A month of Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets in Ghazzah and the West Bank, killing over 40 Palestinians, mostly civilians, culminated with Israeli troops moving into southern Ghazzah on June 28, as Crescent was going to press. The extent and immediate objectives of the operation are not yet clear but, as always when considering Israeli actions, one must distinguish between what they say, which is usually designed for public relations purposes and has little connection with to reality, and their underlying strategy. The latest developments, therefore, are certainly more than just a response to the capture of one soldier by Palestinians. Instead, they must be seen as part of the broader Israeli response to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January.
Supported by the US and the rest of the "international community", Israel has refused to deal with the Hamas government, ostensibly because of its refusal to recognise Israel's "right to exist" and to renounce "violence", and has instituted a number of measures designed to punish the Palestinians for daring to elect leaders of their own choosing, rather than those wanted by Israel and the West. Israel and the US have also done their best to divide and cause friction between Palestinian political groups, particularly the Fatah movement led by Palestinian "president" Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas (although, to be fair, some on the Palestinian side, in Fatah in particular, needed little encouragement in this regard). There has also been a gradual increase in direct Israeli military harassment of and attacks on Palestinians in recent months, culminating in the killing of seven members of one family in a missile attack on a beach in Ghazzah on June 9. This pressure has been designed to force Hamas to abandon its unilateral ceasefire, so that it can again be portrayed as a threat to Israel that Israel has no choice but to deal with militarily. Refusing to be cowed by the Israeli attacks, and confident that it had given Israel every chance for a genuine suspension of military operations if Israelhad really wanted it, Hamas announced the end of its ceasefire in the middle of June in response to the inexorably rising Palestinian casualties.
If there was one factor that made the Israelis launch their attack on Ghazzah at this particular time, however, it was probably the prospect of an agreement being reached between Fatah and Hamas on the so-called Prisoners' Document on the future strategy of the Palestinian struggle. This document is a set of proposals put together by Fatah and Hamas members in Israeli prisons, to try to end the politicking between the two parties since the elections January. With Fatah militiamen refusing to accept the election results, and Mahmoud Abbas and other Fatah leaders worried that the rise of Hamas will fatally undermine their positions, there had seemed to be a genuine risk of civil war among Palestinians, in sharp contrast to Hamas's careful avoidance of any internecine conflict when they were in opposition and Fatah were in power.
The Prisoners' Document is in fact not so much a radical change in the Palestinians' position as a reminder of the basic points on which most Palestinians already agree. It proposes that Palestinians work for the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Ghazzah, with Jerusalem as its undivided capital, without giving up the aspiration of liberating the whole of Palestine in due course. It is this de facto acceptance of a "two-state solution" that some in the West have seized on as an "implicit" recognition of Israel's right to exist. The Document also calls for the repatriation of the more than five million Palestinian refugees forced to leave Palestine since 1948. In talks between Fatah and Hamas officials on the documents, there has been broad agreement on 15 of the document's 18 points, with three areas remaining to be settled before an accord can be finalised. This accord would render irrelevant the referendum proposed by Abbas as an attempt to undermine the Hamas government.
These three areas are the reform of the PLO, with Hamas demanding that the Fatah-dominated body be reformed along more representative lines if it is to be recognised as the "sole and representative body of the Palestinian people", particularly as Palestinians do not have a directly elected parliament and government to represent them; the question of whether PLO endorsement of agreements with Israel legitimises them without reference to the Palestinians' elected bodies or the opinion of Palestinians as a whole, both in Palestine and in the diaspora; and the question of the extent of armed struggle, with Fatah arguing that it should be formally confined to the West Bank and Ghazzah, and Hamas arguing that Palestinians should not unilaterally rule out operations in 1948 Palestine as long as Israel continues to attack Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Ghazzah. Agreement was expected on these when the process was interrupted by the Israeli attack on Ghazzah, which was probably not a coincidence.
In the world press and media, which tend to define how these matters are interpreted even by many Muslims, and whose positions are largely influenced by pro-Israeli bias and zionist lobbies, attention focused on the willingness of Hamas to reach an agreement that is widely interpreted as "implicitly recognising Israel's right to exist". For pro-Israelis, the immediate question was why Hamas still refuses to do so explicitly; many Muslims have accepted the false suggestion that this represents some sort of climbdown by Hamas. In fact the Prisoners' Document does not represent any change in Hamas's position: Hamas has long recognised the fact of Israel's existence and the fact that it cannot be destroyed in the short term but will have to be lived with in one way or another; but this is very different from recognising Israel's "right to exist", which no clear-thinking Palestinian or Muslim can do, simply because there is no basis for us to do so. Hamas has long stated that it is willing to talk with and even reach agreements with Israel, on the basis of the fact of its existence, even if they do not recognise its legitimacy, provided it is not expected to give up any of the Palestinians' inalienable rights: their claim to the whole of Palestine and their right to return to the homes from which they were expelled. That is also the understanding of most Muslims around the world; only a few states have recognised Israel's "right to exist".
The question that arises, therefore, is why Israelis place such importance on recognition of Israel's right to exist, knowing as they must that such recognition is hollow. One possible answer is that they hope that the recognition of the fact of Israel's existence will gradually evolve into de facto acceptance of its permanence, people's views on the illegitimacy of its foundation notwithstanding. But this would require that Israel do everything in its power to maintain peaceful good relations with its neighbours, so that the memory of how it was founded can fade with time; this is far from being the case. Another possible answer is that Israelis feel so insecure, partly because even many Jews reject Israel's claims that it represents world Jewry, that they are desperate for recognition from their victims to assuage their guilt, somewhat as many rapists claim that their victims "wanted it really". But even that probably gives most Israelis too much credit. The most likely explanation, the one which fits best with Israel's record and policies, is that they recognise that most Palestinians and Muslims will never accept Israel's legitimacy, but demand it anyway in order to maintain the impression that they are under threat and to justify their own continuing aggression and brutality.
This aggression is the one constant in the Palestinian situation, and the inescapable context in which Palestinian politics take place. The last few months have demonstrated the real limits of Palestinian freedom, even in the areas in which they supposedly have autonomy and self-government. Alongside the reality of Israel's occupation of most of Palestine, the dark shadow of Israeli power -- direct and indirect -- over the lives of Palestinians has become clear. However the present crisis may be resolved, and wherever the talks between Hamas and Fatah may lead, few can expect any easing of the Palestinian situation in the near future.