Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 May 2006
Issue No. 795
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Managing cruelty

Real hunger is beginning to strike the Palestinians as the boycotting of Hamas continues and the elected movement in government stands firm, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank

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Palestinian youth in the West Bank city of Ramallah chant anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration to mark the 58th anniversary of Al-Nakba

With the scourge of starvation beginning to take its toll on impoverished Palestinians also tormented by unrelenting Israeli campaigns of violence and ruin, the Hamas-led government is searching for options to surmount one of the worst threats faced in the occupied territories since 1967.

Hamas government officials as well as thousands of Islamic scholars and preachers have been urging an increasingly frustrated population to be steadfast and resilient. The appeals, renewed every Friday through traditional sermons and congregational prayers in hundreds of mosques throughout the occupied territories, have so far been successful. Tens of thousands attended "defiance rallies" organised by Hamas and until now there is no street movement against the government.

Indeed, Hamas's refusal to yield to Israeli- American blackmail has strengthened the movement's standing in the eyes of most Palestinians who have come to view their government as epitomising and embodying heroic Palestinian resistance in the face of Western-Zionist arrogance and aggression.

This popular feeling has caused Fatah, Hamas's main political rival, to amend its posture vis-à-vis the "siege." Until a few days ago, Fatah leaders were castigating Hamas for "bringing this predicament unto the Palestinian people." However, such comments seemed to boomerang on Fatah as many ordinary Palestinians started identifying these Fatah leaders with American and Israeli attempts to throttle the Palestinian cause.

Underwriting such sentiment, Hamas has successfully convinced many Palestinians that the American-led and Israeli-enforced siege on Palestinians is aimed first and foremost at bullying them to give up on national constants, including the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along with the paramount right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes and native towns and villages in 1948. And they may be right.

Indeed, the propinquity of the Nakba (the violent arrogation of Palestine and expulsion of the bulk of its native Palestinian people by Zionist Jews), whose anniversary Palestinians marked this week with fresh determination to uphold their national cause, has served to reinforce the message of Hamas.

"Let no one deceive you. This siege, this starvation, is not about meeting certain conditions, such as recognising Israel and abandoning resistance, this is about forcing you to give up Al-Masjidul Aqsa (the Aqsa Mosque) and to accept perpetual Jewish domination and occupation of our land," said Palestinian Prime Minister Ismael Haniya before thousands of worshipers Friday.

"Would you give up Al-Aqsa in return for some American or European money?" he asked, as the large multitude answered back in unison, "No, No!"

But Hamas and its government officials realise too well that slogans alone can't repulse the haunting spectre of hunger. "We know that the people's hearts and minds are with us, but their stomachs want bread," said a close aide to Haniya.

This is why the government is contemplating a series of political steps aimed at breaking up the international anti-Hamas front, mainly by getting the EU to terminate its blockade and boycott of the Palestinians.

According to Hamas insiders, these steps include a tacit recognition of the so-called Arab Initiative, adopted by Arab leaders in Beirut in 2002. The initiative promised normalisation with Israel in return for full withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and a "just and equitable" solution to the refugee problem in accordance with UN Resolution 194.

Israel rejected the Arab Initiative when it first appeared, which means invoking it now costs the Palestinians nothing, it being simply an exercise in public relations. The Hamas government is also likely to issue a statement implying its acceptance of outstanding agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), provided that these agreements are compatible with UN resolutions.

These issues are expected to be discussed thoroughly during a national dialogue conference that will take place in Gaza next week, bringing together all Palestinian factions and political parties for the purpose of reaching a common formula to overcome the present crisis.

Without doubt that these talks will be crucial since failure would most certainly deepen the already acute crisis afflicting the Palestinians. The persistence of inter-Palestinian differences, especially the chronic disagreement between Fatah and Hamas, has threatened to push Palestinian society towards greater instability and insecurity, and even widespread civil strife. This, in turn, could lead to the disintegration of the PA; a prospect neither the Arab world, nor the US or EU, and not even Israel, wish to see materialise, each for its own strategic considerations.

Indeed, for Israel, the collapse of the current Hamas-led government would deprive it of a valuable -- even central -- propaganda tool, and might expose its intransigence, its refusal to negotiate the implementation of the roadmap with the Palestinians, for example. Moreover, a collapse of the PA -- which would be the most likely outcome of the collapse of the Hamas government -- would force Israel to reinstate direct administrative control of the West Bank, and probably the Gaza Strip as well, in which case the conflict would go back to square one; a prospect Israel doesn't like, to say the least.

As for the US, it is clear that the Bush administration is not interested in seeing the collapse of the PA since such a prospect would effectively lead to the disappearance of any semblance of a "moderate" Palestinian camp upon which the US counts, first to neutralise or even fight Hamas and, second, as a partner for a future peace process.

It is uncertain at this point whether the US government, which seems to have an almost monomaniacal fixation on Hamas, is thinking along these lines. Indeed, this fixation on Hamas shows that the US is only interested in one thing: weakening and eventually toppling the Hamas-led government with little or no thought for the consequent repercussions.

As to Arab states, particularly those surrounding Palestine, the collapse of the PA could trigger an unpredictable wave of violence. Needless to say, this is the last thing these states wish for. Whether they will come to the defence of Hamas, and thus the PA, which would surely implode if Hamas falls, is another matter.

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