The two-week Israeli onslaught on Ghazzah that began at the end of February was evidently designed to bring Hamas to its knees, after months of an ever-tightening economic blockade and political pressure that Israel and its allies hoped would persuade the people of Ghazzah to turn against the Islamic movement that they elected to power in 2006. It was a complete failure, with Israel gaining nothing but the satisfaction of venting its anger, killing some 120 people and destroying even more of Ghazzah’s already shattered infrastructure. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert’s claims to be acting to protect the Israeli people were exposed in the second week of March, when he was forced to accept a tacit ceasefire with Hamas following a daring attack by a lone Palestinian gunman -- who was evidently working alone, although his general political affiliations were Islamist -- on the ideological headquarters of the zionist settler movement in Jerusalem, in which eight students were killed and several others wounded. In the past, such a successful Palestinian operation would have been used as the pretext for further Israeli operations against Palestinians, but this time, fearful of the reaction among Israelis if his response provoked another, similar Palestinian operation, Olmert effectively yielded.
That is not to say, of course, that Israel ended its violence against the Palestinians; far from it. But after some days of the unofficial ceasefire in Ghazzah, established after mediation byEgypt, Israel launched a rash of assassinations in the West Bank, including that of Mohamed Shehada, head of Islamic Jihad’s military wing in the West Bank. He was shot down as he visited the ruins of his family’s house, bulldozed by the Israelis a few days earlier. Four other fighters were also killed. In the Israeli media, analysts explained the assassinations as an attempt by former prime minister Ehud Barak, now defense minister, to portray himself as tougher than Olmert, with a view to future elections in the country should the Olmert government fall; yet another example of Israeli politicians killing Palestinians to gain domestic political favour, regardless of the impact on the Palestinians or the wider political situation.
The move from operations in Ghazzah to the West Bank was also a move from a hard target to a softer one; with Hamas and other Islamic movements suppressed in the West Bank, and Fatah in power under the leadership of Palestinian “president” Mahmoud Abbas, the Israelis clearly felt that operating in the West Bank would be less risky than continuing operations in Ghazzah, whose people and leaders have both demonstrated a remarkable capacity to absorb Israeli pressure and maintain their spirits and resistance.
The targeting of the West Bank was significant for one other reason as well: it effectively marks the end of any claim Abbas could make that his policy of talking with the Israelis, instead of standing up to them, as advocated and demonstrated by Hamas, was making things better for the Palestinians of the West Bank, or persuading the Israelis to make concessions that they otherwise would not have made. The response of people in the West Bank to Israel’s attack on Ghazzah probably convinced Israel that there was no hope of effectively dividing the Palestinians into two communities, and dealing with them separately. This was a key objective of the US-Israeli strategy of isolating Ghazzah after Hamas’s election success in 2006 and Abbas’s refusal -- encouraged by the Israelis, the US and other outside powers -- to work with Hamas to create a government of national unity.
This probably explains the agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah officials to resume direct talks to try to settle the differences between them. Under the terms of an agreement brokered by the president of Yemen in late March, after five days of talks, further discussions are due to take place next month, for the first time since the split between Hamas and Fatah. Although Hamas was elected to power in the whole of Palestine in 2006, only for Abbas and Fatah to refuse to accept the results of the elections and relinquish power to it, Fatah officials have indicated that the success of the talks will depend on Hamas agreeing to give up power in Ghazzah. Hamas officials in Ghazzah have responded by saying that the talks must focus on the future control of the whole of the Palestinian territories on the basis of the elections results. In reality, after Hamas’s successful resistance in Ghazzah, and the total failure of the Abbas approach, all parties know that Hamas is in a far stronger position going into the talks. What Abbas must hope is that Hamas is as willing to reach a deal now, for the sake of Palestinian unity and to minimise internecine conflict, as it was in 2006 and early 2007, when Abbas flatly refused to talk about a government of national unity, preferring to accept the US-Israeli overtures and incentives for attacking Hamas.
On the face of it this is unlikely, as the US and Israel publicly remain committed to refusing to deal with Hamas on any terms, and Abbas is unlikely to defy them now. US vice president Dick Cheney emphasised this point during his visit to Israel in late March, when he reiterated the US’s total support for Israel and its “right” to “protect itself” from Palestinian aggression. However, there are signs that the years of Palestinian resistance, and steadfast refusal to accept terms dictated by Israel, are having an effect. Cheney again repeated Washington’s commitment to a Palestinian state. Although the state he and the Israelis have in mind is far from the independent sovereign Palestine that the Palestinians demand, the fact that they are talking about it at all, having previously refused to countenance such a suggestion unless the Palestinians surrender, indicates a change in the public mood, both in Israel and in the West.
The years of Palestinian resistance, rendering complete failures all Israel’s attempts to impose surrender on them, have forced increasing numbers in Israel and the West to accept that a Palestinian state is inevitable, setting aside years of demands that the Palestinians accept absorption into Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries. The Palestinians have also succeeded in forcing the Israelis to discredit themselves by the strategies they are using against the Palestinians. Where once most in the West accepted Israel’s claim to be a modern, progressive, democratic state fighting a terrorist problem, the increasingly brutal and ruthless strategies that the Israelis have used against peaceful Palestinian resistance have forced outside observers to recognise the true nature of zionism, and of the Palestinian struggle. Despite the zionist attempts to link the Palestinian struggle with al-Qa’ida and the international terrorist threat talked up by the US government since September 2001, most people in the West have a far better understanding of the issues involved in Palestine now than they had a few years ago. It is perhaps only in the US itself that the old zionist mythology still holds sway, not least because of its adoption by right-wing Christian groups, but even there it is increasingly challenged, as demonstrated by books such as The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, and the controversies they provoke. This change of mood towards Israel, coupled with the general disillusion with the ultra-aggressive and pro-zionist neo-conservative approach, likely to be reflected in US politics later, may well prove significant.
Although the situation of the Palestinians remains extremely difficult, and many more will no doubt die as Israel tries desperately to maintain its failing position, the resistance of the people of Ghazzah over the last few months, and the success of Hamas in maintaining a principled Islamic position and popular support and credibility among both Palestinians and many Arabs and Muslims outside Palestine, may well prove in future to have been a turning-point in the Palestinian struggle: the point at which it became clear that the Palestinians could not be defeated, and would have to be listened to and dealt with, on the realistic and pragmatic basis for a ceasefire first articulated by shaheed Shaikh Ahmad Yaseen, and subsequently developed and upheld by Hamas’s political leadership. This proposes a ten-year truce, based on a withdrawal to the boundaries of 1947, a total and genuine ceasefire, and the establishment of a genuinely independent Palestine in the West Bank and Ghazzah. Talks on outstanding issues would take place at the end of this period.
Odd though it may seem, given the current plight of the Palestinians, it is no exaggeration to say that the Palestinian struggle may be moving to a stage where such a truce is no longer as far-fetched or even inconceivable as it seems now.