Israeli authorities announced on July 27 that they will release 500 Palestinian prisoners, including 100 associated with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad Islamic movements, as a goodwill gesture towards the Palestinian Authority (PA), to facilitate the progress of the ‘road map’ peace plan. The same day, they also announced that they were dismantling a small number of road-blocks and parts of the controversial ‘fence’ designed to redefine the borders of the West Bank and cut it off from the rest of Palestine.
The announcement, which came one day after Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas met US president George W. Bush in Washington, and just days before Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was due in Washington for a similar visit, was greeted as major progress by the West and the pro-Israel media, but dismissed as being ‘not enough’ by Palestinians.
Israel’s agreement to release just 500 prisoners came after weeks of negotiation with Palestinian officials, and four meetings between Sharon and Abbas, despite the fact that the release of all Palestinian political prisoners was a condition of first stage of the road map, and also of the three-month cessation of military operations called by the Palestinian Islamic movements at the end of June. Hamas and Islamic Jihad estimate that 8,000 of their members are currently in Israeli jails. Israel and the PA put the figure at about 6,000.
Just weeks into the implementation of the road map, which is already behind schedule, a familiar pattern is emerging: one of Israel constantly delaying fulfilling its obligations, laying down more and more conditions for doing so, taking with one hand what it gives with the other (Hamas and Islamic Jihad pointed out that over 300 of their members had been arrested in the weeks running up to the Israeli announcement that it would release prisoners), and demanding that the Palestinians do far more than envisaged in the initial agreement if it is to be maintained.
The result has been that Abbas is coming under increasing pressure from Palestinians for failing to deliver even the little they were promised by the road map. Already in a weak situation, lacking domestic support for his strategy, and having been appointed to please Israel rather than the Palestinians, Abbas expressed his frustration with the Israelis after his fourth meeting with Sharon on July 20, accusing Israel of "procrastination" and "lack of good will".
At that meeting, Sharon again refused to commit himself to release Palestinian prisoners, or to consider any other Palestinian demands. Instead he insisted on deferring all discussions until further notice, without giving any explanation. He also repeated Israel’s routine demand that Abbas crack down on "terror" and dismantle the infrastructure of Palestinian resistance movements — something that Israel had utterly failed to do despite months of severe military pressure on the Palestinians, and that Abbas has neither the ability nor the political authority to do.
Abbas had gone into the meeting hoping that Sharon would reward him for his cooperation in previous weeks by agreeing to redeploy further troops in the West Bank, end the continuing siege of Yasser Arafat, and lift restrictions on Palestinian movement within the West Bank. Instead he was met with typical Israeli intransigence which, according to Palestinian reports, almost prompted Abbas to walk out of the meeting. Probably the only reason he did not do so was that, politically, he had nowhere else to go.
The fact that Sharon unilaterally declared a few days later that he would meet some of these demands indicates that he knows the immense pressure that Abbas is under, and wanted to increase the pressure to the maximum possible before making any concessions. By making the announcements unilaterally, some days after his meeting with Abbas, he also gave the impression of acting magnanimously, rather than having made some agreement with Abbas.
The truth is that Sharon is determined to do the absolute minimum required to keep the peace process alive, while forcing Abbas to do the dirty work of suppressing the Palestinian resistance, which Israel itself proved unable to do. It is also widely suspected that Sharon would be happy to see the collapse of the present truce with the Palestinians, provided it could be blamed on the Palestinians. This requires appearing to cooperate while in fact provoking the Palestinians to resume their military resistance.
This is why, even as Israel appears to be making concessions, it is in fact maintaining all the most oppressive policies of recent months. For example, two days after Sharon authorised a limited withdrawal from parts of the Ghazzah Strip and near Bethlehem in the West Bank in the run-up to the special joint press conference on July 1, at which Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan sat with Israeli cabinet members following the suspension of operations by the Islamic movements, Israeli troops confiscated hundreds of acres of Palestinian land around villages north of Jerusalem.
Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo was clear that the Bethlehem withdrawal was merely a cover for further land seizures, saying: "It’s robbery. What they are doing is trying to practise ethnic cleansing on the outskirts of Jerusalem."
A report published by the Palestinian Non-Governmental Network in mid-July states: "Since 1 July, the government of Israel has undermined the agreement through military actions that have involved invading Palestinian areas, implementing a campaign of arrests, opening fire on civilian areas, imposing curfews and closures that continue to restrict Palestinian freedom of movement, confiscating land and destroying property.
"At the same time, the Israeli government has made no movement towards dismantling settlement outposts, or halting construction on settlements throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To the contrary, various villages around Ramallah, Jerusalem and Hebron have had lands confiscated to ensure continued settlement expansion.
"Throughout this period, Israel has not frozen settlement activity at all. In fact settlement expansion and land confiscation occur almost on a daily basis. Furthermore, the dismantling of settlement outposts has been a farce. Eight empty outposts were dismantled in a haze of publicity followed by the establishment of 12 others."
Among breaches of the road map agreement listed by the report were an Israeli invasion of Tulkarem on July 1, in which one person was killed; widespread arrests in Jenin on July 4, following another Israeli invasion; destruction of homes in Deir Al-Baleh in southern Ghazzah on July 5; confiscation of over 100 acres of agricultural land from the West Bank village of Bakka al-Sharkiyya the same day; the shooting of a man in his car near Tulkarem on July 7; and numerous other similar incidents up to the publication of the report in the middle of July.
Speaking after the Israeli announcement on July 27 that it would release 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners, Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, said that only the release of all Islamic movement prisoners would be regarded as Israel meeting the conditions of the suspension of operations.
"We did not ask for the release of scores or hundreds of detainees," he said. He attributed the Israeli announcement to the fact that Sharon was due to visit Washington a few days later, and said it was "not enough" for the maintenance of the peace process.
Mahmud Abbas, whom Washington is committed to supporting as their man in the Palestinian camp, may not be able to see the true nature of the zionist regime, and its duplicitous and self-serving pursuit of the peace process, but others in Palestine, with more popular support and credibility than Abbas will ever have, clearly can.