Another awful year
In 2008, the charade of US-backed Palestinian-Israeli peace talks was only surpassed in bitterness by the horror inflicted on Gaza by Israel and its backers, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied East Jerusalem
Click to view caption|
Palestinians carry candles during a protest in Bethlehem against the Israeli halt in fuel deliveries which forced the closure of the Gaza Strip's sole power plant in January
2008 was a particularly harsh year for the Palestinians and their enduring cause. The Gaza Strip remained for the second consecutive year a bleeding wound, with a merciless Israeli blockade affecting every conceivable aspect of life of the estimated 1.5 million Gazans whose very survival continues to depend on the good will of the international community.
Added to the nearly hermetic blockade, which some observers have likened to the 1942-43 Warsaw Ghetto siege by the Nazis, is the unrelenting showdown between Hamas and Fatah. The continuing crises between the two largest Palestinian political camps exacerbated considerably in November after Hamas refused to attend Egyptian-mediated national reconciliation talks in Cairo, citing wholesale arrests by the Palestinian Authority (PA) regime in Ramallah of Hamas supporters and sympathisers in the West Bank.
The tug-of-war directly affected Hamas's relations with Egypt. Cairo, cognizant of Hamas's Muslim Brotherhood connections, more or less blamed Hamas for the collapse of the reconciliation talks.
In the West Bank, 2008 witnessed an unprecedented campaign by Israel against Islamic charities allegedly linked to Hamas. The campaign left thousands of orphans and needy children at the mercy of poverty as the Israeli army closed down and destroyed numerous facilities catering for them.
Fatah itself, far from being united, continues to be plagued by internal divisions and power struggles involving the old guard and the younger generations. One of the most conspicuous expressions of chronic divisions is Fatah's failure to convene its long-overdue Sixth Congress.
Also, towards the end of 2008, Jewish religious fanatics stepped up their violent campaign against Palestinian civilians throughout the West Bank, especially in the city of Hebron. The phenomenal escalation coincided with the continuing drift in Israeli Jewish society towards the right wing and religious extremism.
Finally, US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the PA have proven a fiasco despite more than 24 visits to the region by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and numerous encounters between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Observers cite Israel's adamant refusal to give up the spoils of the 1967 war as the main and central reason for the failure of peace efforts.
GAZA IN THE CROSSHAIRS: In the first half of 2008, hundreds of Palestinians, mostly innocent civilians, were killed and many more injured, most seriously, in unequal confrontations between the Israeli occupation army and poorly armed and poorly trained Palestinian militiamen. Israel, citing the firing by Palestinian fighters of homemade and mostly ineffective shells, known as Qassams, onto nearby Israeli settlements, often targeted unprotected Palestinian population centres, including homes, power stations and public buildings, wreaking havoc on the civilian population and its infrastructure.
The overall situation in the Gaza Strip exacerbated further under a harsh blockade that in many respects took Gaza back to primitive existence.
In June, thanks to Egyptian efforts, a tacit ceasefire understanding was reached between Israel and Hamas with the latter agreeing to stop firing on nearby Israeli settlements in return for a promise by Israel to lift the siege on Gaza. To be sure, the ceasefire was not completely observed, especially by Israel that killed more than 49 Palestinians during the ceasefire period. But Israel reneged on the core condition of the ceasefire -- lifting the siege and reopening Gaza's border crossings -- prompting Hamas and other Palestinian factions to declare mid-December that the ceasefire would not be extended.
The decision, intimated Hamas officials, was precipitated by profound bitterness at the failure of Egypt and the international community to force Israel to end the siege. "There will be no renewal of the ceasefire without lifting the siege," declared Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Gaza-based Hamas-led government, 14 December. Speaking before hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters in Katiba Square in downtown Gaza City, Haniyeh bitterly criticised the Egyptian government, saying that it was unethical and un-Islamic to allow the siege to persist.
"We are not anti-Egypt. Egypt and the people of Egypt are in our hearts. We would sacrifice our lives for Egypt," said Haniyeh. But taking part in enforcing "this oppressive siege against fellow Muslims is unacceptable, un-Islamic and inhuman," he added.
Haniyeh also asked Egypt to stand at equal distance from Fatah and Hamas and not be biased towards Fatah. Egyptian officials sought to refute Hamas's accusations that Egypt was enforcing the siege on Gaza. One Foreign Ministry official, Hossam Zaki, said Egypt was only trying to prevent Israel from exporting its problems to Egypt, which he said was serving Palestinian national interests.
In the closing week of 2008, Egypt allowed a large convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian assistance into Gaza. The Egyptian gesture coincided with the arrival at the harbour of Gaza City of a small boat, named "Dignity", charted by the Free Gaza Organisation, a group of human rights activists from many countries. The boat carried humanitarian relief material including food and medicine. It also brought to Gaza two representatives of Qatari charities who will assess needs on the ground.
FATAH-HAMAS SHOWDOWN: Meanwhile, the national rift between Hamas and Fatah continues unabated as the two sides have failed to reconcile their differences, precipitated mainly by Hamas's victory in the 2006 elections and the subsequent Israeli-Western boycott of the Hamas-led government.
