Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 January - 6 February 2008
Issue No. 882
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yet another nothing

While Hamas is changing facts on the ground at Rafah, the latest talks between Abbas and Olmert go nowhere, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem

Click to view caption
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem. Israeli and Palestinian leaders met to discuss control of the Gaza-Egypt border

The latest meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to be devoted to discussion of the recently re- launched peace process, following the Annapolis conference, more than two months ago. Recent dramatic events in the Gaza Strip -- namely the breakout of hundreds of thousands of starving and deprived Gazans into Egypt -- overshadowed the talks.

According to Palestinian officials in Ramallah, Abbas pressed Olmert to lift the blockade on Gaza and allow the redeployment of Palestinian security personnel affiliated with the Ramallah government to the Rafah border crossing. Abbas, weakened -- at least psychologically -- by Hamas's triumph in partially undermining the Israeli blockade, wanted to tell the Palestinians that while Hamas could achieve the spectacular feat in Rafah, it was he and he alone who could bring about a sustained arrangement that would allow Gazans a semblance of normal life by re-opening border crossings in coordination with Israel and the international community.

Abbas may have a point, since only through the deployment of security operatives answerable to him can the border crossings be reopened on a more or less permanent basis. In the meantime, however, all parties concerned also realise that this is easier said than done, because no matter how strong Western backing of Abbas is, he won't be able to do much in terms of controlling the border crossings without at least some tacit coordination with the Hamas government, the de facto authority in the Gaza Strip.

Coordination, however, may be more akin to the imposition of a fait accompli. In the words of PA Foreign Minister Riyadh Maliki, "Hamas will be told about this agreement and they will have to accept the presence of the Presidential Guard at the border. This is the Egyptian position as delivered to us by Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman."

To be sure, Hamas is not wholly against the deployment of PA security personnel at the crossings. The movement would like to see such a step, however, taken as part of an overall process of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas that would end the national rift between the two largest Palestinian factions.

But for his part, Abbas doesn't seem sufficiently independent to reach a concordance with Hamas, since such reconciliation, even if kept tacit, would upset and perhaps alienate his bankrollers and political backers, especially in the West. It would also give Israel its sought- after pretext to disengage from peace talks with the Palestinians, despite the disingenuousness of these talks as evident from the dismal outcome of numerous high-level meetings between Abbas and Olmert.

This conundrum might eventually force Abbas and Hamas, probably through pro-active Egyptian mediation, to reach a kind of ad hoc agreement that would fall short of medium- or long-term reconciliation but that would allow at least a partial reopening of Gaza's crossings, more or less in accordance with prior guidelines, though necessarily with less Israeli interference. To be sure, Hamas adamantly refuses to return to the humiliating status quo ante at the Rafah crossing.

"We want new arrangements at the border crossing," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The agreement reached in 2005 doesn't exist any longer. It is part of history." Another Hamas leader, Mushir Al-Masri, vowed that, "the Palestinians will not accept any arrangements that would inhibit the free movement of Palestinians from and to the Gaza Strip. It is time the world understands that Gazans are fed up with this animal-like treatment we have been receiving from the Zionist entity."

Al-Masri added that the "previous arrangements were a nightmare that the people of Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian people are no longer willing to accept. It was because of these arrangements that Palestinian travellers were stranded for days and weeks on both sides of the Rafah border terminal, because Israel wouldn't allow the European monitors to reach the area. We won't agree to reinstate the same procedures."

Responding to Abbas's requests for lifting the blockade, Olmert vowed that Israel wouldn't allow a humanitarian disaster to take place in Gaza. It is unclear, however, to what extent Abbas was sincere in his plea. After all, one of Olmert's main rationales in maintaining the blockade was to strengthen Abbas and force the Palestinian people in Gaza to rise up against Hamas. Tellingly, Abbas has never publicly refuted or disavowed these Israeli justifications.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on 28 January that both Olmert and Abbas agreed that they would demand that Egypt close the ruptured fence separating Northern Sinai from Gaza. Abbas's discomfort with the dramatic events in Rafah found expression in the coverage of these events by a generally pliant Palestinian media in the West Bank, which initially accused the Egyptian government of colluding with Hamas in producing this "theatrical play".

To be sure, Abbas and his regime found themselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, the last thing they would like is to appear before a decidedly anti-Israeli and anti- America Palestinian public as instrumental accomplices in enforcing the callous blockade of Gaza, described recently by Israeli historian Illan Pappe as "genocidal". On the other hand, Abbas knows very well that the persistence of the blockade is the best chance he still has to weaken Hamas.

Hence, Abbas is faced with two unattractive choices: rapprochement with Hamas, which Cairo and most other Arab capitals favour; or effectively siding with Israel in enforcing the blockade, which the US and Israel want, but which would portray the Palestinian leader as a de facto quisling working and collaborating with Israel against his own people and their paramount national interests.

