Adam Ash

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Saturday, September 30, 2006

If only Israelis could treat Palestinians like they were human beings, and vice versa, maybe there'd be no more big problems on earth

Why Hamas Resists Recognizing Israel
Viewpoint: The West is betting that continued Palestinian misery will force Hamas leaders to recognize Israel. But the strategy is as misguided as it is cruel
By TONY KARON (from Time Magazine)

Palestinian Muslims are currently joining the faithful the world over in denying themselves food between sunrise and sundown. But while most Muslims elsewhere break their Ramadan fast with sumptuous iftar meals, those unfortunate enough to live in the West Bank and Gaza are finding that they have less and less to put on the table come nightfall. That's because they remain under a financial siege imposed by Israel, the U.S. and Europe, in the hope of forcing Hamas, the Palestinian ruling party, to recognize Israel. The premise of the siege strategy appears to be that by increasing Palestinian misery, domestic pressure will mount on Hamas to submit or quit.

But such collective punishment may be as misguided as it is cruel; even if it did work, any "recognition" achieved this way would mean little in the pursuit of peace. An authoritative Palestinian polling organization last week released telling findings on Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and Gaza . It found 54% of voters dissatisfied with Hamas's performance in government, the figure rising to 69% when it came to financial matters such as payment of salaries. Only 38% would vote for Hamas in an election now. But when asked whether Hamas should submit to the Western demand that it recognize Israel, 67% said no.

Clearly, it's not simply some extreme Islamist fringe that favors withholding recognition — it's a majority consensus that includes many of the voters of President Mahmoud Abbas's own Fatah party. In part, as Israeli commentator Danny Rubinstein notes , that reflects a widely held belief among Palestinians that "Yasser Arafat and the PLO recognized the State of Israel in the Oslo agreement and what did they gain from that? Only suffering and misfortune." In fact, as Rubinstein notes, the settler population in the West Bank actually doubled during the Oslo years.

Even the Arab League proposal that Abbas is demanding Hamas accept as the basis for a unity government offers only conditional recognition — the Arab states would normalize relations with Israel if it agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Hamas likes to dodge the issue by pointing out that Israel has no intention of doing that.

The question of recognizing Israel is difficult for Hamas or any other Palestinian organization, ultimately, because of the meaning of Israel in the Palestinian national story. In the Western and Israeli narrative, Israel's creation is seen as redress for centuries of Jewish suffering in Europe culminating in the Holocaust. In the Palestinian and Arab narrative, Israel's creation meant the violent displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and another Arab humiliation at Western hands. So, while May 15 is celebrated by Israelis as Yom Haatzmaut (independence day), the Palestinians mark the same day as the somber anniversary of Al-Nakbah (the catastrophe), the moment when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost everything.

The idea of the triumph of one people being the tragedy of another is eloquently captured in Sandy Tolan's book, The Lemon Tree — essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the difficulty in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tolan chronicles the true story of Dalia Eshkenazi, whose family flees post-Holocaust Bulgaria in 1948 to live the Zionist dream of building a Jewish state in the Holy Land. The new Israeli government provides them with an abandoned Arab house in the town of Ramla, in which she grows up. One summer morning in 1967, she's sitting in the garden near the old lemon tree, when Bashir Khairi knocks on the gate. Khairi is the son of the man who planted the lemon tree; he was born in the house and lived there until age 4, when he and his family, and hundreds of others, were forced onto buses by Israeli soldiers and driven to the West Bank, where they have lived as refugees ever since. The fraught and complex friendship that ensues between Dalia — a committed Zionist who wants justice for the Palestinians — and Bashir, a Palestinian militant who insists on his right of return to his home, allows for a rare frank dialogue based on mutual respect and an honest acknowledgment of the past, and of the difficulty of resolving the present. There's no happy ending or resolution, but their mutual recognition offers some sort of hope.

It's the clash of narratives described by Tolan that ultimately fuels the controversy over Hamas recognizing Israel. Hamas's dramatic election victory came precisely because the Palestinian electorate judged Fatah to have failed. To simply demand, as Israel and the Western powers are doing, that Hamas now echo Fatah's symbolic recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence is pointless. Fatah recognized the State of Israel only because it had become clear to them that Israel was an irreversible historical fact. But that certainly did not stop Fatah's rank and file from taking up arms during the intifada that began in September 2000. Ask Mahmoud Abbas or any other moderate Palestinian leader whether they would rather Israel had not come into being in 1948, and there can be no doubt of the honest answer.