The bitter power struggle between the US-backed Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas reached critical point in June 2007 when Hamas militiamen defeated and ousted Fatah forces from the Gaza Strip. Throughout 2008, Fatah sought to destabilise and weaken the Hamas government in Gaza, but with little success. In response, Hamas elements neutralised the last two pockets of resistance to Hamas rule in Gaza, the Doghmosh and Helis clans.
Embittered by events, Fatah launched an all-out campaign against suspected Hamas members, supporters and sympathisers throughout the West Bank, during which thousands were arrested. Some, like Amgad Barghouti, were tortured to death. Fatah also dismissed or demoted hundreds of civil servants on suspicion of showing Islamist sympathies.
The crisis between Fatah and Hamas is expected to culminate 9 January 2009 when PA President Mahmoud Abbas's term in office expires. Hamas has said it will not recognise the legitimacy of Abbas after 9 January and that it will appoint Palestinian Parliament Speaker Aziz Duweik -- imprisoned in Israel for "affiliation with an illegal political party" -- or his deputy, Ahmed Bahr, as acting president until a new president is elected, in accordance with the stipulations of the Palestinian constitution.
For his part, Abbas is vowing to stay on as president of the PA irrespective of what Hamas says or does. The PA leader has given strong indications that he will call for presidential and legislative elections in 2009. However, with Gaza and the West Bank remaining politically and geographically separate, there are serious questions as to the credibility of holding elections in the West Bank alone, given Hamas's refusal to hold early elections in Gaza.
CRACKDOWN ON CHARITIES: The year 2008 witnessed some of the harshest and most draconian Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian charities and philanthropic institutions in the West Bank. Early in the year, the Israeli army ordered the closure of dozens of orphanages, boarding schools, medical centres, businesses and sport clubs Israeli intelligence alleged were linked to Hamas. Hamas and Palestinian officials denied the charges, accusing the Israeli army of waging open war on Islam.
The southern West Bank town of Hebron bore the brunt of the Israeli campaign, with thousands of orphans and impoverished children losing shelter and sustenance. Human rights organisations demonstrated in solidarity with these institutions. Israeli authorities, however, refused to relent.
Hamas accused the PA of colluding and conniving with Israel against the charity infrastructure. The PA denied Hamas's charges. However, in the second half of 2008, the PA itself raided and took over the same institutions, unceremoniously dismissing elected governing boards and appointing Fatah activists in their stead. Hamas says that Fatah took over as many as 900 Islamic institutions across the West Bank. Fatah says that the takeovers -- which are illegal -- were a legitimate reaction to Hamas's persecution of Fatah members in Gaza.
On the side of the Israeli occupation, the year 2008 also witnessed an unprecedented escalation of Jewish settler terror against Palestinians all over the West Bank. In Hebron, Jewish religious fanatics shouting "Death to the Arabs!" attacked Palestinians and their property, burning homes, desecrating mosques and cemeteries, and causing substantial damage. The settlers made no secret of their ultimate goal, namely to expel all non-Jews from Israel-Palestine or, if necessary, exterminating them physically, pursuant Talmudic incitements.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a brief moment of candour, referred to the terror in Hebron as a "pogrom", adding: "There is no other word to describe what happened."
In other parts of the West Bank settlers attacked Palestinian schoolchildren and poisoned Arab water cisterns and grazing fields. Rampaging settlers also attacked Palestinian shepherds and olive pickers frequently. In Nablus, dozens of armed Jewish fanatics rampaged through Palestinian villages, shooting on homes and vandalising Palestinian properties.
The terror and vandalism was encouraged by the reluctance of the Israeli army to clamp down on Jewish terrorist infrastructure and by an Israeli justice system that treats the settlers as superior to Palestinians.
DEAD-END PEACE PROCESS: Finally, despite numerous meetings between Olmert and Abbas and visits by Rice, the US-backed peace process failed to make any significant progress towards the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several conferences and meetings organised by international donors also failed to push the process forward.
Observes and analysts attribute the continuing deadlock to two main factors: first, Israel's refusal to end its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, as demonstrated by the continuance of Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied territories, rendering impossible the creation of a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state. Second, that the Bush administration, like previous US administrations, had neither the will nor the inclination to pressure Israel into respecting international law and Palestinian national rights.
In 2004, Bush formally assured then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could retain large Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the context of a final status agreement with the Palestinians. Israel has since used this guarantee as cover to build more Jewish settlements and expand existing ones.
The PA, for its part, did nearly all it was asked to do by the US and the International Quartet (the US, UN, EU and Russia) with regard to its commitments under the now-moribund roadmap plan for peace in the Middle East. In particular, the PA clamped down on Hamas, imprisoned thousands of Islamist sympathisers without charge or trial, and nearly completely dismantled Fatah's own militant groups, such as Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
More to the point, the PA built a new apolitical military force, trained and financed by the US and overseen by General Keith Dayton, the same man who in 2007 stood behind Fatah's failed efforts to crush Hamas in Gaza. In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli newspaper, Dayton said the raison d'être of the new Palestinian forces was not to fight Israel but to keep law and order, irrespective of the Israeli occupation.