Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2005
Issue No. 754
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Through the looking glass

Don't be fooled by appearances -- it is Abbas rather than Sharon who is in trouble, writes Graham Usher in Jerusalem

Click to view caption
Palestinians cross the Tufah checkpoint to make their way to Khan Yunis, southern Gaza

Two weeks before D-day (Israel's disengagement from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank), Israel and the occupied territories are a looking-glass world. On 2 August 30,000 Israeli soldiers and police were again mobilised in and around Israeli border town of Sederot to prevent anti- disengagement Israelis from reaching the Gaza Strip. On 29 July the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian factions apparently closed a bloody page in their history by agreeing to "work together" to ensure Israel's Gaza withdrawal was a Palestinian "success".

So there you have it. On the Israeli side, trauma and dissension: on the Palestinian, agreement and unity. It is of course an illusion -- a looking glass.

Israel's Gaza and West Bank withdrawals will certainly be traumatic and perhaps violent. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Israeli Jews willing to fight for the "land of Israel" in the teeth of the "state of Israel's" attempt to disgorge those parts of territory it now deems dispensable to the Zionist project. But it is no less true that Ariel Sharon has managed to fragment the opposition to the disengagement.

At an 11-hour meeting, the Yesha Council -- the official leadership of Israel's settler movement -- agreed to the army's conditions for holding the Sederot protest. The rally would only last a few hours; only a few thousand protesters would be allowed to attend; and at the conclusion all would be decanted back to Ofakin, an Israeli town well out of Palestinian mortar range.

The size of the military presence was because the army fully expected many protesters to buck these terms and seek to infiltrate Gaza through the walls, fences and earthworks that surround it. But in doing so they will lack the legitimacy of their right- wing leaders, let alone that of the state and Israeli public opinion. It is Sharon who now has legitimacy in those courts, and with it the power to thwart the outlaws and "uproot" the settlements they have come to defend. It is a trait and a power the PA leader, Mahmoud Abbas, can only envy.

Palestinians in Gaza are still recovering from the worst bout of factional infighting, certainly during the Intifada, arguably since PA police forces shot dead 13 of their kin outside Gaza's Palestine Mosque in November 1994. During the last two weeks of July PA and Hamas militiamen exchanged fire, a police station was stormed and a cabinet minister (Mohamed Dahlan) accused the Islamist opposition of mounting a "coup d'etat". Over 30 Palestinians were wounded in the melee and two were killed, innocent bystanders both. And the questions all are asking is what brought things to such a pass, and can Palestinian discipline hold during the momentous challenges posed by the disengagement plan?

Few Palestinians believe the internecine violence was simply due to Israel's revival of its assassination policies and the massive mortar fire launched in response to them, though both helped bloody the waters. A deeper cause was the frail foundations on which Palestinian unity rested -- the so-called Cairo Declaration signed in March in which all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, vowed to "maintain an atmosphere of calm" for the rest of 2005. For many in Fatah, Abbas and Egypt conceded too much to Hamas, raising expectations that could not be met.

"Hamas has the right to defend itself against Israeli attacks," says a PA cabinet minister. "But in exchange for that right Abbas and Egypt should have insisted on a formal ceasefire, an end to all attacks on Israeli civilians and a commitment to abide by an agreed final status positions. All they actually got was a vague commitment to calm."

Hamas's complaint is the reverse. It says it has preserved the calm for the last four months and that its right to retaliate to Israeli aggression was initialed by Abbas, Egypt and the factions in Cairo. The real problem with the declaration was not the ambiguity of its language but the PA's refusal to honour any of its terms other than the calm, say Hamas spokesmen. For example: the failure to hold parliamentary elections on their agreed date of 17 July; the absence of any real effort to reform the PLO institutions so that Hamas and Islamic Jihad can participate within them; and the very real sense that Fatah is not prepared to share power in any meaningful way.

The result is simmering crisis of faith between the PA and its main political opposition that Cairo-like agreements can contain but not resolve. Resolution depends on two things, say PA sources.

One is for the PA and Fatah to become politically empowered by garnering real results from the disengagement. But the odds on this happening are lengthening by the day. With only two weeks before the first settler is removed from Gaza the PA has yet to get firm Israeli answers on those issues that matter most to its people: control of the Rafah crossing into Egypt; rehabilitation of the Gaza sea and airports; and, above all, a free and viable functioning of a safe Palestinian passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

The second condition is for the PA to announce a clear and irreversible date for new parliamentary elections. The Palestinian Legislative Council has now amended the basic law so that elections can take place and the rumour is that Abbas will declare a date soon, with the likeliest being 20 January 2006. But with the PA mired in Gaza and Fatah in disarray in the West Bank few believe Abbas and Fatah will be in any better shape to contest elections in January than they were in July. The fear rather is of indefinite postponement. This truly is the worst-case scenario, says one Palestinian analyst.

"If parliamentary elections are not held in January 2006, three things may happen," he warns. "There is a good chance Fatah will split and that no national elections will happen for the foreseeable future; the violent competition we see now between Hamas and Fatah may degenerate into confrontation; and Gaza will implode, becoming a separate entity from the West Bank."

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