Abbas’ tricky timing

December 17, 2006

This weekend Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has called early elections, in the hope of stabilizing the mounting violence in Gaza. Despite PM Haneya’s rejection of the election, a ceasefire between Hamas and Fatah forces has been announced.

It remains to be seen if fighting will subdue on Monday.

Abbas has said that he had no choice but to call the election, with a failure to form a unity government with Fatah rival Hamas. The Palestinian President is thus hoping to gain Fatah advances in parliament by taking away seats from Hamas. However, the move is not without its risks as Hamas continues to enjoy support in the Palestinian Authority.

The stakes are high for Abbas; if Hamas wins parliament again, it will be another vote of confidence for Abbas’ political foes. If this occurs, it can lead to even more political instability as it will be hard to accuse Hamas of being non-democratic. It may also lead to a Hamas presidency.

Abbas’ move also puts Israeli-Palestinian talks in jeopardy, as whatever he and Israeli PM Olmert agree on, may be invalidated if a power shift occurs in the Palestinian area. In that sense, the election call is somewhat ill-timed as Abbas and Olmert are in the process of talking about a two-state solution, with Prime Minister Blair currently visiting Israel to meet with the two leaders.

If a ceasefire is possible under an election call undesired by Hamas, then it would have been possible without elections. This makes Abbas election call questionable, as it’s not clear what the Palestinian President is trying to achieve. Also, while Hamas does not support the idea of recognizing Israel as a state — because Israel refuses to do the same for the Palestinians — it may change its position if the right conditions are agreed upon by Abbas and Olmert. And if divisions between Fatah and Hamas persist, a referendum could be held instead of elections, because the future of the Palestinian state should not be about rival factions.

The positive about the election call is that in this crucial time for the future of the Palestinian territories, there will be a platform for public dialogue with Hamas and Fatah making their positions clear to the Palestinian people.


Ceasefire by Casualties

If the ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants holds, then it will be due to the success of Israeli Foreign Policy in the last few months.

The fervent attacks by Israeli Defense Forces on militant bases in Gaza and the civilian casualties that they caused have proven an effective incentive for the establishment of a truce. After Palestinian women were shot at, after 13 members of the same family were killed in the notorious Beit Hanoun incident, and after Israel failed to respond to international criticism, a truce was announced Saturday night by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

With the US, its closest ally, yielding veto power in the United Nations Security Council, the Israeli government is capable of questionable actions. In fact, the Beit Hanoun shelling drew criticism from the UN Security Council which considered a resolution against Israel. Without surprise, the US vetoed that resolution. The fact that the incident left 19 civilian casualties dead (as well as numbers of wounded), was not enough to merit criticism from the US. Instead, Ambassador John Bolton spoke of an inherent anti-Israeli bias in the United Nations.

The announcement Saturday, and the enforcement of the ceasefire on Sunday, is the result of relentless Israeli efforts to force Palestinian militants to give up their fight. They haven’t. But they have obviously felt it was in the best interest of fellow Gaza citizens that they stop their ineffectual campaign of bombing Israel with Qassam rockets. After all, the Qassam rockets lack precision and rarely hit their targets. They also leave few civilian casualties, because they usually hit non-populated areas. It simply became an unsustainable policy, with countless civilian casualties in the Palestinian Areas and the continuing occupation by Israeli Forces.

While the civilian casualties were never intended by Israel — Beit Hanoun was caused by a “technical failure,” and Israel regularly phones ten minutes before a bombing to wan civilians — they have been in Israel’s favor. The shooting at civilian women who were shielding militants at a mosque, played into the hands of Israel; it made clear that Israel would not be deterred from targeting militants, even if it meant civilian casualties. That incident occurred a few days before Beit Hanoun, which confirmed the reality of Israel’s policy, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed regret over the incident stopping short of apologizing.

Israeli Restraint

Whenever he faced criticism over Israel’s policy this fall, Olmert has responded with the argument that Israel cannot stand silent while Palestinian militants are bombing Israel. On Sunday, however, Israel did not respond to the several rockets which were launched into Israel upon the commencement of the truce. Olmert invoked Israel’s ability to show restraint, because Israel’s mission was already accomplished. There had been enough civilian casualties to convince Fatah and Hamas to work together in reigning in militant groups.

In fact, Fatah and Hamas began talks immediately after Beit Hanoun to try and come to a unitary government.

