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Palestine ­ Time To
Stop Pretending

Terrell E. Arnold
On February 3, with some hastily mustered resolve, Hosni Mubarak closed Egypt's border with Gaza. With that action, he attempted to restore the physical integrity of the world's largest open-air prison, while renewing the confinement of 1.5 million Palestinians against their will. This action was a calculated political act, undertaken to squelch mainly US and Israeli objections to an open border between Gaza and Egypt, but it reignited a war crime that has gone on for decades in full public view. That crime reached its most oppressive stages in the past few weeks, as Israel increased its military assault and harassment to break the will of the Palestinians, while unseating their Hamas political leadership in Gaza. It is time to stop pretending that "peace" talks now underway will change that agenda.
Israel's long-term goal, as any honest observer knows full well, is to make life so intolerable for the Palestinians that they will leave. Then there will be no barrier to realization of a Jewish state. In Ariel Sharon's era as Prime Minister-before his illness took him out of action-occupying Gaza had become expensive, dangerous and politically costly. Israeli withdrawal left the Palestinians of Gaza to their own devices, while giving them little to no help. Then, in early 2006, Palestine held a general election. That election, insisted on by the United States, was supposed to bring an easy affirmation of Fatah's control of Palestine. Fatah's leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had shown himself easily manipulated by Israel and the US. In time, promoters thought, the Palestinians would trade their resistance to Israeli confiscation of all of Palestine for a chance to huddle in two shrinking enclaves.
The plan backfired in three critical ways. First, credible outside observers declared the election more or less free and fair. Second, voters in both Gaza and the West Bank rejected Fatah. Third, the majority of voters favored Hamas, an Islamic group whose insurgents largely had taken the battle over from Fatah.  Hamas had practiced terrorism against Israel but was observing a unilateral truce. On the critical negotiative issues with Israel (up front recognition of Israel's right to exist, a Palestinian state, a right of return, a capital in Jerusalem, and no give on those issues short of actual negotiated outcomes), Hamas had defined the Palestinian mainstream.  In essence, the Palestinians voted to continue their struggle for at least a piece of their national home.
This was a setback to the Zionists, who thought they had the situation reasonably wired, but it was a body blow to the Bush team. In the George W. Bush administration the long-term US doctrine of "no negotiation with terrorists" had flowered into a broadside "we don't talk to people we don't like." Hamas had won a free and fair-US-sponsored--election, but it was a "terrorist group"; case closed.  That Fatah and its offshoots (three or more major ones) were once the leading terrorists of Palestine seems long forgotten. It is now all right to deal with Fatah but not with Hamas.
US media reports of the past several days have been scrupulous to point out that the reason the Israelis have put the squeeze on Gaza is because the Palestinians fire rockets over the wall into Israel. Why the Palestinians fire rockets never is asked, but the data are clear: Israeli settlers, defended by Israel Defense Force troops, have encroached steadily on Palestinian lands in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem and reduced the already meager water supply available to Palestinians. Moreover, Israel keeps more than 10,000 Palestinians in permanent captivity, including cabinet officials, duly elected officers of the Hamas-led government.
Why do the US and Israel deal with Fatah? The short answer is because Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas are easy to manipulate. Abbas and Fatah want exclusive control of Gaza and the West Bank and they are willing to trade for it. Thus, Israel can have a Palestinian government that talks but never forces the issue on negotiating the hard issues, and the US can satisfy its desire not to recognize Hamas or to deal with it. That arrangement preserves the artificial modalities of the War on Terrorism. It does nothing to interfere with Israel's plans, and the land grabs move apace-even as Abbas and Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak mumble to each other about a peace that virtually no one expects to materialize.
Before the wall came down between Gaza and Egypt, the Israelis squeezed the Palestinians in Gaza without mercy. They were tightening the noose, progressively restricting already limited access and reducing power supplies as well as reducing fuel to run Gaza's lone power plant. As the UN Director of Relief and Works stated in late January, the people in Gaza were living in "abject misery". That was before the latest Israeli moves to put the Gaza dwellers totally in the dark.
It is no coincidence that on February 4 two suicide bombers (one successful and one killed before he could detonate) carried out an attack in the southern Israeli city of Dimona-the seat of Israel's secret but well publicized nuclear reactor. As reported in US media, the blast killed as many as three people and wounded ten or more. Note, the groups that claimed credit are Fatah/PLO offshoots, but Israel immediately retaliated with an airstrike on Hamas targets in Gaza that no doubt killed and wounded many Palestinians. US media do not report such casualties. These attacks killed and wounded innocent people on both sides, but the impression created in US media is that the suicide attack was unprovoked; the constant Israel Defense Force harassment, confinement, killing, and imprisonment of Palestinians had nothing to do with it.
