Israel's offensive against Gaza has put efforts to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict on life support, if not buried them six feet under the ground.
World leaders, gathered in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh on Sunday to discuss the aftermath of the Gaza war, drove yet another nail into the coffin of the peace process. They focused on ending the smuggling of arms into Gaza, a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the strip, the opening of all border crossings into Gaza and the urgent need for humanitarian aid and assistance in reconstruction. And they paid lip service to the peace process. But virtually none of the leaders, not even Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, addressed the core problem head on as seen by Palestinians and Arabs: Israel's occupation of lands designated to be part of a Palestinian state.
For many Palestinians and ordinary Arabs it will be hard to fathom that what they see as the root of the problem goes unmentioned at such a gathering less than 24 hours after a three-week war in which Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip with its military force, killed 1,300 people, many of whom were innocent men, women and children and destroyed its already feeble infrastructure. Adding insult to injury, European leaders congregated in Jerusalem immediately after the Sharm el Sheikh summit to again focus on humanitarian issues and the prevention of smuggling rather than on the fundamentals that fuel the cycle of violence. They also failed to note that reconstruction of Gaza will demand not only significant international assistance but will also have to involve a reversal of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that have effectively stymied economic development.
Palestinians and ordinary Arabs are likely to conclude from the meetings in Sharm el Sheikh and Jerusalem that they have little to expect from peace efforts fostered by an international community that was unable because of unwillingness by major powers, foremost among whom the United States, to impose an end to the fighting and in its aftermath shies away from addressing core issues. That perception will be reinforced by the fact that 48 hours before his inauguration and despite the carnage in Gaza, US President-elect Barack Obama has yet to publicly identify key members of his Middle East policy team. Obama said this weekend he would do so "very early on in the administration." Some analysts suggest that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to sound out Middle Eastern leaders before enunciating a clear policy.
The palpable sense of despair and disgust in the Middle East puts pressure on pro-American Arab leaders to bridge the gap between their adherence to a peace process aimed at establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel and widespread popular perception that peace is a pipe dream and that the ceasefire in Gaza merely allows the parties to catch their breath before the next round of death and destruction. Public opinion in most Arab countries appears to favors Hamas. "That's what is important to watch: whether Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia modify their positions towards Hamas. If they do, that would be a major indication that Hamas is 'winning,' says a blogger on Arab Media Shack
For world leaders as well as Hamas and Israel, the immediate focus is on restoring a resemblance of normal life to Gaza. But even that threatens to be thwarted by politics and could be mired in renewed bloodshed. Beyond the fact, that the silencing of the guns as the result of two separate, unilaterally declared ceasefires, one by Israel, the other by Hamas, constitutes a very shaky basis on which to build an edifice, Hamas' future may be less bright than most analysts predict. For the time being, its victory is rooted in its ability to have largely, physically survived the Israeli onslaught and its basking in the aura of its resistance.
Little so far is known whether Hamas truly put up a fight in the ground war beyond firing its primitive rockets into southern Israel. What is probable however is that more Palestinians in Gaza than meets the eyes were during the war willing to pass reliable information to Israel, which would account for Israel's ability to locate and kill three of Hamas' top leaders. "We used to hear these slogans of how strong our resistance is. I believed the slogans. But when the war started, nothing happened. I live in an area close to the border with Israel. I used to see hundreds of Hamas and other factions' gunmen waiting for Israeli troops who might storm Gaza. But, since the first day of the war, none of them appeared. And Hamas still talks about a resistance that did nothing to protect our people," 37-year old civil servant Ahmed Tawfiq was quoted by The Observer as saying.
Hamas needs to cement its claim to victory with tangible results such as the Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza, lifting of the Israeli siege and the opening of the crossing into the strip. If it fails to do so, it is likely to be challenged by more militant Palestinian groups advocating increased violence against Israel and greater links between the global jihadi movement and the Palestinian resistance, which even in its Islamic guise, has focused until now on nationalist goals.
Hamas' unilateral ceasefire is conditional on Israel withdrawing its troops from Gaza within a week. It reserves the right to resume armed resistance if Israel maintains its presence in the strip. Reports from Gaza at the time of this writing say Israeli troops have begun to redeploy. Israel nonetheless insists that it is holding its fire rather than ending its military operation to see whether Hamas and other Palestinian groups are bent on continued military confrontation or will concentrate on badly needed humanitarian and economic reconstruction.
