Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Crunch time

Israel and the US are putting the squeeze on the new Palestinian government and Hamas is looking to its "brothers", writes Graham Usher

Last Sunday the Israeli government began its unilateral disengagement from all things Palestinian Authority (PA). It authorised a permanent freeze on monthly tax rebates of about $50 million that, legally, belong to the PA. It called on the world to refrain from funding the PA, especially its security forces, "except for humanitarian aid given directly to the Palestinian population." Finally it imposed a ban on the movement of Hamas officials, including its 74 recently elected members of parliament.

Israel made clear these were simply the opening batteries. Down the road it may bar the entrance of Palestinian workers into Israel and/or terminate its electricity and water supplies to Gaza. "Israel will not hold contacts with [a Palestinian] administration in which Hamas plays any part -- small, large or permanent," said acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the cabinet meeting. "The PA is -- in practice -- becoming a terrorist authority. Israel will not agree to this."

There are two objectives behind the sanctions. The first is to coerce a Hamas- led Palestinian government into accepting Israel's three conditions for co-existence: recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state", disarmament of the Palestinian resistance and adherence to all previous PLO-Israeli agreements. It is a stated objective because everyone is aware, including the Israeli government, that there is not the faintest chance that Hamas will agree to any of them, and certainly not under duress.

The intended aim is to destabilise the PA to bring about Hamas's swift demise so that PA President Mahmoud Abbas can call new elections and his "reformed", chastened Fatah movement return to office. The second scenario is unlikely to happen, especially if Fatah is seen by Palestinians as in any way a party to it. But destabilisation is entirely feasible.

On news of the sanctions Abbas announced that the PA was in "a severe economic crisis", telling interlocutors (like former US president Jimmy Carter) that it was $900 million in debt and that they would be unable to meet its February payroll. Special Envoy for the Middle East Quartet, James Wolfensohn, has said the PA will be bankrupt within two weeks. Abbas, Carter and Wolfensohn have appealed to donors to keep the monies coming, at least until the next Palestinian government is formed and its policies clear.

But apparently to little avail, the US government has already asked Abbas to return $50 million disbursed to the PA in direct aid last year. Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark (whose stock in the Muslim world, with the publication of the "sacrilegious" cartoons, has fallen to Israeli depths) have already halted projects in the occupied territories. Canada may follow.

Hamas prime minister-elect, Ismail Haniyeh, has denounced the sanctions as "collective punishment" while reassuring his people that they will endure this crisis "as they have endured so many others". A Hamas delegation is currently on a trawl throughout the region in the hope of collecting cash, diplomatic support and defiance.

It has so far received defiance from Sudan, promises of "a yearly financial aid package" from Iran and a worldwide "donation campaign" led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has also received a pledge from Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, that a motion mandating the Arab world to provide $50 million a month to the PA will be submitted to the Arab summit in Khartoum next month.

But Hamas is not the only tour in the region. On Tuesday US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in Cairo, the first stop on a trip that will also include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Her message was conveyed with brutal clarity to Arab journalists last weekend. She would hope, she said, "any [Arab] state considering funding a Hamas- led government would think about the implications of that for the Middle East." As for the Hamas tour, "it will be very interesting to see if that $1.9 billion [the PA's annual budget] is available" from Arab and Islamic donors, she teased.

The only chink in this Israeli-US pincer is the uneasiness felt by countries squeezed between it and the PA. Russia has already denounced the sanctions as "counter-productive", inviting the delegation to Moscow to reinforce the point. UN special envoy in the occupied territories, Alvaro De Soto, has criticised Israel's freeze on the rebates since "these funds belong to the Palestinians." And EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has counselled Israel and the US to "wait and see which [Palestinian] government is actually established." His message to Hamas is similarly sphinx-like. "You should listen to President Mahmoud Abbas's advice," he said.

Abbas's advice was given in his presidential address to the new Palestinian parliament on Saturday. He said a harmonious relationship could be established between the presidency and the next PA government as long as it abided by previous PLO-Israeli agreements, accepted that negotiations were the only "strategic and credible" way to end the conflict and advocated peaceful (as opposed to armed) resistance to achieve it. These will also be the terms for Fatah joining a national coalition government, says head of Fatah's parliamentary faction Azzam Ahmed.

Hamas has so far rejected the "advice" but desperately wants Fatah inside the cabinet rather than out. In the course of negotiations with the other Palestinian parties over the next weeks, it will seek a formula to square the two diametrically opposed desires.

But the crunch now is cash, and whether Hamas will have enough of it to pay the PA's 140,000 employees, which together provide relief to an additional one million Palestinians. Hamas leaders express confidence that the Arab and Muslim world will be true to their "commitments". But the Palestinians have bitter experiences of a world that has often promised much but delivered little, and never more so than when a US secretary of state is feeling its collar. A Hamas supporter in Gaza was more sober. "Throughout the election campaign our leaders told us that the Arabs would bail us out if Israel, America and Europe turned off the tap. They had better be right." (see p.6)

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