Monday, 22 July. 2024
Your Key to Palestine
The Palestinian Initiatives for The Promotoion of Global Dialogue and Democracy

It's hard to imagine a Hamas leader and an American Christian fundamentalist right-winger having much in common, but in the past few weeks a senior figure from each of these polar opposite camps has voiced similar fears about dangerous times ahead in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

First, it was Moussa Abu Marzouk, second in command of the Syrian-based leadership of Hamas, warning that Western attempts to isolate the Palestinian government could trigger a violent third intifada – or uprising – against Israel.

Then, just a few days ago, it was the unlikely turn of Pat Buchanan, former Republican presidential hopeful and founder of the magazine American Conservative, to draw the same worrying conclusion in an article entitled: Steering Into A Third Intifada.

Both men are not alone in their concern. From the tense impoverished refugee camps of Gaza, to the cafés of the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, there are increasing rumblings of disquiet among ordinary Palestinians.

Over rounds of Turkish coffee and Narghile pipe smoking, there is troubling talk about the gathering storm of another intifada brewing against Israeli repression, not to mention the possibility of an all-out civil war among Palestinians themselves.

Those engaged in such discussions have every reason to be worried. Ever since Hamas took office two months ago, after beating Fatah in January elections, there has been an escalating struggle for control of the Palestinian government, the security forces and the Palestinian streets.

In the past few weeks, the atmosphere in the tumbledown alleyways of Gaza has felt like that inside a pressure cooker. Sometimes barely yards apart, rival militiamen from a newly formed Hamas force of 3000 men and those of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah have faced off in gun battles.

While Hamas insisted that their militia were deployed simply as a police force to help curtail the chaos and instability of Gaza, their Fatah rivals accused the Islamists of spearheading a coup d’etat against President Abbas. “This is the spark for Palestinian-on-Palestinian fighting, and from this spark … a civil war will break out,” warned Abdel Aziz Shaheen, a top Fatah official.

Perhaps sensing that the tipping point was fast approaching, Hamas on Friday ordered its gunmen off Gaza’s streets to ease tensions, but stopped short of disbanding the force that it’s Fatah rivals have dubbed the Black Militia.

According to Youssef al-Zahar, one of the militia’s leaders, his men were ordered by the Hamas interior minister Saeed Seyam to withdraw, but “concentrate in certain locations to be ready to rush to the scene when needed to confront chaos”.

By yesterday afternoon, however, there were reports that the Hamas men were already redeploying and tension was again rising.

The brinkmanship was further heightened after President Abbas on Thursday gave Hamas 10 days to back a plan for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, otherwise he would call a referendum on the proposal, effectively going over the government’s head and setting the stage for a potentially lethal showdown.

Predictably, the Hamas-led government said it would not make any political concession that would implicitly acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. After all, the Islamist group has always said that it seeks to destroy Israel, a position that has triggered an international aid boycott and brought the Palestinian Authority economically to its knees. “We will not recognise the legitimacy of the occupation, we will not renounce resistance and we will not recognise unjust [interim peace] agreements,” Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh insisted while speaking at a Gaza mosque on Friday.

Meanwhile, even if the tense Hamas/ Fatah stand-off and the threat of civil war recedes, there is still the growing concern over an eruption of Palestinian anger into another intifada against Israel itself.

If the fuel for the first intifada in the 1980s was the frustration born from the inequities and hopelessness of the Israeli occupation, then what lay behind the second or al-Aqsa intifada in 2000 was the bitterness bred by the protracted Oslo peace process. Its failure to deliver any positive tangible change meant that Palestinians continued to live in what was effectively an apartheid state.

Six years on since the start of that second intifada – which some insist has never ended – little has changed.

Humiliation, grinding poverty, curfews, movement controls, and extra-judicial killings remain part of every- day life for most Palestinians. Their economic plight especially, is dire. Barely 50% of men and one in nine women of working age are in a job.

