Friday, June 22, 2007

Have Palestinians failed Palestine?

New Indian Express (Chennai), Friday June 22 2007

Two-State solution! The events of the past week in the Gaza Strip have given an ominous meaning to this expression. While the international community wishes the early establishment of Palestinian state that co-exists along with Israel, the failure of the Palestinian unity government opened the prospect of two Palestinian entities competing for power, legitimacy and loyalty. Family feud, power struggle, coup, civil war, anarchy or a point of no return?

It is immaterial how one characterises the violence in recent days and the complete overrun of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. It is obvious that the militant Islamic group is in complete control of the streets and has achieved a resemblance of normalcy in the Gaza Strip. Confined to their homes and shanty refugee camps for days, ordinary Palestinians are now able to move out freely without fearing about masked gunmen roaming in open jeeps or gunfights in the alley ways.

Important as it may, this temporary quietness would not hide deep divisions within the Palestinian society and among its leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip by dissolving the national unity government and sworn in an emergency government with former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad as the new Prime Minister.

Hamas for its part is not ready to accept this and insists that Ismail Haniya still heads the Palestinian government. In short, there is a Fatah Prime Minister for the West Bank and a Hamas Prime Minister for the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly both insist that they are the true representatives of all the Palestinians!

Rival power centres are not unique to Palestinians and many countries in the Middle East went through an intense struggle for power that often resulted in violent change of rulers. But as a people whose aspirations for statehood and sovereignty is yet to be realised, the factional fighting and violence is a costlier mistake. It would be extremely difficult for both Hamas and Fatah to forget the events of recent weeks and co-operate. At least in the short run, Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) are the major losers. That an organised group like Fatah could swiftly be overrun, overpowered and even made to flee from the Gaza Strip tells not only the military weakness of Fatah but also the growing strength of Hamas.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a complete military victory over Fatah was something Israel had always wanted but never managed to inflict. That Hamas could achieve this in a matter of weeks should be an eye opener for Fatah and the PLO.

It is obvious that Fatah has never recovered from the death of its founder-chairman Yasser Arafat in November 2004. The crushing electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas in January 2006 came as an additional blow. Even though it was cajoled into joining a unity government with Hamas, neither side were ready to work in harmony. Hamas also mishandled the situation. Its resounding electoral victory in 2006 was not only a vote against Fatah and its corrupt leadership but also a mandate for change.

Change not in the ideological sense of the word but in the socio-political situation of the occupied territories. Hamas which tasted victory however, did not recognise that power comes with responsibility. It wanted the international community, especially the West and the US, to recognise the 'will of the people' and recognise and negotiate with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

But at the same time, it was not ready to transform itself as a political party that is prepared to seek political solution to the prolonged Arab-Israeli problem. Its desire for retaining its ideological purity meant that Hamas would not formally recognise the State of Israel, its adversary or seek a political settlement with it. While 'allowing' President Abbas to pursue peace negotiations, Hamas was not ready to go beyond offering 'temporary truce' with Israel.

By refusing to recognise and negotiate with Israel, Hamas exhibited its failure to make that critical transition: from being a militant group into a mainstream political party. By this mistake Hamas played into the hands of Israel and the US. Capitalising on its non-recognition of the Israel, they were able to institutionalise an international political as well as financial boycott of the Hamas-led government. Even the European Union leaders who are otherwise friendlier towards the Palestinians than their American counterparts could not wholeheartedly embrace the Hamasled arrangement. The formation of the fragile unity government did not mollify their stand.

Indeed, since the January 2006 elections, domestic tensions and rivalry have become the prime pre-occupation for the Palestinians. Arab leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah Saudi Arabia have been busy brokering deals not between the Palestinians and Israel but between rival Palestinian factions. Seeking a working compromise between Hamas and Fatah became more insurmountable than the Israeli- Palestinian compromise. Each ceasefire arrangement broke down faster than the earlier one. Indeed, till the other day Egypt had a permanent security presence in the Gaza Strip should speak volumes of the tension between rival Palestinian factions.

The much-hyped unity agreement reached in the Islamic holy city of Mecca last March failed to bridge the gap. Ironically the current situation of two separate arrangements might offer a temporary space for both factions to re-evaluate their recent behaviour. The international community has swiftly rallied behind President Abbas and his emergency government. If Israel had expressed its willingness to de-freeze the money that it owes to the Palestinians, the US has renewed its aid to the non-Hamas Palestinian government.

The EU and others would follow the same example, while at the same time continuing with their humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Not even Israel wants a meltdown at its doorstep. But in the long run, Hamas and Fatah would have to come together and seek unity. Their problem is with Israel and not with one another. If there has to be one Palestinian rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, then there has to one government and one authority. The past few months clearly revealed that leadership of both Hamas and Fatah are consumed by internal differences and hatred. Hence, a Palestinian unity could be arranged only by the international community. This is easier said than done.

Some desperate Palestinians were quoted as saying, 'Even Israelis did not do this to us.' Such a view could be an exaggeration. But the world has watched the scenes of masked men pulling down the portraits of Arafat, Mr. Palestine for decades. This would inhibit the international community from getting into inter-Palestinian mediation anytime soon.

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