas government of Gaza (which Hamas says it does not want to do). But the larger and more perverse decision is to not deal at all with Gaza leadership. The specific excuse for that position is that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and stop fighting back. So Gaza becomes a non-actor on the stage of Palestinian peace negotiations. Outsiders, except for humanitarian assistance, will ignore it. In effect, the international community has decided to treat Gaza as an open-air prison for 1.5 million people who presently have no rights in any forum-much like the Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon.
It is well to review here the terms outsiders use to describe this situation. "Moderates" are those people who cooperate with Israel and the Quartet. "Extremists" are those people who do not. In Palestinian terms, however, "moderates" are the leadership cluster around Mahmoud Abbas who have collaborated with Israel and the US while the Zionists have continued to steal Palestine. "Extremists" are the people who stand up for Palestinian rights and actually try to prevent the ultimate Israeli theft of Palestine from its people.
For Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas has asserted control in the West Bank. However, Hamas is refusing to accept his decision to dismiss the elected government and appoint one. Here the democratic West seems content to have an elected government that it doesn't like arbitrarily replaced by an un-elected one that seems more tractable. But the benefits of this arrangement, especially to the Palestinian people, will be illusory.
It is easy for outsiders to assert that there is now a Hamas government in Gaza and a Fatah government in the West Bank. But the Palestinian people remain a mix in which the strength of Fatah is limited, and whether in or out of the government, the Hamas representatives still are the majority of elected officials. Abbas would have to call a new election to change that (assuming that under present conditions Fatah could win a majority). It may gain some acceptance simply because the West will see that the prisoners in the West Bank are better fed, but prisoners of Israel they will remain.
Abbas has proposed early talks, but it is unlikely that any progress toward peace will come of this arrangement. The Zionists will perceive, quite rightly, that the Palestinians have no leadership of sufficient strength to negotiate any deal that matters. The most cynical product of that perception could be a proposal to renew discussions of the Roadmap with Abbas and Fatah without bringing the Hamas leadership that exists also in the West Bank into the picture. However, the political goal of any such talks would be the appearance of progress over the next eighteen months of the Bush administration. The chance that any Fatah led team could achieve more than a sellout, is slim to none. The Palestinians will resist that idea, if it surfaces, and objections will not be confined to members of Hamas.
The hardest reading to make of the situation at this point is whether the Palestinian cause has been fatally damaged by these developments. That cause has not been in good shape for many years, because the Israelis have made no concessions, and the outside world has insisted on none, while the Israelis have actually made sizeable territorial gains through illegal settlements and mere encroachments with walls and roads. The Palestinians who remain are long-suffering, toughened by the experience, and still believers in their rights to at least part of their ancestral home. If Abbas were to appear to make grave concessions, e.g., taking the core Palestinian issues of right of return, compensation, Jerusalem off the table, he would actually lose more support to Hamas, and could lose his scalp. His geographic situation may be made easier, but his political problem would not be simplified.
The Hamas transition to a role of actual governance may be a more rapid transition from insurgency to politics than the pre-existing situation would have promoted. It is hard to go on calling them terrorists if they are being held legally responsible for the daily lives of 1.5 million people. This puts a pragmatic cap on the ability of the outside world to ignore them, especially if they succeed in getting Gaza under effective control. They will have become the government of a virtual city-state. In this regard, one of their proofs of effectiveness will be their ability to control the militant extremists, that means maintaining law and order.
Measures of effectiveness will be crucial in coming weeks and months. If Israel and the US do not continue to conduct open warfare against Gaza, Hamas will succeed in bringing it together. After all, Hamas won the January 2006 election because it was more effective than Fatah in serving the interests of its supporters and others. If Hamas does succeed, it is predictable that there will be some population transfer to Gaza, at least to get fragmented families back together.
Thanks to the Israeli/US/Quartet decisions, Fatah is likely to have more resources than Hamas (even though the Palestinians in Gaza have equal rights to them). But Fatah has demonstrated declining ability to serve the people. In an environment of close order surveillance by the US and Israel, as well as constant Israeli interference to serve, protect and expand its colonies, Fatah will never have a chance to get the West Bank under its exclusive control.
If not physically restrained from doing so, Hamas operatives will continue to work with its supporters and sympathizers in the West Bank. As the fact becomes daily more obvious that any real peace process is a dead issue, more Palestinians will look to Hamas, and its political as well as its potential militant power will grow. Palestinians in general will shift toward a greater militancy.
The solution to this problem has been obvious since January 2006. Hamas movement toward effective political participation in Palestinian life has to be encouraged and rewarded not combated. The name of the game must be effective support for leadership the Palestinian people have chosen. A scheme in which Palestinians who simply give up their rights are rewarded while Palestinians who fight for their rights are punished will not thrive for long. The situation in which Israel continues to occupy Palestine in order to steal the rest of it cannot go on. US, European, UN and Israeli priorities are out of touch with the human requirements of Palestine, while Israeli ambitions are on a collision course with Palestinian needs. These are not political abstractions. It is time everybody faced the facts on the ground that are making life miserable for millions of Palestinians and that will keep the region in turmoil unless they are fixed.
The writer is the author of the recently published work, A World Less Safe, now available on Amazon, and he is a regular columnist on rense.com. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State whose immediate pre-retirement positions were as Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College and as Deputy Director of the State Office of Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Planning. He will welcome comment at wecanstopit@charter.net.



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