Many intelligence professionals eschew torture because they know that it tends to yield the answers that the suspect thinks his interrogators want to hear — not necessarily the truth. In some respects, there may be a similar effect in trying to throttle the Palestinians into submission. It's not inconceivable that at some point Hamas might find a formula for recognizing Israel in order to put food on Palestinian tables. But such a recognition would speak more to the boot on their necks than to any change in their hearts.

2. Avoiding the essential issues in Palestine -- by Rami G. Khouri (from Beirut’s Daily Star

Sometimes wishful thinking dominates rational hard work. This is probably what is going on with the expectation that a Palestinian national unity government will be formed any day now, comprising Hamas, Fatah and some technocrats and respected independents. This has already generated speculation about the possibility of breaking the diplomatic stalemate with Israel, and ending the American-European-Israeli boycott and economic sanctions against the present Hamas-led government. We should be clear about what this process is all about. It is emphatically not a self-generated Palestinian national step forward on the road to a coherent, consensus policy on domestic governance or relations with Israel. That is unfortunate, because the Palestinians need, and are capable of, defining their national priorities, agreeing on policies to achieve their goals, and mobilizing public opinion to either negotiate peace with Israel or resist it effectively. This is not what is happening.

Rather, the national unity government being contemplated is a show of Palestinian weakness, vulnerability and irresoluteness. It is largely a desperate response to the Israeli-American-European financial embargo that is slowly starving the Palestinians. To avoid death by strangulation and malnutrition, the Palestinians must practice diplomatic submission and subservience to Israeli-American positions. In return for a resumption of aid and normal diplomatic contacts, the Palestinians must meet the three conditions that were set after the Hamas election victory in January. The Middle East "Quartet" established those conditions as: recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence, and recognition of previous peace accords with the Israelis.

These are reasonable and logical demands; but they are made unreasonable and illogical by being unilaterally imposed on the Palestinians in a context of siege and starvation warfare. The Palestinians are responding in a way that will not work. They are trying to meet the three demands indirectly, by implication and insinuation, while not meeting them explicitly. The Palestinian government's agreed national political platform affirms the 2002 Arab summit peace plan. This plan offers recognition and coexistence to Israel, if it returns all lands occupied in 1967 and resolves the Palestine refugee issue on the basis of UN resolutions. Israel has always ignored and disdained the 2002 Arab offer, and the US never took serious action to advance it, yet the Palestinians suddenly expect it to open doors. Starvation-induced desperation is an ugly sight.

This waste of time and massive deception deceives nobody. It neither responds to the Quartet demands nor offers any hope of a diplomatic breakthrough to a negotiated peace. It is not even certain of resuming financial aid to the Palestinians, as the ongoing US-Israel-Europe debate reveals. As a forced response to inhuman strangulation by the US and Israel, the Palestinian national unity government only perpetuates a low quality American-Israeli-Palestinian tradition of dancing around the tough decisions that need to be made, without grasping them. This always turns into a dance of death on both sides, as we witness today.

The main problem with this process is that it remains a unilateral one - with Israel imposing its position on the Palestinians by force, and the US and Europe siding with Israel. The three reasonable demands made of the Palestinians are one-way dictates, which become divisive rather than constructive. The Palestinians have a right to know what they get in return for meeting these three demands, such as parallel Israeli compliance with international norms of reasonable conduct. This includes Israel's uprooting rogue colonies and settlements, ending expansion of official colonial-settler communities, stopping land expropriations, releasing jailed officials, and ending assassinations of Palestinian militants and civilians. Now that's a deal worth considering, were it ever to be offered.

Instead, the Palestinians are offered only a possible resumption of some financial aid, and a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It's hard to think of a more dysfunctional and unpromising diplomatic process than this. Olmert and Abbas are among the world's least credible political leaders. If there were a Nobel Prize for missed historic political opportunities, they would share it. They and all that they represent have had countless opportunities in the past decade to make progress, and they have consistently, spectacularly failed to do so.

Adding forced capitulation and new levels of ambiguity to the already limp legacy of Palestinian national leadership behavior will only generate new forms of political frustration and tension; these will ultimately express themselves in unpredictable manifestations of contestation, resistance and perhaps violence. Israeli-American attempts to punish, strangle, starve, boycott, jail, kill, bankrupt and generally humiliate the Palestinians into submission and surrender will fail, as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Bringing the elected Hamas leadership into this cycle of false hopes and slightly delusional expectations will only add Hamas to the list of discredited political amateurs.

The only diplomatic process that will succeed has never been seriously attempted: demanding equal and simultaneous concessions from Israelis and Palestinians, on key issues of statehood, recognition, coexistence, and renunciation of violence. Trying to circumvent this moral, historical and political imperative of addressing Palestinian and Israeli national rights equally, and in parallel, is a colossal waste of time, and painful to watch - yet again.

(Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.)


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