Meanwhile, Olmert's promises -- that Israel won't let a humanitarian crisis develop -- shouldn't be taken seriously. Indeed, he has said the same thing for months while Gaza is steadily sliding towards catastrophe. Indeed, it was Olmert who two weeks ago gave his assent to cutting off power to Gaza, plunging the coastal strip, with its 1.5 million impoverished inhabitants, into total darkness.

Further, Olmert's assurances to Abbas are contrasted by contradictory statements made by his own defence minister, Ehud Barak. Barak was quoted this week as saying that the Israeli army would only allow "small amounts" of humanitarian aid to reach Gaza. In other words, Israel is continuing its policy of starving the Palestinian people, while Israeli contacts with the PA and other regional and international players are aimed at enlisting them to perfect the siege.

Barak is apparently grooming himself as Israel's next prime minister. His seeming way of preparation is to kill as many Palestinians as possible. His consistent rejections of Hamas proposals for a ceasefire show that he has little interest in the well-being of Gaza's population. However, the breakout into Egypt has demonstrated that Barak's magic is not working and is not going to work. But this doesn't mean that he and his ilk in the Israeli government won't try again -- and again after the next failure -- to break the back of the Palestinian liberation struggle by subjecting all Palestinians to intolerable conditions of life.

This is not to say though that the two Ehuds (Barak and Olmert) are adopting two different lines vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

While Barak implements collective punishment, Olmert continues working hard to destroy even the basis of talks with Israel. This week, Olmert told his coalition partners that the issue of Jerusalem wouldn't even be discussed with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future. Last week, Olmert said that Israel would continue to expand Jewish settlements throughout occupied East Jerusalem and annexed adjacent territories, extending from southern Ramallah to northern Hebron, and reaching the western suburbs of Jericho in the east.

The Israeli premier also assured Shas leader Eli Yishai that, "there will be no freeze to construction in Jerusalem and neighbouring settlements, such as Maale Adumim and Betar Ilit." When Abbas confronted Olmert on the issue during their latest meeting, Olmert told Abbas, rather innocently, "Israel doesn't view these areas as part of Jerusalem."

The Gaza Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA), signed on 14 November 2005 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (as part of the disengagement plan of the former from Gaza), reinforces Israel's de facto control over the Strip's economy and the movement of its citizens.

The negotiations were facilitated by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and the international community's envoy for the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, James Wolfensohn.

Palestinians and European Union (EU) observers ran the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing point. EU observers transmitted live images to a joint Israeli-Palestinian control room where security officers monitored the crossing point several kilometres away.

After Hamas's takeover of Gaza on 14 June 2007, the EU suspended operations at the border on account that it considers Hamas a terrorist organisation.

Agreement on Movement and Access

To promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground, the following agreement has been reached. It represents the commitments of the Government of Israel (GoI) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Its implementation and further elaboration will be assisted by the Quartet Special Envoy for Disengagement and his staff and/or the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) and his staff.

- Rafah

The parties have agreed to the attached statement of principles. Rafah will be open as soon as it is ready to operate at an international standard in accordance with the specifications of this agreement and as soon as the third party is on site, with a target date of 25 November.

- Crossing points

The parties have agreed that:

The passages will operate continuously. On an urgent basis, Israel will permit the export of all agricultural products from Gaza during this 2005 harvest season.

The new and additional scanner will be installed and fully operational by 31 December. At that time, the number of export trucks per day to be processed through Karni will reach 150, and 400 by end-2006. A common management system will be adopted by both parties.

In addition to the number of trucks above, Israel will permit export of agricultural produce from Gaza and will facilitate its speedy exit and onward movement so that quality and freshness can be maintained. Israel will ensure the continued opportunity to export.

- Link between Gaza and the West Bank

Israel will allow the passage of convoys to facilitate the movements of goods and persons.

It is understood that security is a prime and continuing concern for Israel and that appropriate arrangements to ensure security will be adopted.

- Movement within the West Bank

Consistent with Israel's security needs, to facilitate movement of people and goods within the West Bank and to minimise disruption to Palestinian lives, the ongoing work between Israel and the US to establish agreed list of obstacles to movement and to develop a plan to reduce them to the maximum extent possible will be accelerated so that the work can be completed by 31 December.

- Gaza seaport

Construction of a seaport can commence. The GoI will undertake to assure donors that it will not interfere with the operation of the port. The parties will establish a US- led tripartite committee to develop security and other relevant arrangements for the port prior to its opening. The third party model to be used at Rafah will provide the basis for this work.

- Airport

The parties agreed on the importance of the airport. Discussions will continue on the issues of security arrangements, construction and operation.

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