Gaza has become the acid demonstration of what the outside world will tolerate. Only after Israel threatened to turn off all electric power was there any real international resistance to their treatment of the people in Gaza. Before that, the Gaza dwellers faced bare minimum food supplies, acute shortages of medications, lack of fuel for transportation, inability to import even schoolbooks; in short, the oppressive extinction of Palestinian lives. With the US and Israel in the lead, there was little visible resistance. Maybe some governments used the "quiet diplomacy" that the US typically uses with Israel, but it had no visible impact on Israeli behavior.
At the apparent nadir of this situation, the Palestinians blew up the wall and crossed into Egypt. Far from being humbled by the experiences of the past several months, they were still ready to fight back.
This act confronted Mubarak with his long-standing dilemma. He is the third Egyptian leader in the past 54 years. His predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in October 1981, and he has ruled unopposed ever since. He wants to retain power, but his last election in 2005 was only notionally democratic. To avoid frontally offending his friends and allies he is looking, perhaps, to designate his son as his successor in order to keep from putting the matter to a vote. Over the years, he has faced increasing opposition, notably from the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose members he keeps in prison. He is wary of Hamas in Gaza partly because the group is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, but more so because he sees a domestic political threat in the popularity of Hamas-and its political success--with the Palestinian people. He approached destruction of the wall with some sympathy for the Palestinian people, but that was not enough to overcome his financial and political needs to collaborate with the US and Israel. He has more or less restored the wall, but how much traffic from Gaza he will permit through his Rafah gate remains unclear.
Hamas reportedly is talking with Egyptian officials about keeping the Rafah gate open, but a tricky problem/opportunity surfaced on February 5. Hamas seeks a coordinated management of the Rafah gate. As in many border situations, that would mean Hamas guards/agents on one side and Egyptian guards/agents on the other side. The two sides would agree on rules for who comes and goes. To launch such an arrangement, Egypt would have to recognize Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza, and that collides particularly with US and Israeli preferences in the matter. The ingenious solution reportedly proposed would turn control of the Gaza side of the Rafah gate over to the Palestinian National Authority, meaning Mahmoud Abbas. He would become the keeper of the world's largest open-air prison on behalf of the US and Israel, at least until Hamas can be unseated or defeated, its members and key officers imprisoned or assassinated.
In line with that gambit, both Israel and the United States, not exclusively the Bush team, seem bent on preventing the transition of Hamas from insurgent group to political party. At first, they tried to ignore the Hamas victory and the formation of a Hamas-led Palestinian government by not doing business with it. Israel tried to render the Hamas­led cabinet of Ismail Haniyeh ineffective by arresting several cabinet ministers. The US denied any funding to the Hamas government but sought ways to support Abbas. When Fatah attempted by force to unseat the Hamas government in Gaza and failed, the US and Israel chose to prop up the Fatah government in the shrinking remnants of the West Bank and to ignore the people in Gaza altogether.
US and Israeli pressures have worked so far to make life miserable for the people in Gaza, but the people have not given up, and they have not rejected Hamas. The reason is that they believe, as do many Palestinians in the West Bank, that Hamas speaks and practices the only realistic Palestinian agenda. How much privation the Palestinians can handle also remains undetermined, but many of them are veterans of decades of privation and mistreatment by the Israelis. Mere capitulation seems an unlikely prospect.
Meanwhile, the United States, European governments, in a measure the UN, Arab governments, and others passively watch Israeli commission of an ongoing war crime. Many Israelis object to this crime, but they lack the political power to stop it. In any case, Gaza needs governance that Hamas is entirely capable of providing, given a little room. The people of Gaza need resources to run their communities, hospitals, schools and infrastructure. Denial of those resources and denial of the opportunity to acquire them is not merely a collective punishment; it is a war crime in its own right. None of the governments watching this travesty would tolerate it for a moment if any other government were dealing with people in this manner.
Arab government participation in this travesty is perverse but peculiarly rational. While some of them have mixed feelings about Palestinians in general, few, if any, of those governments want a political openness that could yield a Hamas-like government in their countries. Right now oligarchies rule the Middle East, including Israel. Those oligarchies permit more pro-forma than actual participation. If this were not true in Israel, it would not have a virtually unbroken chain of Zionist supporting leaders since 1948. The peak of that system, however, lies in banking and finance where top-level Arab, Israeli, and other interests are altogether cozy. In effect, big money at the top means Arab/Israeli antipathies are not what they used to be, and that bodes ill for future Arab protection of Palestinian rights and interests.
