Since the Palestinian general elections of January last year – widely applauded by all independent observers for the high levels of participation and the absence of coercion – life for the Palestinian people has gone from bad to worse, with Israel and its backers in the ‘international community’ stepping up their campaign of economic terrorism and political dirty tricks.
Having noisily denounced Arafat and the Palestinian Authority for years on account of their supposed lack of democracy, the good folks in Washington, London and Tel Aviv decided that, in fact, they had invested the parliamentary process with undue veneration. The reason for this sea change was, of course, the unexpected victory of Hamas, which gained 76 of the 132 seats.
Hamas had consistently maintained military pressure on Israel, at a time when the Palestinian population was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the willingness of the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas to toe the line of Israel and the US. The vote for Hamas was a vote for continued resistance to occupation and against the one-sided compromises that have characterised Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004.
Israel and its backers quickly came up with a plan to punish the Palestinian electorate and to destabilise the Hamas-led government. The first step of this programme was economic: international aid from the US and the EU was completely stopped; payment of monies collected by Israel (now amounting to nearly $1bn) was stopped; economic sanctions were implemented. The policy is, basically, to starve the Palestinians into submission.
As a result, 70 percent of the Gazan workforce is now without work or pay; 51 percent of Palestinians depend on food aid (up from 37 percent a year ago); 64 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line (this has grown from 20 percent in 1998 and 54 percent in 2005); and the number of people living on less than 50 cents a day nearly doubled in 2006 to over 1 million. The conditions for ending this economic terrorism? ‘Recognise’ Israel and renounce violent resistance to the occupation.
World Food Programme spokesperson Kirstie Campbell described Gazan life in the following terms:
“They long to work and provide for their families, to feed and clothe them, to send them to school and occasionally to share small family luxuries like a meal out.
“Instead, almost eighty percent of the population is now living hand-to-mouth. Many women have sold their dowries and almost every family suffers from debt and has absent or sick relatives linked to the conflict.
“Few elements of life as people knew it remain. Recreational activities for children are largely a thing of the past.” (‘Gaza ripped apart by violence and in need of help’, www.wfp.org, 17 May 2007)
Meanwhile, Israel’s unilateral Gaza ‘disengagement’ in 2005 has not resulted in an easing off of the violence of occupation. Israel continues to seize land, expand settlements, build the illegal separation wall, assassinate Palestinian leaders, and use indiscriminate violence against the Palestinian population.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign General Secretary Betty Hunter, writing in the Morning Star of 14 May 2007, noted: “In the past year, the Israeli army has fired thousands of rockets and shells into Gaza destroying vital infrastructure including water and electricity facilities and aid projects worth millions of dollars with severe humanitarian consequences. The army carries out nightly raids in Palestinian towns and cities. In the first week of May, there were 37 military incursions with three Palestinians killed, 13 wounded (including 7 children) and 64 arrests (figures from Palestinian Centre for Human Rights). On 8 May 2007 alone, in addition to seven military incursions across the West Bank, the army moved into East Jerusalem and besieged the building of al-Nojoum Association for Disabled Children, forcing the children and supervisors out and then demolished the building. Elsewhere on the same day a number of Israeli settlers set fire to over 40 acres of Palestinian agricultural land planted with olives and citrus belonging to Akkaba village.” (‘Besieged Palestinians need international grassroots support’)
Israel and the US, unhappy with the outcome of Palestinian democracy, are doing everything they can to make life so difficult for the Palestinian people that they admit defeat and abandon their support for Hamas (or, more specifically, for resistance to Israeli occupation). After only a few months, the US was pushing for repeat elections, in the hope that the Palestinians would have come to their senses.
However, the Palestinian population made it very clear that they would not accept early elections and that they would not be budging from their support for Hamas. Through 60 years of occupation, expulsion and resistance, the Palestinian people have learned how to cope in a crisis, and have developed sufficient savvy and resolve not to fall into the traps laid for them by Israel and its backers.
US/Israeli plot foiled by Mecca Agreement
Once it became clear that the Palestinian population would not be coerced by starvation alone into dropping its support for Hamas, Israel and the US turned their attentions to deepening the divisions between Hamas and Fatah, with a view to igniting a civil war, thereby rendering the entire Palestinian national liberation movement impotent.
The main technique employed in pursuit of this aim has been to supply the President’s (Abbas’s) office (as opposed to the Palestinian Authority as a whole) with money and arms, on the condition that these arms are used not to resist Israeli occupation but to crack down on militant groups. Thus Fatah starts to be seen as an arm of the Israeli state, and Hamas starts to resist them accordingly.
