Israeli intransigence on any prisoner swap, combined with increasing pressure on Hamas, caused by a US/Fatah collusion, promise a bleak future for the Palestinian people and their government, writes Khaled Amayreh in the West Bank
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Palestinian girls mourn the death of their relative Rami Abu Lahia, 27, a member of the Palestinian national security force, during his funeral in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip
Having just augmented his government with Avigdor Lieberman, the former Moldavian immigrant warmonger who once urged the Israeli air force to bomb Tehran, the Aswan Dam and then blanket-bomb Palestinian population centres, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is already threatening to kill and maim further thousands of Palestinians.
Indeed, as Lieberman was being sworn-in as deputy prime minister and, more importantly, as "minister for strategic threats," Olmert boasted before the Knesset Foreign and Security Committee that his army killed three hundred "Hamas militants" in the past three months.
Of course the mendacious Olmert was being selective with the truth. According to Dr Muawiya Abu Hassanin, director of ambulances and emergencies in the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the Israeli army has been targeting innocent civilians deliberately while Israeli leaders and spokesmen continue to mislead the world by claiming that militants are being killed.
Hassanin said that as many 137 Palestinian children and teenagers under the age of 16 have been killed since June, in addition to 29 women and 12 men above the age of 60. Forty-two of the victims died while inside their homes, destroyed by aerial bombing or artillery bombardment.
Olmert vowed that the occupation army will step up incursions and forays into Gaza Strip's population centres in order to stop the firing across the border of the homemade Qassam projectiles by Palestinian resistance militants. These ineffective "rockets" are seen by many observers as the Palestinians' desperate response to Israel's unceasing and unrelenting campaign of murder and terror against the encircled and starved Gaza Strip.
The real reason for the Israeli incursion, which Israeli leaders, including Olmert himself, make no efforts to conceal, is to topple the Hamas government, and the way to go about doing this from the Israeli perspective is by killing and maiming hundreds and thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians.
Meanwhile, increasing efforts to effect a prisoner swap between Israel and the Palestinians are underway. This week, a delegation representing Hamas arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials aiming at reaching a deal with Israel. The delegation included Imad Al-Alami, Hamas's representative in Syria and Gaza lawmaker Mushir Al-Masri.
During the past few days, several Palestinian officials, including Prime Minister Ismael Haniya, suggested that a prisoner swap deal with Israel was at hand. However, such optimism may well be unwarranted at this time since two important hurdles are still impeding the conclusion of a deal.
The first hurdle is that Israel is insisting that only "prisoners of their choice" be released. Previously, this meant that Israel would release "apolitical" or "non-political" prisoners and detainees such as workers in Israel without entry permits and petty criminals. This would be viewed as particularly deceitful by all Palestinians. Indeed, it is almost certain that the Hamas delegation will seek to forcefully press the Egyptians on this particular issue. "The Egyptian brothers might be tempted to think that 'a prisoner is a prisoner and it doesn't matter if he is a political leader or a day labourer,' but that is a very crucial issue. What is the point of having a prisoner swap and sacrificing hundreds of Palestinians ... if Israel is not going to free our political and resistance leaders," retorted a high- ranking Hamas official in Hebron.
Another hurdle is that Israel is insisting that the captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, be released before any Palestinian prisoners are freed. In response, Hamas has proposed a simultaneous exchange whereby Shalit and the Palestinian prisoners would be released at the same time under Egyptian auspices. It is almost certain that the Olmert government will reject this proposal which would illustrate reciprocity and give Hamas a moral and psychological victory. According to Hamas sources, Egypt has come up with a bridging proposal in which as many as 1400 Palestinian prisoners would be released in three stages in return for Shalit's freedom.
The settlement of the Shalit affair is important, not only with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, but also with regard to the unresolved crisis between Fatah and Hamas concerning the creation of a new government that would presumably lead to the lifting of draconian western sanctions against the Palestinians. These sanctions, coupled with the callous Israeli policy of barring Palestinians from accessing food and work, and of turning Gaza into a huge detention camp by re-taking control of the Rafah border crossing, have created an unprecedented economic, social and political crisis in the occupied territories, pushing millions of Palestinians to the brink of starvation.
The sanctions have also created an implosive situation exacerbated further by the government's inability to pay salaries to civil servants, which ultimately led to bloody clashes between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in the death of more than 20 people.
During the past few days, Hamas have been appealing to PA President Mahmoud Abbas to stop being at America's beck and call and immediately join talks aimed at forming a government of national unity. Hamas has even signalled a willingness to accept a government of technocrats or experts, provided Abbas and his Fatah organisation display goodwill and national responsibility.
A few days prior to Eid Al-Fitr, which marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan, rumours circulated in the West Bank and Gaza that Fatah was planning a coup to topple Hamas immediately following the Eid holiday. Reports to that effect, which first appeared in the Israeli press and were attributed to "unnamed PA officials", were denied by Abbas and his lieutenants. As nothing of this sort materialised, Fatah and Hamas leaders in Gaza agreed to remove all armed men, save the police, from the streets of Gaza.
Nonetheless, there is still a strong feeling on Hamas's part that Abbas is not really interested in any genuine power-sharing arrangement with the movement and that he wishes to topple Hamas by any means possible, as Haniya has suggested.
Last week, Abbas reportedly requested that Israel and the US allow a few thousand members of the Jordan-based "Palestine Liberation Army" to enter Gaza to bolster Fatah's forces against Hamas, which has created its own 6000-strong armed militia, known as the executive force. Israeli leaders are likely to consent to Abbas's request if they consider that the likelihood of the Jordan-based troops battling Hamas is greater than them playing a role detrimental to Israeli interests.
The US, too, seems disinterested in a government of national unity between Fatah and Hamas. In fact, the US has paid more money to train Abbas's Presidential Guard in order to prepare it for a possible violent confrontation with Hamas. Most of the training, which involves some 400 Force-17 cadres, is taking place in the small town of Jericho and overseen by the American Security Coordinator in the occupied territories, General Keith Dayton.
But popular support may stay with Hamas. This week, as many as 60,000 Palestinians turned out in Hebron to pledge their allegiance to Hamas. The vast multitude showed that Hamas is still a strong movement among Palestinians despite the sanctions and despite all the talk about its dwindling popularity. Such a show of force by Hamas may have contributed to Abbas's reluctance to destroy all the bridges with Hamas, at least for the time being.