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.


While Europe (in consultation with US) is looking to soften the proposed UN resolution on Iran, to accommodate opposition from Russia and China, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert called for dramatic steps to be taken against Iran. Understandably, the Israeli leader’s remarks come in light of repeated anti-Israeli statements by Iranian President Ahmadinejad. The Israeli PM said that inl light of Ahmadinejad’s statements, he is not even ruling out a military strike against Iran.

“I expect significantly more dramatic steps to be taken. Here is a leader who says openly that it is his aim to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a member of the United Nations,” said Olmert.

Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is certainly unacceptable and is intended for a domestic audience in Iran. But the rhetoric must be contextualized; the Iranian President’s statements are made in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Part of the issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the lack of agreement on which territories would go to Palestine if a two-state solution is put forward: Jerusalem holds historically significant sites both for Israelis and Palestinians. So Ahmadinejad is making loud remarks, but he does not mean to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, because in so doing he would be destroying Palestine as well.

This is the reason that Ahmadinejad’s radical anti-Israeli remarks are made domestically and not when Ahmadinejad is exercising diplomacy internationally. The Iranian President’s discourse has, notably, been remarkably different when he traveled to New York to address the UN General Assembly.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made comments today about talks with Hamas hitting “a dead end.” This puts the prospects for peace with Israel in serious jeopardy, as Hamas was instrumental in securing the Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire last week. Without Hamas, Abbas has no true influence in the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian President is either trying to pressure Hamas on something — and Hamas doesn’t believe him, they think he’s bluffing — or he is making the statement for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who is meeting with him and Israeli PM Olmert). It is well known that despite its democratic election in January, the US and other countries do not welcome a political role for Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. For this reason financial aid from the West has been blocked since the election.

It is conceivable that Abbas’ statements are intended for Rice; in the hopes of securing aid, the Palestinian President may be signaling that he is not a pushover and will challenge Hamas when needed. But those kinds of comments can potentially jeopardize whatever momentum the peace process has right now, as it is in the interests of Abbas to have Hamas on his side. Otherwise, the threat to security will not come from without, but from within. And Palestine certainly doesn’t need a civil war.

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.

Abbas to Enforce Truce

November 26, 2006

After the rocket launches into Israel (from 3 to 5 rockets are reported in different sources), Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he’s ordered his security forces to enforce the truce. Troops have reportedly been deployed into Gaza to control the militants.

Ehud Olmert has said Israel will show restraint while the truce comes into effect.

For more, visit BBC’s artciele, “Middle East heads commit to truce”.

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.

Making Democracy Work

November 14, 2006

In a bid to reclaim Western aid, authorities in the Palestine have made steps forward toward a unitary government.

Aid to Israel was cut off when Hamas was elected to the Palestinian government; Israel, Western Countries and the Arab League, all stopped funds transfers to the Palestinian Authority, leaving civil servants without pay and leaving the area economically devastated. The new unitary government is likely to be headed by a scholar, Mohammed Shabir, who is not politically affiliated but is close to Hamas.

Work on establishing a unitary government quickly went ahead after last week’s fatal week which peaked with the bombing at Beit Hanoun in the Gaza strip. The Hamas leadership made it clear that it would give place to a unitary government if that meant getting aid back to Palestine: Israel owes Palestine about $60 million a month, which is collected as a tax.

Over the weekend, the Arab League decided it would recommence fund transfers to the Palestinian Authority as a result of the Beit Hanoun killings of 19 innocent civilians. The real test for the Palestinians, though, is getting Western aid back.

The sad part in all this is that aid was blocked because of a democratically elected faction. Instead of having civil servants working to make the democracy work, the West is only promoting radicalism by leaving those servants without pay. And unwilling or not, the civilian casualties don’t help either, especially with an Israeli Prime Minister who expresses regret only to add that similar incidents “may happen” yet again.

And then, none other than the US vetoes a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israel’s conduct in Beit Hanoun.