This success of Israeli foreign policy comes at a needed time. After the failure of the Lebanon campaign this summer — Hezbollah was armed too well and actually fought back — Israel needed something to reaffirm its influence.

It got that with the Palestinian Occupied territories, by successfully forcing a ceasefire. But it couldn’t do it without unquestionable US support. And innocent Palestinian deaths.

Rockets from Palestine

November 26, 2006

It looks like the ceasefire goes against the interests of someone in Gaza, as five Qassam rockets were fired after the ceasefire in Israel went into effect.

The rockets fired, after the commencement of Israeli troops withdrawal from Gaza, is an open provocation. The firings were not mistakes, as they happened over intervals a few hours — the first one was fired shortly after 6AM, and another one came around 8AM.

According to Palestinian Authority spokesperson Ghazi Hamed, all militant groups in Gaza had agreed to the ceasefire. The spokesperson conceded that the rocket launches were a “blatant violation” of the ceasefire.

If Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas are not able to quickly reign in the violators, Israeli troops will be back in Gaza. Defense Minister Peretz has already warned of severe consequences. In fact, Palestinian officials must now deal with the problem publicly, even if it means arresting someone.

It has always been the concern of the international community and Israel that someone like Abbas would not be able to control all groups when such a ceasefire was needed, which is why Hamas’ election and cooperation was seen as a welcome sign by some, because of the influence the group yields.

Ceasefire from Palestinians

November 25, 2006

Mahmoud Abbas announced that Palestinian militants will stop firing rockets into Israel on Sunday. The announcement comes after Hamas leader Mashaal gave the international community six months to reach “real political horizons.”

The consequent announcement by Abbas signals a cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, as well as underlines Hamas’ influence.

It is also reason for concern: if a peace deal is not close to completion at the end of May 2007, Hamas may exercise its threat of initiating a third intifada.

Israel has accepted the ceasefire and has promised to end its violence if the Palestinians go ahead with their promise. The ceasefire goes into effect Sunday morning.

Six Months or Intifada Three

November 25, 2006

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has given the international community six months to reach “real political horizons.” Those horizons are to return Palestine to the pre-1967 War borders.

This is the needed support for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas to go into negotiations knowing that his efforts will not be short-circuited by Hamas, an influential political group which also won electoral office in the Palestinian Authority. It is also a needed signal that violence will not get out of control, considering the ongoing Israeli air strikes of the occupied territories and the Qassam rocket launches into Israel. It once again reaffirms Hamas’ willingness to operate within diplomatic confines.

However, the statement does come with a deadline; if it is not respected, Mashaal warns of a third Intifada. This means that while Hamas’ response to the ongoing fighting in and around Gaza will be measured for now, a full offensive from Hamas and its allies is likely if there is no progress on the peace talks in six months.

Hamas publicized its intentions of acting from within the political system when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister in Israel. At the time, the then Israeli Prime Minister made his own overtures to the Palestinians signaling his desire to reach a peace deal. Since, the situation has deteriorated with current Prime Minister Olmert’s stay in office; since July, his government has proceeded with several acts of preventative violence in Gaza and Lebanon.

Israel is apparently preparing for a significant confrontation in Gaza; the head of the Israeli spy service, Yuval Diskin, has said that unless moderate factions in the Palestinian occupied territories get stronger, Israel will have to target the radical (read: Hamas) factions by force. According to the spy head, thirty tons of arms, munitions and explosives have been stockpiled in Gaza. Consequently, Israel will be allowing the Badr Brigade, which is faithful to Fatah, to enter Gaza from Jordan. The hope is that this way Fatah will get the necessary influence to phase out the democratically-elected Hamas.

Israel’s issue with Hamas is obviously its terrorist past; Israeli officials are having trouble believing that Hamas can truly commit to democracy over violence. Unfortunately, the new government is not getting much of a chance, with fund transfers to the Palestinian Authority being suspended immediately upon Hamas’ election, leaving civil servants without pay. The other issue is Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel. It makes sense for Israel to be upset, it would seem, but Hamas has a bit of a point; Palestine is not recognized as a state yet, and it makes no sense for the Palestinians to give up the only bargaining chip they have left until Israel is ready to recognize a Palestinian state.

Furthermore, Hamas is not denying Israel’s right to exist, implicitly recognizing it. Zee News quotes Hamas’ Mussa Abu Marzuk saying, “The question of recognizing Israel is an unprecedented one on the international level. It was not asked from the two Germanys to recognize each other, while the whole world recognized them.” There’s no denial there.