It’s fair to say that Israel and its imperialist backers have had some success with these tactics. The beginning of this year saw a considerable escalation of tension between Hamas and Fatah, in some cases leading to gun battles between the groups.
However, much to the irritation of the US and Israeli administrations, Abbas clearly realises that he cannot simply bypass Hamas – the Palestinian people are strongly tuned into what’s going on, and they will not stand for it. It is to Abbas’s credit that he finally went off-message, engaging in negotiations with Hamas leaders that led to the signing of the Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas on 8 February 2007.
Under this agreement, the two parties agreed to an immediate cessation of hostilities and the formation of a government of national unity. News of this agreement was greeted with jubilation in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas leader Khaled Meeshal summed the agreement up as follows:
“The Mecca agreement has laid the foundations for a power-sharing process that will produce a functioning government capable of attending to our people’s needs. It will also pave the way for rebuilding the PLO to include all the factions and become the legitimate representative of all Palestinian people. The partnership born out of the Mecca meeting is possible because of the consensus among the Palestinians that their primary objective is to win their freedom, and that their struggle should be solely against occupation.”
A new unity government was inaugurated on 17 March. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh defined the overall aim for the new administration as being to build a Palestinian state on the lands occupied by Israel in 1967, saying. “The government will work with the international community to put an end to the occupation and recover the legitimate rights of our people.” Haniyeh further declared that “resistance in all its forms, including popular resistance to occupation, is a legitimate right”. (Quoted in ‘Palestinian unity cabinet approved’, Al Jazeera Online, 17 March 2007)
Needless to say, the formation of the unity government and the militant principles upon which it is founded have caused considerable consternation in the US State Department. Israeli daily Haaretz of 20 March 2007 reported:
“[US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, who will visit the Palestinian territories and Israel in the coming days, said she wanted clarity from Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh over what he meant when he said the Palestinian people had a ‘right to resistance,’ a phrase in the new government’s platform that has rankled Israel and others.
“‘I am not going to try to interpret what the right of resistance means, but I’ll tell you it doesn’t sound very good to me when one talks about all forms of resistance,’ Rice said.
“‘So I would put the question to the Palestinian government and to its prime minister – do you mean the right of resistance by violence? And let’s get an answer.’” (‘Israeli officials welcome Quartet decision to maintain PA boycott’)
Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, urged governments to continue the aid embargo and to boycott the unity government.
The cold response of the so-called international community to the setting up of the unity government exposes very clearly the intentions of the imperialists: to create maximum division in the ranks of the Palestinians.
The US administration all but ignored the new government, and is still boycotting it, although it has said that it will have individual dealings with certain non-Hamas members. Very shortly after the Mecca Agreement was signed, the US resumed its pressure on Abbas and the moderates within Fatah, and it is widely speculated that this pressure led to the appointment of Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah figure in Gaza known to have good relations with Israel and the US and with a track record of ‘clamping down’ on Hamas, to lead the newly re-established Palestinian National Security Council, which is intended to oversee all security services in the Palestinian territories.
This appointment immediately provoked an angry response from Hamas. Haaretz reported:
“Hamas, in its first public rift with Fatah since forming a Palestinian unity government, accused Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Monday of illegally appointing one of the Islamist group’s long-time foes as his national security adviser.
“‘Hamas sees the step by President Mahmoud Abbas to appoint Mohammed Dahlan, a lawmaker, as his adviser for the national security as a violation of Palestinian law,’ Hamas said in a statement. ‘We urge President Abbas to go back to the law and to examine the decision accordingly.’” (‘Hamas slams Abbas’ decision to appoint Dahlan as security chief’, 20 March 2007)
The policy of sowing divisions between Fatah and Hamas, by publicly treating certain Fatah moderates as its favourite sons and by attempting to suffocate Hamas, remains the principal strategy of the US.
In early May, the US released a plan entitled the ‘Benchmark Document’, which envisages delivering “a strong blow to Hamas by supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs through the presidency and Fatah”. (Cited in ‘Document details “US” plan to sink Hamas’ Asia Times Online, 16 May 2007)
BBC News Online of 8 May 2007 summarised the main points of the plan as follows:
1. Bus service linking Gaza and West Bank by 1 July 2007.
2. PA to develop plan to end rocket fire by 21 June 2007.
3. Israel to remove roadblocks in West Bank by early- to mid-June.
4. Palestinian security services under control of Abbas by 15 June 2007.
5. Israel and the Palestinians re-establish the coordination and liaison office.
In essence: if you stop rocket attacks on Israel and get Hamas under control, we’ll ask Israel to pull down some checkpoints. There is no mention of the expansion of Israeli settlements (which is continuing at an alarming rate), or the question of the apartheid wall currently being built by Israel.
