The two summit meetings at Sharm al-Shaikh on June 3, attended by US president George W. Bush, Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, and the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain, and at the royal palace at Aqaba, Jordan, the next day, June 4, when Abbas met Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, were supposed to represent the consolidation of the US’s new regional order, and the latest stage of a new phase in the West’s attempts to impose a surrender on the Palestinians in the form of a peace deal. Abbas’s meetings with Bush at these meetings were designed to convey the US’s recognition of him as a leader they can deal with, and the rehabilitation of the Palestinian Authority as a party to the West’s regional planning, in which the imposition of a surrender on the Palestinians is a central plank.
Any satisfaction Abbas may have got from this recognition was immediately doused in the cold water of reality, however, when Palestinians reacted angrily to the sight of his shaking hands with Sharon and at his speech, in which he condemned violence against Israelis and pledged to end the armed intifada. Although he did not say so, the US and Israel clearly expect him to end it by force if necessary. There was also anger that he made no reference to key Palestinian demands, including the right of return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Hamas, the largest and most popular political group in Palestine, responded by breaking off all talks with Abbas about a future political agreement, and Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine reacted with similar anger, saying that Abbas had deviated from the "popular Palestinian consensus." Palestinian groups had recently been having talks with Abbas about the possibility of a suspension of operations against Israel.
Hamas officials had earlier indicated that they would be open to the possibility of a conditional suspension of hostilities. Speaking on ABC television on June 4, Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas political leader, had indicated a willingness to halt attacks on Israelis outside the occupied West Bank and Ghazzah if Israel would withdraw from areas supposedly under Palestinian rule.
The Palestinian press also castigated Abbas. Ghazi al-Khalil, a columnist in the daily Al-Ayyum, was quoted by the Islamic Association of Palestine as asking: "How can the prime minister issue such a sweeping condemnation of our noble struggle against a foreign military occupation? He should not have equated our resistance against military occupation with violence against civilians and innocent people."
Hani Habib, also a columnist in the same paper, attacked Abbas’s "vacuous pledge to combat incitement against Israel... Who is inciting against whom? Is it the Palestinians who are practising hatred, violence and terror against Israel? Are they occupying Israel’s land?"
Other writers criticised Abbas for expressing sympathy with Israeli suffering without making any reference to the far greater suffering of Palestinians as a result of Israeli occupation. Similar attitudes were reflected on the Arab street, where numerous demonstrations demanded Abbas’s resignation, and even Yasser Arafat took the opportunity to chide Abbas mildly. Abbas was forced to issue a clarification on June 9, denying that he had meant to express any disrespect for the struggle, but insisting that it was necessary for the Palestinians to end the intifada if any sort of peace was to return to their communities.
By then, however, the militant Palestinian groups had shown their anger in practical terms, in an attack on an Israeli military border post between Israel and Ghazzah on June 8, in which four Israeli soldiers were killed and four mujahideen martyred. The attack was a joint operation between Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigade. The post was in an area recently re-occupied by the Israeli military, where they had razed vast areas of orchard and destroyed numerous Palestinian homes
The operation was clearly intended as a warning to Abbas that he could not assume that the mujahideen groups would co-operate with his plans unless they saw clear evidence that he was able to stand up to the Israelis and demand concessions from them in return for Palestinian concessions. It was also a response to continued Israeli operations against Palestinians towns, in which Palestinians continue to die almost every day.
Meanwhile, there were also signs that the Israelis may have slightly more invested in this process than simply going through the motions. One of the Palestinian demands is the release of about 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners. On June 4, Israel released 921 prisoners, most of them ‘administrative detainees’ — ie. prisoners being held without trial — the PLO Executive Member Taysir Khalid.
Notably, however, 66 of those released were linked with Fatah, and only six with Hamas; the US and Israel have traditionally regarded the secular PLO as easier to do business with than the Islamic groups, and the Fatah leadership has demanded the release of their own members as essential for the rebuilding of their organization, which is in turn essential if the Palestinian Authority is to be permitted to operate.
It was notable at Aqaba that Sharon was not forced to back down on any of the non-negotiable reservations that Israel expressed when ‘accepting’ the roadmap on May 25, a precursor to the summit going ahead. Meanwhile the Palestinians will be expected to meet their far more onerous obligations and indeed exceed them if Abbas is to be permitted to continue to dine at the top table, along with Bush and his cronies. How long this will be possible before the deal breaks down, probably on Palestinian anger at the Israelis’ duplicity and Abbas’s weakness, remains to be seen.