While humanitarian aid is already pouring in, reconstruction is likely to be dependent on progress in efforts to put Palestinians and Israelis on a course towards peace. To nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution, confidence building measures will be needed that go far beyond the terms of a ceasefire that ensures a continued cessation of violence. Israelis will have to signal that they are willing to enable to Palestinians to rebuild their lives and pursue the goals of happiness and prosperity their Jewish neighbors enjoy. "The world community should discourage Israel from enacting further restrictions on Palestinians that will prevent them from working inside of Israel. This has…further transformed Gaza and the West Bank into Bantustans, confining a population which used to work inside of Israel. An economic and developmental solution needs the input of all parties, in addition to the political/military situation, so that Palestinians do not live in closed areas devoid of sufficient employment, or food and goods…," says a US Army Strategic Studies Institute report published on the eve of the Israeli offensive.
As Hamas emerges strengthened from the Gaza war, efforts to reconcile the Islamists with President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestine Authority will likely see Palestinian attitudes towards peace stiffen. Already, Hamas no longer talks about a 10-year truce with Israel that would give both Israelis and Palestinians an economic stake in living and let live. Instead, they are best willing to see the unilateral silencing of the guns extend into an agreed ceasefire for a period of a year. "Not for the first time, we have a ceasefire with no understandings underpinning it…. We are back to where we were when the (Israel Hamas) ceasefire collapsed (in December) … The uncompromising war opens a new strategic chapter. The politics that will emerge from this will be equally uncompromising," Alastair Crook, a former negotiator with Hamas on behalf of the European Union and ex-British intelligence official, said on Al Jazeera.
Mouin Rabbani, a contributor to Middle East Report, listened live on Al Jazeera to the speeches of world leaders in Sharm el Sheikh, figuratively tearing his hair out. "I'm speechless that you can have in 2009 an international conference on the Israeli Pal conflict and the word occupation is not mentioned once…. This war, perhaps more than any other event in the last decade, has transformed peace into a dirty word and negotiations into an even dirtier word. Resistance that was a dirty word is now the word and concept on the lips of people in the region. … Most Palestinians believe a two state settlement is the most realistic path to national self determination. The problem is that since 1993 the peace process has nailed one nail after another in the coffin primarily through the Israeli colonization process. It is practically impossible for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. So, on the one hand you no longer have a two state solution and on other hand don't have an alternative. I don't think a one -state bi-national solution is on the horizon in our life time. The prospect is increased and eventually existential conflict," Rabbani said.
If hopes for a negotiated two-state solution were fading already prior to the Israeli offensive, Palestinians across the political spectrum express post-war predictions of doom and gloom. "Palestinians will continue to suffer and bleed," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society. That perception is likely to be strengthened in Gaza in the coming days as the death toll rises with the discovery of more bodies under the rubble and Gazans confront the devastation of their homes. "Israel started the war against Palestinians. They imposed sanctions on Palestinians. Hamas demands the world just leave the siege and break the blockade on Palestinians by opening the curtains. Hamas spent a long time helping the Palestinian people here and worked for its interests. Hamas has the authority and the legitimacy to rule Gaza. I don't think the war affected Hamas that much. They destroyed everything, but Hamas is still there. Hamas will show its power when the war is over," 38-year old bookshop owner Wael Abed Latef told The Observer.
Throughout the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Palestinian determination to achieve independence was reinforced by the way Arab countries treated refugees and an Arab failure to match rhetoric with deeds. This round in the conflict may prove no different. Palestinians being deported after having been arrested and abused in Egypt in conversation with veteran Arabic-speaking CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman expressed anger at Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders as well as the United States for supplying Israel with the weapons employed against them as they returned by bus from Egypt to Gaza. “I’m surprised at how buoyant people are given the circumstances. Talking to them, I find morale high and an overall sense of defiance. At one point I saw a young boy on a donkey cart, unaware I was observing him. As an Israeli jet passed overhead, he shook a fist at the sky,” said Wedeman, one of the vast majority of journalists who was prevented by Israel and Egypt from entering Gaza until now, describing his first impressions of Gaza.
