Officials of the new Palestinian administration under Mahmood Abbas, elected president in flawed elections on January 9, claimed success on January 24, when Hamas, Palestine’s main Islamic movement and leading militant resistance group, reiterated its willingness to suspend military operations provided Israel do the same. The announcement, made by PA negotiator Ziad Abu Amr on Voice of Palestine Radio, was confirmed by Hamas spokesman Abu Zuhri, who emphasized that it was not a new offer, and that “there will be no calm without reciprocation and unless there is a clear commitment from the occupation to stop all kinds of aggression.”
The reiteration of the Hamas position, which has repeatedly been made clear in recent months without any sign that the Israelis might accept it, came after several days of talks between Abbas (widely known as Abu Mazin) and Hamas, known as the ‘national dialogue’. Abbas’s object in these talks has been to persuade the militant resistance groups to suspend operations in order to enable him to pursue a negotiated political settlement with the Israelis. The talks were launched after a series of Hamas operations against Israeli targets that were themselves in retaliation for a series of Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets both before and immediately after the Palestinian elections. Despite Israeli claims to have suspended operations in the run-up to the polls, 41 Palestinians were killed in the month before the elections.
Even without the Hamas operations that prompted the talks, however, similar talks would have been scheduled very soon after Abbas was confirmed as Palestinian prime minister to succeed the late Yasser Arafat. Abbas was supported for the Palestinian presidency by the US and Israel largely because they need a man who will try to rein in the Palestinian resistance and co-operate with their plans to impose a one-sided settlement on the Palestinian people. He is now under pressure to fulfill their expectations.
He won the Palestinian elections partly because he was given a clear run by the militant groups – Hamas decided not to put forward any candidate – but also for a number of other reasons. One was that he was running very explicitly as the natural successor to Yasser Arafat, who was a symbol of the Palestinian struggle as much as a political leader. It was also because the Palestinians recognise that, however much they may support the principle of military resistance, they also need a political head with whom the West and Israel are willing to deal.
Abbas knows, however, that his election does not mean unqualified support for his approach, and that he cannot afford to dismiss or marginalize groups such as Hamas whose views are widely shared by ordinary Palestinians and whose military resistance is widely supported.
Contrary to popular perception, Hamas does not in fact dismiss all possibility of talks or a settlement with Israel. Shaikh Ahmed Yassin Shaheed, who set the tone of Hamas’s position, although he was not formally its leader, repeatedly expressed his willingness to deal with the Israelis and agree a possible suspension of hostilities, provided the talks were preceded by a complete and genuine Israeli ceasefire, took place on equal and equitable terms, and were not seen as part of a process designed to lead to Palestinian surrender. In particular Hamas insists that it will not surrender the right to continue to demand the liberation of the whole of Palestine and the right of displaced Palestinians to return to their homes anywhere in occupiedPalestine. For Hamas, therefore, any settlement can only be temporary.
This is, of course, totally unacceptable to the Israelis, whose object is to impose a settlement on the Palestinians that will legitimise the zionists’ claims to Palestine and end the Palestinians’ formal claim to their homeland. In order to achieve this, the Israelis have had no qualms about using their massive military and political advantages against the Palestinians in order to break their spirits, with the full support of the US and the international community. The Oslo peace process in the 1990s aimed to achieve precisely this, but failed partly because Palestinians were reluctant to accept Israel’s terms, but also because the Israelis insisted on demanding more and more from the Palestinians, while refusing to fulfill their own promises, for example on the suspension of settlement activities. Hamas’s position was to oppose the process in principle but to allow it to proceed and demonstrate its own futility. As Hamas leaders had predicted, the Palestinians themselves turned against the process over time; hence the launch of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, after Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative invasion of the Haram al-Sharif.
The processes now unfolding in Palestine are essentially similar to those at the beginning of the Oslo process.
This time, the Israelis are hoping that the damage they have done to Palestine in the last five years will persuade Palestinians to accept their terms.
This time, the political process is being mapped out in terms of Sharon’s ‘disengagement plan’, the latest of a series of West-supported Israeli plans, all designed to achieve their ends. Although the plan is generally charac-terised as a unilateral withdrawal from Ghazzah, the reality is very different and has been compared with apartheid South Africa’s creation ofBantustans to try to legitimise the racist system. Under this plan, Ghazzah will be turned into what is effectively a ghetto or an open-air concentration camp.
Inseparable from the plans for Ghazzah are Israel’s plans for the West Bank, which are based on the completion of the apartheid wall and other associated institutions. While claiming to be evacuating settlements from Ghazzah and four minor settlements in the West Bank, Israel has also announced the annexation of about 200 settlements in the West Bank and aroundJerusalem, as well as the construction of new settlements in the Tulkarem and Qalqiliya areas.
The plan also includes the construction of a number of major “by-pass roads” through the West Bank, heavily militarised and reserved for settlers only. The roads will facilitate the expansion of settlements, while parceling the Palestinian areas into separate pockets, isolated from each other, with all travel controlled by Israeli troops. The only passage points for Palestinians will be 16 junctions with bridges, with tunnels and checkpoints manned by settlers and Israeli troops. These measures are supposed to give the Palestinian pseudo-state some degree of spurious “contiguity”.
One part of Israel’s plans that has not been widely highlighted is the creation of cross-border industrial zones (CBIZ). These are presented as initiatives to provide work for Palestinians, but are widely seen as being work-camps on the edge of the ghetto areas, where Palestinians will have to work for Israeli companies for minimal wages. The alternative, namely enabling the Palestinian areas to control their own economic activities and policies, is regarded is unacceptable to the Israelis, who are determined that the so-called Palestinian state will not develop independent links with other countries, particularly Muslim ones, without Israeli involvement and supervision.
Israel and the US expect Abbas to persuade the Palestinians to accept Israel’s plans. How Hamas will respond remains to be seen, but it is unlikely that the Palestinians will go along withIsrael. It is much likelier that, as usual, Israeli bad faith will sink the plans that look so good on paper.