According to a report released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on Friday, four out of 10 Palestinians in the territories under Israeli military occupation or effective border control are living below the inter national poverty line of $2.10 a day. It’s a situation, says the ILO, that “amounts to a daily affront to human dignity”.

Add to this the continued imposition of Israel’s controversial 420-mile long concrete separation barrier, dubbed the “apartheid wall” by Palestinians, and the sense of suffocation is now reaching critical levels.

Even among Israelis, the term “Hafrada” – separation or apartheid in Hebrew – has entered the mainstream lexicon, despite strident denials by the Jewish state that it is engaged in any such process.

Already Palestinian access to Jerusalem has gone from being infrequent to almost impossible. The building of the barrier alone has left more than 22 Palestinian communities surrounded or stranded from the West Bank and at least four of these without access to any healthcare whatsoever.

While some Palestinians insist that the outbreak of another intifada is just a matter of time, others say that years of war have left people weary of conflict. Just who would lead any renewed uprising should it occur?

And if the Palestinians once again take to the streets en-masse, just how might Israel respond?

For some years now, in tandem with the demise of the Palestinian “old guard” epitomised by the late Yasser Arafat, a new younger generation of militants has come to the fore in the fight against the occupation. While this weekend Hamas and Fatah might be facing off against each other in the streets, within their ranks are fighters who only share a common enemy: Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that Hamas was elected by an over whelming majority of Palestinian citizens. While this might have had as much to do with a protest vote against the cronyism, corruption and political impotency of Arafat’s long-dominant Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, to freeze out Hamas now is also to fly in the face of an already disgruntled people.

An isolated Hamas-led government politically paralysed without economic aid and squeezed out of any negotiating process, could easily become the natural conduit for popular frustration, anger and violence. “We tried the ballot box and where did it get us?” might quickly become the prevailing cry from the street.

Moussa Abu Marzouk, who is second in command of the Hamas leadership and based in Syria, put it quite bluntly in a recent interview. “We will try everything we can to make the government successful and serve the people, but if we’re unable to do it, we’ll go back to before.” This meant, he explained, a return to an intifada “even more violent than in the past”, and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority itself.

Israel, meanwhile, has been drawing up its own go-it-alone contingency plans. With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continuing to insist that his government will not talk with the terrorist Hamas, there is now a convenient pretext for Israel to continue its five-year policy of no negotiation and unilateral action. “We cannot wait for the Palestinians forever,” Olmert told members of the US House of Representatives and Senate gathered in the house chamber in Washington last week during a visit.

If the Palestinians “ignore our outstretched hand for peace,” Olmert said, “Israel will seek other alternatives to promote our future and the prospects of hope in the Middle East.” The problem is that those alternatives almost certainly include repressive measures and border drawing, guaranteed to further stir the cauldron of Palestinian resentment.

While the implications of a Palestinian civil war do not bear thinking about, some Middle East watchers believe that Israel is covering its bets by ensuring that President Abbas and his Fatah party are militarily prepared for any showdown with Hamas.

In the past few weeks, Israel quietly approved an arms transfer to enable Abbas to “contend with Hamas”. “I can’t tell you the exact amount of weapons, but it is a limited amount intended for the purpose of securing Abbas’s ability to protect himself on the backdrop of the important decisions he makes,” said Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official.

Gilad was of course referring to Abbas’s earlier ultimatum to Hamas, in which he raised the notion of a referendum to back a plan for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In light of such moves, Hamas must feel it is being squeezed between a war with Israel and a war with its Palestinian brothers.

For both Hamas and Fatah, the political stakes have never been higher. The pressure grows daily across the Palestinian leadership to ensure that they fulfil the hopes and aspirations of their people, but at the same time not bow to the terms and conditions of their Israeli occupiers. “Let the Palestinian street speak,” threatened Yasser Arafat back in 2000 when the final round of US-sponsored peace talks with Israel collapsed. Shortly afterwards the al-Aqsa intifada spread like wildfire across the occupied territories.

The Palestinian street looks set to speak again. The troubling question is, however, just what is it about to deliver?

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