Focus on: The West Bank versus Gaza
For months now, we’ve been hearing the Israeli government promise to release prisoners, to remove checkpoints, and to take other measures to reduce strain on the Palestinian population and to build confidence. This talk has gone on for months, with nothing happening… until recently.
The past few weeks have seen positive steps towards negotiations. In the beginning of July, Israel restored financial ties with the Palestinian Authority; on Monday, President Bush called for a regional peace conference; and today, Israel freed 255 Palestinian prisoners, turning them over to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, Israel has offered immunity to 178 members of Fatah’s militant wing, Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade – many of whom have taken the offer and put down their guns, willing to give peace a chance.
However, these steps hold one fatal flaw. They are part of a policy toward the Palestinians that resulted from Hamas taking control of Gaza last month.
Following the takeover, Israel and the U.S. decided to work with Fatah and President Abbas, pitting him against Hamas and its leadership. In the U.S., for instance, AIPAC commended the Palestinian government for breaking ties with Hamas. And, in his speech, President Bush painted a black and white situation, in which the Palestinians could choose to either follow the “good” Fatah or the “evil” Hamas. With its measures directed solely at bolstering President Abbas, Israel has been joining the U.S. in this new plan to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank to the outright exclusion of Gaza.
But this strategy is leaving Gaza in increasingly dire straits – last week, the World Bank warned that the Strip is facing “irreversible collapse” – and there is no way that Hamas will watch its territory fail without fighting back. Danny Rubinstein writes about the quarreling between Hamas and Fatah – over days of the weekend, salaries, and other issues. He observes that it is difficult for the Israel government to do anything productive when Fatah is preoccupied with fighting Hamas. Indeed, as Assistant Director of Meretz USA Ron Skolnik, recently argued in an op-ed to the New York Resident, it is dangerous for the United States and Israel to use Abbas to fight Hamas, threatening the organization’s existence and causing it to battle back.
Meanwhile, Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz, asks, “How can Israel and Abbas continue to ignore the only force capable of managing the Gaza Strip?” And in a piece for the New York Times, Steven Erlanger wrote that the American perception of the conflict is “missing shades of grey.” He quoted Daoud Kuttab saying that, rather than fully writing off Hamas, the U.S. and Israel should distinguish between Hamas’ political wing and military wing. There, they may find something they can work with – even if just unofficially.
For any real progress towards negotiations to occur, there must be a change of policy on the part of Israel and the U.S. In response to Bush’s speech, Rami G. Khouri of the Daily Star wrote that one of its biggest problems was the President’s insistence on overtly picking sides and attacking Hamas.
In a statement on the speech, Meretz USA wrote that it welcomed the address, but that “American involvement must go beyond cash infusions for Palestine and a solitary international conference” to a sustainable and committed peace process. No matter what form this process takes, it cannot ignore Gaza.