The widespread anger and despair enhances the Obama's initial statements on and moves in the Middle East. The president-elect has so far said little beyond the fact that he intends to engage in the early days of his administration, sees the need to tackle problems across the region from Pakistan to Palestine in an integrated fashion and feels the generally accepted outline of an Israeli Palestinian settlement based on a two-state solution is the way forward. For Obama to have a chance of reviving a peace process that would have any credibility, he will have to signal his willingness to be far more sensitive to Palestinian aspirations and concerns while remaining committed to Israeli security. Palestinians and Arabs will monitor his early statements closely for indications that he will take Israel to task on the issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and willing to seek to draw credible representatives such as Hamas into the process. "The man in the street will no longer accept the status quo," Abdul Hadi says.
The US Army study effectively argues that the very assumptions are flawed on which past Middle East peacemaking attempts were based. The study takes particular aim at the Israeli and US demand that Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas, must recognize Israel first before they can be included in the peace process. Implicitly it also suggests that peacemakers may have to lower their sights by seeking to achieve a long-term Israeli Palestinian truce rather than a full fledged peace agreement in the expectation that a prolonged period of quiet and economic develop eventually can be morphed into definitive peace.
A sudden reversal of policy along the lines suggested by the study would damage Obama domestically and jeopardize his role as a broker. However the study does provide an analytical context for subtle suggestions by several former US officials believed to be candidates for Obama's Middle East policy team that the president-elect may cautiously explore ways of engaging Hamas. One suggestion is that he may allow the Central Intelligence Agency to engage in quiet exploratory diplomacy which could rekindle Arab and Palestinian hope for a long-term arrangement that would guarantee Israeli security and allow for the emergence of a viable and independent state.
The report notes that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel and that the Palestine Authority was willing to bargain for a state in less than the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and yet "it is not clear that Israel has ever agreed to accept a Palestinian state." The study argues that recognition of Israel by Hamas as it is described in the Western media, cannot serve as a formula for peace. Hamas moderates have, however, signaled that the group implicitly recognizes Israel, and that even a tahdiya (calming, minor truce) or a hudna, a longer-term truce, obviously implies recognition." The report quotes Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal states as saying: "We are realists … There is an entity called Israel (but) realism does not mean that you have to recognize the legitimacy of the occupation. … I am concerned with the establishment of my state. … The movement (Hamas) accepts a state within the 1967 borders and a truce."
The report, which anticipated the Israeli attack, blames Israel's refusal to engage Hamas following its 2006 electoral victory in polling that was universally judged to be free and fair for the failure of the peace process. "The viability of a two-state solution rested on an Israeli acknowledgement of the Islamist movement, Hamas, and on Fatah's ceding power to it," the report says. "Hamas' political and strategic development has been both ignored and misreported in Israeli and Western sources which villainize the group, much as the PLO was once characterized as an anti-Semitic terrorist group… Israel claimed significant victories in its war against Palestinians by the use of targeted killings of leadership, boycotts, power cuts, preemptive attacks and detentions, and punishments to militant's families, relatives, and neighborhoods etc., because its counterterrorism logic is to reduce insurgents' organizational capability. This particular type of Israeli analysis rejects the idea that counterterrorist violence can spark more resistance and violence… Negotiating solely with the weaker Palestinian party—Fatah (the Palestinian group dominating the Palestine Authority)—cannot deliver the security Israel requires. This may lead Israel to re-conquer the Gaza Strip or the West Bank and continue engaging in 'preemptive deterrence' or attacks on other states in the region in the longer term," the report warns.
For a revival of the moribund peace process, the Palestinians will have to play their part. More important than whatever declarations they make with regard to Israel is their ability to bridge the gap between the Palestine Authority and Hamas to form a united front. "The way out of the crisis is a Palestinian united Front. … We need our independent state in the occupied territories. For that the united front is vital," Fatah parliament member Abdullah Abdullah told Al Jazeera. Hamas spokesman have echoed the need for Palestinian unity. The question is on what terms the Palestinians will come together. They are likely to be far stiffer than the basis on which the Palestine Authority negotiated with Israel and could include terms of reference for resistance against Israel, and possibly the United States.