It is sometimes tempting to read the news coming out of Palestine and regard it simply as more of the same. Nonetheless, there are significant developments over time, which need to be considered. The latest of these is a renewed effort by the US and international bodies to promote Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party as the Palestinians’ true leaders and real representatives.
The last month has seen an escalation of Israeli military operations against Palestinians in Ghazzah. By late October, the number of Palestinians killed and injured since July had reached almost 300, most of them civilians. (Two Israeli soldiers have been killed in Ghazzah during the same period.) As in previous months, these operations have been characterised by daily and nightly air and ground attacks on different towns and villages across the Ghazzah Strip, terrorising civilians, destroying homes and infrastructure. Where previously the Israelis had justified their attacks as being on known militants, this threshold has recently been lowered to “supporters of Hamas”. This was the reason given for the bombing of the home of Um Nidal Farhat, a Ghazzah member of the Palestinian parliament, three of whose sons were martyred during the al-Aqsa intifada. A number of other homes have been targeted on the same grounds.
There are a number of parallels between the attack on Ghazzah and Israel’s attack on Lebanon in July and August. As in Lebanon (see p. 14), Israel is also believed to be using new, experimental weapons in Ghazzah, in this case munitions designed to maim bodies. Hospitals in Ghazzah have reported a sharp rise in the number of amputations as a result of bombs that produce sharp fragments that slice through flesh and bone. Israeli officials relate the attacks on Ghazzah to the Lebanon war in a slightly different way, saying that they are “applying the lessons of Lebanon” to Ghazzah, particularly that resistance forces should not be permitted the time and opportunity to build defences. What officials do not say, but is widely understood in Israel, is that the Olmert government is becoming more aggressive in Ghazzah partly to demonstrate its continuing strength and power after its humiliation in Lebanon; as ever, being seen to be killing Palestinians is regarded as being good for politics in Israel.
However, the situation in Ghazzah needs also to be understood as part of Israel’s wider political campaign against the Palestinians since the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January to pressurise the Palestinians. The attacks on Ghazzah, as well as being part of the Israelis’ punishment of the Palestinians of Ghazzah for forcing them out of Ghazzah last year, and a response to the capture of an Israeli corporal by Palestinian fighters in July, is also part of the Israeli campaign to force the leaders of Hamas to abandon the mandate on which they were elected and instead accept Israel’s terms for a “peace settlement”. (Continuing, smaller-scale Israeli military operations in the West Bank are also part of the same process.)
However, number of different Israeli strategies have failed to achieve this end. These have included trying to starve Hamas and PA institutions of funding (with serious economic consequences for all Palestinians); arresting Hamas leaders and members, including several members of the cabinet; and encouraging internecine fighting between Hamas fighters and militias associated with other Palestinian groups, particularly Fatah, the secular nationalist Palestinian movement that dominated Palestinian politics before the rise of Hamas, and whose leader Mahmoud Abbas remains president of the Palestinian Authority. There was a time when it seemed that this last strategy could seriously threaten the unity of the Palestinian struggle, but with Hamas leaders constantly appealing for unity, and all Palestinians aware of the common enemy, this appears to have been averted. There were also an attempt to create a government of national unity in which Fatah and Hamas would share power, but this collapsed because of Hamas’s refusal to compromise the manifesto on which it had been elected.
The bankruptcy of Western and Israeli efforts to force the Palestinians to submit to their plans is reflected in the fact that they have been forced back to a strategy that has already failed once: promoting Abbas as an acceptable, moderate Palestinian leader who can deliver results for the Palestinian people. This is what they tried to do in the months between Arafat’s death in November 2004 and Hamas’s election triumph in January. To launch their new effort, the US announced, after Abbas’s visit to the UN in September, new financial support for Palestinian institutions that they consider capable of “democracy building”. Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokesperson for the US consul in Jerusalem, announced that US$42 million would be allocated to “enhance civil society and democratic institutions, and provide assistance to media outlets.”
A number of credible Palestinian groups immediately responded by announcing that they would not accept any US funding. Mahmoud Abu Rahmah of al-Mazen, Palestine’s second-largest human-rights organisation, said “We do not accept US funding in principle, because money given by the US is conditional and the conditions have only increased.” Palestinian commentators agree that the US’s blatant support for Fatah, while Hamas is being starved of funds despite its democratic mandate, will discredit Fatah and increase support for Hamas.
Nonetheless, the US still hopes that Abbas can be persuaded, as president of the PA, to dissolve the Hamas-dominated Parliament, and either call new elections or appoint an interim government of non-aligned technocrats in place of the current Hamas-led government of Ismail Haniyeh. The latter course is considered more likely, as new elections would probably show similar results to the last ones: a Hamas victory that the West is desperate to avoid.
If Mahmoud Abbas does take the PA down this path, it will echo the paths to authoritarian dictatorship that many nationalist Arab regimes have taken in the past. Despite all the West’s barrel-thumping about ‘democratisation in the Muslim world’, this is clearly more acceptable to them than a popular, accountable government that reflects the wishes and aspirations of the Palestinian people truly. It would also mark a significant new development in the political evolution of Palestine, and is one which the Palestinian people are unlikely to accept. As Khalid Ameyrah, a noted Palestinian commentator, wrote in al-Ahram Weekly on October 19, the Palestinians could well conclude that they have no real choice but to launch a third intifada.