The solutions are not as obscure or difficult as the US and Israel pretend. Sensible people everywhere would like to find ways to transit dissident groups out of the volatile fringes into the mainstream. The first step toward that is inviting/enticing them into the political process. Granted, from the US and Israeli viewpoints, inviting Hamas into the 2006 Palestinian elections was unintentional. That election demonstrated the political skills of a group that already was moving out of terrorism. Since then, Hamas has shown more skills in governance than Fatah; it particularly has shown more capacity to serve its constituents than Fatah. That, indeed, is why Hamas won. This result should have been applauded, not ignored and suppressed. Over the past several months, Hamas has demonstrated the ability to govern, even with a shrinking pool of resources. Given a little room, what it could do would probably please everyone except the Israeli hardliners who want any Palestinian governance to fail, particularly any Palestinian leadership that supports the real Palestinian interests. US support for Israel in this matter simply plays to that Israeli strategy.
In both Middle East policy and the War on Terrorism, the United States needs a new start. Both are in jeopardy because they consist of short-term tactical maneuvers that lack strategic design. Policies in the Middle East must serve the real interests of all the players, not a preferred set. In fact, terrorism is a guaranteed product of present US bias. US policy toward Israel has sustained the largest terrorism generator in the region for decades. The present US role as post-Annapolis peacemaker will not alter that pattern, unless the US becomes the genuine honest broker that it never has been. US support of Israeli repression in Gaza only emphasizes that defect.
Ultimately, Hamas is not the problem in Gaza. The problem up to now has been the inability of anyone successfully to pursue Palestinian interests. Through successive stages of the alleged "Peace Process", the Palestinians have lost ground. That means not only real estate, farms, homes, water, and valuable trees, but also exposure to harassment, confinement, privation and sometimes   murder. Arafat brought Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization to an internationally recognized status of leadership for the Palestinian people, but he was never able to turn that into political or practical concessions from Israel that met Palestinian need. Instead, he retreated in front of Israeli pressure. The Israelis usually succeeded in making that failure out to be Arafat's own fault, but the truth is that he obtained no real concessions, because truly Israeli leadership intended none.
US and Israeli fears of Hamas are probably rational, but not for the reasons usually given, i.e., Hamas is a terrorist group (US), and we are the victims of its attacks (Israel). There is a practical refusal of Bush team leadership to concede that the Palestinians are people with genuine rights and interests, and that their insurgent attacks are attempts to gain US, Israeli and world attention. By dismissing those attacks as "terrorism" US officials choose not to look at reasons or think about talking to the Palestinians. Israeli fears are that Hamas actually articulates and will defend true Palestinian interests. That would mean genuine negotiations, not the prolonged standoff the Israelis have sustained up to now. Thus, the aim of both is to kill or confine the messenger.
That strategy patently will not work. However, there is an alternative.
Do not try to suppress Hamas. It is now the defacto as well as the elected ruler of Gaza.  Make some demands/expectations of it. Enable it to do the best possible job of caring for the people of Gaza. Any other expectation is inhumane. See that it has the resources to do that right. Any other strategy is a continuation of the illegal and inhumane collective punishment.
Ask Hamas to stop the rockets, but don't expect that to happen if Israel does not stop its harassment and murder of Palestinians in Gaza. Therefore, ask the Israelis to join in a genuine bilateral ceasefire. Hamas will probably agree to this more readily than will Israeli leadership, but it is clear that stage one of a Middle East peace cannot be achieved without this ceasefire-on both sides.
Try to get leadership in Gaza and the West Bank on the same page-an overall pursuit of Palestinian long-term interests. That can be done by recognizing the fact of Hamas leadership in Gaza and pushing Fatah leadership in the West Bank to cooperate. This is not about the power of Mahmoud Abbas; it is about the human interests of the Palestinian people.
Stop trying to fight and win the war on terrorism in Gaza. The war is not there, but a million and a half miserable people are being pushed to do desperate things.
Call off the IDF. They are simply too accustomed to shooting first and not asking questions. Their assigned agenda is to keep all Palestinians under pressure. Replace the IDF as soon as possible with a neutral peacekeeping force.
Everybody must recognize and defend the truth that Israeli and Palestinian rights and interests are equal. The battle has gone on for sixty years in an unequal struggle of the Palestinians to survive and for the Zionists to push them out. The idea of two states, living in peace side by side, as articulated by Bush and others, is practically dead. Annapolis launched nothing more than a new holding operation.
There can be only one state in this piece of the Holy Land, and the only question is what kind. Will it be one in which the rights of 4.5 million people (close to half the population of Palestine/Israel) have been systematically extinguished by the Israeli Zionists in the full sight of an uncaring international community? Or will it be a state in which all the people who deserve a place in it are living peacefully together? It is time to face this question squarely. It is time to stop pretending that there is some other Middle East peace process.
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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