Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Brigandage in Jericho

The storming of Jericho's prison but further indicates that Israel is not interested in peace, writes Khalid Amayreh in the West Bank

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Palestinian prisoners in Jericho; portrait of Arafat among the rubble of the destroyed prison; Palestinian woman supporter of Saadat in Ain Al-Helwa, Lebanon; Palestinian militants storming the EU office in Gaza; Palestinian security guards inspect the sorry remains of the prison

The storming of the Central Jericho Prison by the Israeli army and the ultimate seizure of PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) Secretary- General Ahmed Saadat and his colleagues on Tuesday is a reminder, if one were needed, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is an entity operating under foreign military occupation without sovereignty, without security, without dignity and above all without any freedom of decision -- even a semblance of such freedom.

The highly visible raid, during which Israel displayed military might in the face of a nearly decimated people vanquished by decades of unrelenting brutality was probably meant as a promotional gimmick for Kadima and its leader Ehud Olmert ahead of Israeli elections this month. Is that an excuse? The parading of Palestinian security cadres, naked, in front of TV cameras was apparently meant to show the Israeli public that "we are the masters, and they are the slaves." What end does this serve?

The provocative raid, which many Palestinians compare to the assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza in 2003, is also an unmistakable message to the next Hamas-led Palestinian government that Israeli impunity knows no limits and that the next Palestinian government had better "behave" or else. It is not clear at this point how the raid, which has infuriated the Palestinian public and pushed it once again to the edge, will affect the formation of the Palestinian government.

Earlier this week, marathon meetings between Hamas and Fatah ended without any agreement, paving the way for the formation of a government without Fatah. Fatah reportedly insisted that Hamas recognise and respect the "Palestinian Declaration of Independence" as well as "all agreements and commitments" reached between the PA and the international community, including Israel.

Hamas rejected these conditions, arguing that some of these agreements -- like the Paris Protocol sealed with Israel in 1995 -- left the entire Palestinian economy hostage to Israel's whims as evident from recurrent Israeli blackmailing tactics, including the withholding of Palestinian tax revenue returns as a means of political pressure on Palestinians.

However, it is clear that the real problem preventing Fatah from joining a Hamas-led national unity government is psychological not political. Fatah is simply unprepared at this point to be a junior partner in a government controlled by Hamas, Fatah's political and ideological rival.

It is possible, according to some Hamas law-makers close to the "dialogue" with Fatah that the humiliating Israeli raid on the Jericho prison might convince the "No camp" within Fatah to put the psychological problem aside and decide to join a government of national unity for the sake of paramount Palestinian national interests.

According to sources close to Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister designate, contacts between Fatah and Hamas were resumed Tuesday night, probably under effect of the Jericho raid. Fatah, which was to give a final answer to Hamas as to its intention to join the government or remain in the opposition, had indicated that it would prefer to remain in the opposition.

This inclination was expressed by Fatah leader Mohamed Dahlan who told a press conference in Gaza Monday that the bulk of Fatah's leadership was opposed to joining the government as a matter of principle. Dahlan himself has said repeatedly he is opposed Fatah joining a national unity government, arguing that since the Palestinian people gave Hamas an overwhelming mandate, Hamas should be allowed to govern alone.

The tone of Dahlan's words suggests that he predicts that Hamas will fail and that Fatah will sooner or later return to power. For its part, Hamas doesn't take such talk lightly and is not leaving anything to chance, vowing to "surprise detractors with our performance in government as we have surprised them in the elections."

Hamas has already reached "coalition agreements" with the PFLP and Mustafa Barghouti and is expected to bring into government at least a dozen technocrats who are mostly independents though some have informal affiliation with Fatah. One Hamas law-maker from the Hebron region intimated to Al-Ahram Weekly that Hamas in the next government, in case Fatah insists on staying out of it, wouldn't exceed 30 per cent of portfolios. If true, the new government would enjoy a measure of respectability and acceptability, provided that Fatah doesn't seek to place spanners in its works as feared by Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government continued to carve more Palestinian land in the West Bank, taking advantage of international -- especially American -- silence.

On Tuesday, the government decided to build "a police headquarters and other facilities" in an area extending from East Jerusalem to the colony of Maali Adomim, the largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank. According to Israeli sources, the decision covers as many as 3,500 settler units as well as a road network, six hotels and a park. Non-Jews wouldn't be allowed to live or buy land in the planned settlement.

According to Khaled Qawasmi, the outgoing Palestinian minister of local governance, such "large-scale theft" (which encompasses more than 13 square kilometres) is meant to "eliminate the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state" in the West Bank. Qawasmi added: "they are stealing our land in broad daylight. And they are doing it as America and Europe are watching passively." Palestinian expert on Jewish settlements Khalil Tufakji noted: "this will also effectively cut off the southern part of the West Bank (the Bethlehem and Hebron rejoins) from the central and northern regions."

The arrogation of more Palestinian land for Jewish settlement expansion is coupled with plans by the Kadima leadership to annex Jewish settlements located deep in the heartland of the West Bank. This week, Olmert said he would, once he became prime minister, annex to Israel Maali Adomim, Ariel, Efrata, and Gush Etzion north of Hebron. On a visit to Ariel on Tuesday, ostensibly to woo to his side settlers still dismayed by the withdrawal from Gaza, Olmert was unequivocal: "I want to be clear on this. The Ariel block will be an inseparable part of the state of Israel under any situation."

Perhaps Palestinians, always under pressure to negotiate from a position of weakness, have a right to ask what the international community will do to censure such illegal behaviour? Or will Western "concern" be all that is expressed, leaving Israel to carry on undermining the roadmap, thumbing its nose at the international community, and dashing the hopes and genuine efforts of the Palestinians for peace?

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