Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lessons Not Learnt

Ten-year old Mahdi al Dajani like his brother Ahmed, his mother and his grandmother sits glued to the television in Cairo watching events in Gaza unfold. "These scenes make me very sad and angry… I don't blame Hamas. I encourage Hamas to do more. I'm pro-resistance and martyrdom operations. Sometimes I feel this is what I want to do when I grow up," Mahdi tells a reporter of The National. "The more the Israelis strike, the more the victims, the more we love resistance. We have to resist by our minds, souls and bodies," adds Ahmed who attends a British international school in Cairo.

Those are stark words for two kids born and raised in Egypt who have never set foot in Palestine. Knowing who their grandfather was makes his grandson's views even starker. Ahmed Sidki Dajani was a soft-spoken historian, writer, diplomat, human rights campaigner and co-founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization who died in 2003. Within the PLO, a coalition of nationalist Palestinian guerrilla groups, some of them stooges of radical Arab states, Dajani cut an elegant and intellectual figure. More importantly, he was in the 1970s an early advocate of Palestinians abandoning their dream of a 'secular democratic state in all of Palestine' that would replace the State of Israel and incorporate the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Instead, he argued for a two-state solution long before that was a concept to which Israel, a majority of Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community paid lip service. At the time, he was one of several PLO officials who risked their lives to meet with the only Israelis, left-wing doves on the fringe of Israeli politics, in the hope this would persuade Israeli and US public opinion to support what was then a controversial utopia.

The worldview of Dajani's grandsons paints a micro picture of the likely outcome of Israel's military effort to bring Hamas to its knees. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, two years ago, Hamas will probably emerge from the fighting temporarily wounded but intact, politically strengthened and capable of hitting Israel. Their worldview is as much formed by the militant nationalism of their parents and grandparents as it is by graphic pictures of destruction and death beamed into their Cairo home 24 hours a day. They highlight a lesson Israel has failed to learn in more than 40 years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza: using its vast military power to military and civilian infrastructure in a bid to convince Palestinians that coming to the negotiating table on Israel's terms has only led to Palestinians regrouping, becoming politically more determined and willing to use whatever violent means they have at their disposal to fight Israel. Similarly, Israeli attempts to position groups as it viewed as moderate or at least less nationalistic as viable counterparts have consistently failed.

Forty years ago almost to the day, Israeli commandos raided Beirut airport, blowing up 13 jets of Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The raid, in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an El Al airliner in Athens, was designed to persuade Arab nations to crack down on the emerging Palestinian guerrilla movement. Jordanian King Hussein acted two years later, expelling in a bloody civil war Yasser Arafat and his PLO, including Ahmad Sidki Dajani, to Lebanon from where Palestinians struck at Israel with even greater furor. Israel responded initially by destroying the infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza of Al Fatah, the largest guerrilla group within the PLO led by Arafat, whose heirs today control the Palestine Authority. Ironically, to counter the PLO's nationalism, Israel tacitly supported and gave financial aid to Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which endorsed armed resistance to Israel but initially on building a social, religious, educational and cultural infrastructure to ease the hardship of Palestinian refugees, confined to sprawling refugee camps.

Over time, emboldened by the vacuum left by the pounding of the PLO in the occupied territories and criticism of complacency and corruption within nationalist Palestinian ranks, Hamas' social influence translated into political power. The Islamist victory with the toppling in 1979 of the Shah of Iran, a pillar of American influence in the region, and the emergence of Hezbollah as a fighting force in Lebanon enhanced that power. Whether by default or by design, Israeli support for Hamas set a tone that has overshadowed Middle East peace efforts ever since: actions by Israeli hawks and Palestinian hardliners often serve each other's purpose, the prevention of a peace process involving significant compromise. If anything, Israel's hard line and the lack of progress in the peace process has undermined more moderate groups, strengthening Hamas and leading to more radical spin-offs like the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Imposed hardship and suffering like the checkpoints on the West Bank and the siege of Gaza have created a pool of recruits for Hamas and other Islamist groups. In a region of authoritarian regimes that over decades have done little to improve lives and resolve national issues, Islamists have emerged as one of the few, if not the only, credible force on domestic fronts as well as in confronting Israel. All of this is reflected in the Gaza crisis in which it's Hamas confronting Israel and the Islamists on the streets of Arab capitals demanding support for the Palestinians while Arab governments are so divided that they are reduced to issuing statements and sending humanitarian aid. Islamists may not be the people one really wants as a counterpart, the facts on the ground are that Israeli, Arab and Western policies have made them a force across the Middle East that no longer can be ignored.

Fear and distrust are the most irrational human emotions; they govern the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the equation. Israel indeed withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But against the backdrop of Israel and the international community's refusal to recognize free and fair elections that brought Hamas to power, the siege of Gaza and the lack of progress in efforts to end the conflict what Palestinians recall are the words prior to Hamas' election victory of Dov Weisglass, a senior advisor to than Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referring to the Israeli withdrawal: : "The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

Implicit in the discussion of Hamas as in debates about Islamists in general is the notion of immutability: Inspired by religious fervor, Islamist groups unlike other political entities are immune to political circumstance, inflexible and incapable of change. The opposite is true. Hamas last week did not reject extension of the ceasefire unconditionally, it demanded that Israel lift the siege of Gaza and accept a ceasefire on the West Bank too as conditions for continuing the truce. Hamas, says the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency has "recognized (that their) ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future…. they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967 and are e aware that this means they "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" towards a long-term peace based on compromise... Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas."

A majority of Palestinians and Israelis favor territorial compromise, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, a notion first championed 30 years ago by a minority on both sides of the divide. This is a political reality that Hamas has been forced to acknowledge even if its commitment to a two-state solution is weak. Hamas has acknowledged that in different ways. In the years between 1993 and 1997 during the failed Oslo peace process, Hamas denounced the Palestine Authority's engagement with Israel, but did nothing on the ground to obstruct it. In effect, it has accepted the possible emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by proposing a 10-year truce provided that it would not compromise the Palestinian rights with regard to Jerusalem, refugee issues and freedom of political action.

Back in 1997, when the Palestine National Council met in Cairo to kick start the PLO's torturous 11-year road towards abandoning its goal of a secular democratic state in favor of a two-state solution, radical Palestinian guerrilla leader George Habash rejected the initiative saying: "if I today accept this as a tactic, tomorrow it will be my strategy." His words were echoed on the eve of the Israeli strikes against Gaza by Abu Qatada, the radical Islamic cleric who is widely viewed as Al Qaeda's spokesman in Europe, in an interview published on the Shumukh forum on the Internet. "I love the Muslim Brotherhood when it is oppressed because it focuses on education and jihad. But when it is allowed greater freedom, it loses motivation and becomes a pragmatic political party. Hamas is a good case in point. Look at its recent decision not to declare itself an Islamic emirate like the Taliban, " Abu Qatada said.

The lesson of 41 years of Israeli occupation and control of Palestinian lands is that confrontation only serves to exacerbate the conflict and radicalize the parties. The risk is that what a brave band of Palestinian and Israeli moderates started 30 years ago and with international and regional endorsement has become a common good, a two-state solution with a Palestinian state established alongside Israel, may be lost and the region will be returned to square one. Says journalist Nir Rosen in an emotional criticism of Israel: "Land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two-state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully move towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, a la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?"

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