Annapolis could mark the beginning of the end for Mahmoud Abbas, writes Saleh Al-Naami from Gaza
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Young Palestinian relatives of Hamas militant Eyad Aziz grieve during his funeral. Yesterday dawn, two Palestinians were killed and four injured as Israeli tanks fired shells towards a group of Hamas militants on the outskirts of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip. Since the meeting in Annapolis, 22 Palestinians had been killed during Israeli attacks on the occupied territories
The real goal of Annapolis
Anyone following the commentary filling Palestinian newspapers funded by the Salam Fayyad government can hardly fail to have missed the change in the direction espoused by these papers -- which typically promote the views of the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- since the Annapolis meeting.
The majority of columnists and opinion writers are now warning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against accepting American- Israeli proposals that will deepen rifts in Palestine's body politic. Writers and members of the elite connected to the PA who previously defended the attendance of the leadership at the meeting with enthusiasm now express embarrassment over Israel's interpretation of what was agreed in Annapolis. Statements such as that made by the Israel premier Ehud Olmert that the end of 2008 is not an obligatory date for Israel to complete negotiations with the PA, or by Olmert's deputy, Avigdor Lieberman, who said even the end of 2008 may not be an appropriate date for ending the conflict, have undermined Abbas's credibility and ruined his attempts to frame the Annapolis meeting as a Palestinian success.
Observations by Israeli human rights organisations following the Annapolis meeting further complicate the picture. They have noted that Olmert's government continues not only to encourage settlement construction but consistently fails to take action against settlers who build without permits from the Israeli army authorities.
Meanwhile, the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank, where the Fayyad government is in charge, continues unabated. Assassinations, arrests, restrictions on movement and settler attacks against Palestinians continue at pre-Annapolis levels. More damaging to Abbas's credibility is that Israel's interpretation of what took place at Annapolis has not stopped his security forces from continuing the policy of "complementary" work, joining the Israeli army to quash resistance in the West Bank, particularly by Hamas.
Ghassan Al-Khatib, who held several ministerial positions in previous Abbas governments, says that many Palestinians now see Abbas's security agencies as playing the same as Antoine Lahad's pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army during Israel's occupation of South Lebanon.
Further diminishing the margins for manoeuvre available to Abbas and his advisors is the fact that the American administration, in order to appease Israel, has withdrawn a non-binding resolution proposal from the UN Security Council supporting the outcome of the Annapolis meeting. The withdrawal of the proposal is being interpreted as further evidence of US bias towards Israel and of Washington's inability to monitor, let alone arbitrate, the implementation of understandings reached in Annapolis.
The stresses are being felt within Fatah itself, with some of its leaders publicly speaking out against Annapolis.
Sources close to the movement told Al-Ahram Weekly that a group of leaders within Fatah is waiting for an opportunity to meet with Abu Mazen and urge him to resume dialogue with Hamas. They believe Abbas miscalculated that his hard stance against Hamas would convince Israel and Washington to grant him political gains, arguing that Israel will remain inflexible until the Palestinians unite.
There is a growing conviction among Fatah leaders, say sources, that Abbas's political life is reaching an end, speeded on by the public perception that Annapolis was an out and out failure. Many anticipate that the Palestinian president will submit his resignation, and want to see differences with Hamas settled before this happens.
Hamas itself expects that the fallout from Annapolis will be an intensification of Israeli hostility towards resistance in the Gaza Strip, with some predicting that a wide-scale Israeli military campaign will accompany a tightening of the siege.
Prominent Hamas leader Khalil Al-Hayya warns that the movement will adopt unprecedented ways of protesting against the continued siege. "Palestinians will not stay patient as they are slowly strangled by the siege," he told the Weekly. "We are capable of undertaking actions that will make international and regional forces realise how much they erred in supporting the siege of our people."
Nehad Al-Sheikh Khalil, a writer and researcher specialising in Palestinian domestic affairs, sees the main problem facing Abbas post- Annapolis as Olmert's return to the "non-sacred schedules" employed by former Israeli premiere Yitzhak Rabin to wriggle out of Israel's obligations under the Oslo Accords.
"Following Annapolis Palestinian public opinion is increasingly convinced that we are on the threshold of a new catastrophe [Nakba], granting legitimacy to Israeli plans for mass population transfers now that Bush has characterised Palestine as the national homeland of the Jews," he told the Weekly.
Khalil points to the growing conviction among Palestinians that a new stage in the struggle to save Jerusalem and affirm the right of return of refugees is becoming inevitable. Such a conviction, he believes, could take the form of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees marching to the Erez crossing, which leads to Israel, to demand the implementation of Security Council Resolution 194 calling for the return of refugees and underlining their determination to return to the areas from which their families were driven.
Khalil stresses that the Annapolis meeting has served only to harm Abbas's political agenda and his rejection of the militarisation of armed resistance against the occupation at a time when even those close to him realise that its outcome will help Israel not only establish settlements as facts on the ground but also improve Tel Aviv's international standing without Israel showing any flexibility towards the Palestinians.
Widening Palestinian divisions was always one of the goals of Tel Aviv and Washington at Annapolis. Ironically, Israel's selective reading of the meeting's joint declaration of intentions may yet prompt Palestinians to heal these rifts. (see p.6)