Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Palestine: singing songs of peace

by Johann Hari

The enemies of the Palestinian people have been presenting the political chaos of the past week as evidence that they are premodern savages, capable only of building a Mogadishu on the Mediterranean. But last Wednesday afternoon, the real voice of the Palestinian people echoed out, for a fleeting moment.

Thousands of protesters - mostly women - took to the streets. They called not for sharia law or Qassam rockets against Israeli cities, but for peace. Amal Hellis, a 35-year-old mother-of-two, said: “I am not afraid. I will die to save my family and to save Palestine.” Her eldest son Medhat is a member of Fatah; her youngest son Refaat belongs to Hamas. When the marchers reached the Al Ghifary tower near the beachfront, they were fired on by gunmen - but they did not run away. The old women and their granddaughters stood in the crossfire, waving Palestinian flags and singing Give Peace A Chance.

Hamas gunmen fired from above; Fatah fighters threatened them on the ground. The women surrounded the Fatah man, forcing him with nothing but plain moral pressure to lower his rifle. Only when one of the protesters was caught in the chest by a sniper did they finally disperse.

These protesters speak for a majority of Palestinians. In the most recent poll of them conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 63 per cent supported full recognition of Israel in return for a proper Palestinian state. These supporters of a negotiated peace include, crucially, a majority of Hamas supporters.
This means there is actually a bigger pro-peace constituency in Palestine than in Israel, where Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharanot polling just found that 58 per cent of Israelis now reject the idea of trading land for peace, because they think the Palestinians are irrevocably committed to destroying them.

The current crackle of civil war is not evidence that the Palestinians are incapable of self-government. It is evidence of what happens to human beings when they are rammed into a pressure-cooker and the temperature is slowly ramped up.

In this situation, any people, anywhere, would begin to turn on each other. As the Palestinian foreign minister Ziad Abu Amr puts it: “If you have two brothers put into a cage and deprive them of the basic essential needs for life, they will fight.” On top of this, the outside world has actually discouraged and humiliated the Palestinians moderates. When he took charge in 2005, the Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas made it plain he would offer huge compromises to Israel in return for a state. Ariel Sharon offered him a few lifted roadblocks in return. The message to the Palestinians was clear: electing pragmatists will get you nothing. So the next year, in desperation they elected Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation whose constitution includes statements from the anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It must be acknowledged that upon election, Hamas leaders undeniably behaved in a pragmatic way. They did not start introducing the sharia law, or oppressing women. Instead, they observed the unilateral truce with Israel. They offered a hudna (ceasefire) that would last a generation. They gave up staging suicide-murders against Israeli civilians. They even said they would respect all previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority - a de facto concession that they would recognise Israel.

And in return? They received nothing but abuse and a determined attempt to dislodge them from power, by boycott and, more slowly, by bullet.

The US and Israel began arming an especially authoritarian wing of Fatah, headed by Mohammed Dahlan, with the plain intention of him toppling Hamas sooner or later. The Washington-based architect of this policy is Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrahms, a man who in the 1980s illegally armed the openly fascist Contra militias in an attempt to topple the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He was eventually jailed for his crimes. By denying them power through a legitimate election, and arming their enemies for a future liquidation, they virtually guaranteed Hamas would seize power.

Why is the Israeli government doing this? There are a range of possible explanations. One, associated with former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and current Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is the belief that the Palestinians will only compromise once they have been totally defeated by overwhelming force. They reckon that if the Palestinians are throttled for long enough, sooner or later they will cower, beg for mercy, and accept Israeli terms.

The next, and more disturbing, explanation is that the Israeli government may be deliberately thwarting potential peace partners.

There is still a way out of this. Israel must negotiate with Hamas. They are offering a long, long ceasefire. The Arab states are even - in a startling offer from Saudi Arabia - offering full recognition and normalisation of Israel in the region, if only Israel returns to its legal borders. Perhaps they are lying. Perhaps it is a trick. But it is the only gameplan in town that offers even the chance of a happy ending.

But Israel seems determined not to take this chance. Ehud Barak, the ex-PM back as Defence Minister, is briefing that he will bomb Gaza yet again, and within weeks. He is proposing to actually intensify the blockade of the Gaza Strip for a few weeks, to “pressure” Hamas.

The Israeli government is clinging to the belief that the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer their leaders will become. This mentality created the current collapse. It will only drag the Middle East further and further away from the sane voices of women such as Amal Hellis, singing songs of peace.

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