Ironically, the first public denunciation of this pitifully weak plan came from Ehud Olmert, who stated that US was offering too many concessions from Israel and that these would be detrimental to Israel’s security!
Abbas took a position of guarded support for the plan: “We think that there are important steps in this plan to stabilise security and end the suffering of our people … We ask Israel to respond favourably.” (BBC News Online, 8 May 2007)
However, the document has been widely criticised by many Palestinian politicians, and Hamas has stated a clear policy of opposition. Haaretz of 5 May 2007 reported: “Meshal told a rally in Syria on Friday that the Palestinians should not agree to halt rocket fire in exchange for an easing of travel restrictions. ‘I swear it’s a farce … the equation has now become: dismantling the checkpoints, in exchange for [giving up] resistance … This has become the Palestinian cause.’”
Nonetheless, the US is insistently pushing its plan. On 23 May, Reuters reported that the Bush administration was likely to ask Congress for $27m in unspent funds to strengthen Abbas’s security forces. In written testimony submitted to a congressional hearing, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said: “We will likely seek your approval for the use of available FY2006 carry-over funds … to further support President Abbas as he works to enforce law and order … The recent violence in Gaza, and the resulting Palestinian and Israeli casualties, has highlighted the importance of this program.”
Abbas and the Fatah leaders around him are being pulled in two very different directions. On the one hand, Hamas and the Palestinian population are pulling them towards unity, collective resistance and a joint diplomacy strategy; on the other hand, the US is luring them with arms, authority and development money. As long as they continue to accept the pitiful offers being put on the table by the US, and inasmuch as they perform their assigned task of ‘cracking down’ on the militant Palestinian resistance, they are serving to divide the Palestinian movement. Indeed, despite the Mecca Agreement, over 50 Palestinians were killed in fighting between Hamas and Fatah in the early part of May.
The Palestinian people are very clear that they will not be drawn into civil war, and Hamas has been very careful not to act rashly in response to provocation. Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s deputy politburo head, said in a statement to the press that civil war “is absolutely rejected by all Palestinian parties”. (Cited in ‘Factions ratchet up Gaza violence’, Financial Times, 16 May 2007)
With the Mecca Agreement, the Palestinian people have once more expressed their unshakable determination to achieve their goals of a Palestinian state and recognition of the right to return of refugees, and they will not be thrown off course by imperialist meddling and Israeli efforts to split their movement and dissolve it into civil war. If Abbas and the Fatah leadership are not to be sidelined, they must honour the Mecca Agreement and continue making steps towards lasting unity within the Palestinian camp.
Then if the US, EU and Israel still refuse to end sanctions, to recognise the unity government and to resume meaningful negotiations with the Palestinian government, they can expect nothing other than a return to large-scale military resistance from the Palestinians – the recent increase in rocket attacks into Israel, and the ending of Hamas’s five-month ceasefire in response to Israeli escalation in Gaza, provide adequate proof of this.
The struggle continues.
Postscript: Hamas officials detained, 30+ Palestinians killed in raids
In the early hours of 24 May 2007, over 30 senior officials from Hamas were taken prisoner by Israel. Those taken, mainly in Nablus, include Palestinian education minister Nasser al-Shaer, three lawmakers and three mayors. Israel’s only public reason for this outrageous behaviour was that the officials allegedly supported the firing of rockets into Israel. An extraordinary justification! The Palestinians are a people under occupation and have every right under international law to defend themselves against that occupation. The huge majority of members in the Israeli Knesset support the genocidal behaviour of the Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces toward the Palestinian population – would the Israeli government support a move by Palestinians to detain these parliamentarians?
On the same night, more than 30 Palestinians, at least 11 of them civilians, died in Israeli missile strikes. Again, the ostensible purpose of these missile strikes was to discourage rocket attacks on Israel.
The reader will note that the total human damage caused by Hamas’s recent rocket attacks has been one death and around 20 wounded. This does not compare with the dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in recent weeks. Yes, the Palestinian rocket attacks cause havoc in parts of Israel – evacuations and general panic. But this does not compare with the physical and psychological torture that characterises the illegal Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank – the suffocation of the entire Palestinian people.
The rocket attacks are a perfectly justifiable and inventive measure of self-defence by the Palestinians. The only way Israel can stop these attacks and help to create peace and stability in the region is by sitting at the negotiating table with the elected Palestinian leadership and accepting the creation of a Palestinian state constituting the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem (with the settlements removed, the apartheid wall pulled down and with the right of return for Palestinian refugees expelled from Israel at gunpoint).
Victory to the Intifada!