Late Saturday night Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) held his first meeting with Ariel Sharon as Palestinian Authority prime minister in an effort to extract “clear and public Israeli approval of the roadmap”, the latest diplomatic plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Starting two hours before and ending 46 hours after, five Palestinian suicide bombers killed 10 Israeli Jews, one Israeli Palestinian and a Palestinian refugee in separate attacks in Hebron, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Afula. The new era was snuffed out like a candle in a gale.
Hamas claimed four of the bombings. The fifth, in Afula on Monday, was a joint operation undertaken by Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades. The Fatah militia recruited Hiba Daragmah in Toubas village in the northern West Bank; Jihad supplied her with explosives and videoed her
last will and testament. She was 19 years old, much the same age as those who killed themselves in Hebron, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
Hamas denied the attacks had any connection with the meeting. They were simply the “continuation of Palestinian resistance to occupation … acted in the name of all Palestinian people”, said Hamas political leader Aziz Rantisi. The disclaimer was utterly disingenuous.
Abbas’s accession to the premiership has yet to make slightest dent in Israel’s military solutions in the West Bank and Gaza. For example: on 15 May the Israeli army invaded Beit Hanoun for the seventh time in 32 months in a futile attempt to staunch the firing of mortars from the northern Gaza village. Over the next five days eight Palestinians were killed, 150 Palestinian families forced to leave their homes, 15 Palestinian houses dynamited, electricity and sewage systems wantonly ripped up and acres of farmland razed.
The deliberate, collective destruction was compounded by a blockade that not only bars Palestinians from doing their work in Israel but also diplomats, journalists and UN-aid workers from doing theirs in Gaza, an ominous precedent given that two thirds of Gaza’s one million Palestinians are dependent on UN services.
But few Palestinians saw the suicide attacks as simply retaliatory. Since the roadmap was released last month Hamas and other opposition factions have denounced it as a ruse to “liquidate” the Palestinian cause. They have also warned the PA not even to think about arresting their militias or to resume Oslo-like security cooperation with the Israeli army. The attacks are thus deterrence, reflecting the new balance of power in the Palestinian political arena and realised less in an open confrontation with the PA than via the proxy of suicide bombings against Israelis.
Abbas appears to have got the message, aware that the PA has neither the capacity nor the legitimacy to take on the militias by force. Backed by Egypt, the EU, Yasser Arafat and most of Fatah’s middle-ranking political leadership, he is instead trying to rally the factions behind a unilateral Palestinian cease-fire. Hamas has said it could accept a mutual truce in return for Israeli guarantees to end assassinations of its cadres and release of prisoners. It has ruled out disarmament.
Sharon accepts the former only as a path to the latter. At the meeting with Abbas he said Israel would withdraw from Beit Hanoun and other parts of Gaza in return for a one-month Palestinian cease-fire, but only on condition that the PA use the respite to plan and then mount “a real war against terror”. Nor did he give any assurances that Israel would not re-invade should the mortars continue to fire.
Abbas and his new Security Minister Mohamed Dahlan, said the PA would need anywhere between three months to a year to rehabilitate its police forces. And that rehabilitation was impossible without the ‘political cover’ of Israel’s clear acceptance of the roadmap as written. Sharon said this was difficult due to the “internal constraints” imposed by his government. What about our “internal constraints”, answered Abbas and Dahlan.
On 20 May Israel’s tanks left Beit Hanoun and its Palestinian residents emerged from their enforced internment. In instinctive protest several hundred of them burned tyres and built rock barricades, outraged as much at the militiamen who use their lands to fire their largely useless mortars as at the occupying army that then destroys their livelihoods in an unsparing, blanket and illegal reprisal.
The protest showed what polls increasingly confirm. There is now a majority — if passive — Palestinian constituency behind Abbas’s attempts to trade the attrition of the Intifada for the relief offered by negotiations. Many of Fatah’s political cadres are also ready to renounce the gun in return for an Israeli withdrawal and genuine Palestinian reform, including new Palestinian elections. Opposed by both Fatah and public opinion, many Palestinian analysts believe Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be sensitive to any new Palestinian mood that believes there must be other ways to liberate their land than through its destruction.
But all are aware that the mood cannot be translated into political action as long as the incursions, closures, house demolitions, assassinations, the ongoing Israeli destruction, continues.
By Graham Usher
Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)
May 23, 2003 Issue