SEALE: Palestinian feuds and international stalemate October 27, 2009

Palestinian flag painting

by Patrick Seale  -  Agence Global -  26 October 2009

The bitter and interminable quarrel between Fatah and Hamas is spreading its poison across the Middle East and beyond.

The breach between the West Bank and Gaza appears unbridgeable. The two broken-backed and suffering territories — the one under Israeli occupation, the other under Israeli siege — remain at each other’s throats, as if unaware that their feuding is in danger of dooming their national cause to oblivion.

The Palestinians themselves are the main victims of the stubborn Fatah-Hamas feud. Mahmud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, is widely discredited in Palestinian circles, not least because of his shilly-shallying over the Goldstone Report on war crimes committed during the Gaza war last December-January.

But there are other casualties as well. Egypt has made immense efforts to mediate between Fatah and Hamas. After long and patient negotiations, it drew up a detailed document, dealing with such controversial subjects as arrangements for Palestinian elections set for 28 June 2010, the merging of security forces, the future governance of the two territories by a joint Fatah-Hamas committee, and so forth. It was hoped both sides would sign last week, and thus embark on the path of reconciliation, perhaps leading in due course to the formation of a national unity government.

But these hopes have once again proved vain. The document remains unsigned. Cairo’s influence has suffered a blow, as has the reputation of its intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, who led the lengthy mediation efforts. Worse still, Egypt’s national interest is threatened. Cut off from the world by Israel, Gaza is increasingly integrated into the Egyptian economy. It depends for its survival on goods smuggled in from Egypt through hundreds of cross- border tunnels.

Israel would like nothing better than to hand Gaza over to Egypt, but there is nothing that Egypt fears more. Who would want to inherit responsibility for a shattered society of one and a half million angry, deprived and radicalised people, nine-tenths of them below the poverty line? Egypt has problems enough of its own without having to worry that desperation in Gaza might seep across the border and infect Sinai, creating grave security problems there.

Having no wish to be blamed for the failure of Egypt’s mediation, Mahmud Abbas last week signed a decree calling for elections in both the West Bank and Gaza on 24 January. Hamas promptly declared his decree illegal and said it would not take part.

Another casualty of the Palestinian feud is U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace strategy. If the Palestinians believe he can deliver a Palestinian state for them while they continue to quarrel, they are much mistaken. Without a united Palestinian and Arab front there can be little hope of a peace settlement.

But the United States is itself hamstrung by its refusal of all contacts with Hamas, which remains on its terrorist list. This is against all logic since Hamas appears to have abandoned armed struggle, is firmly in control of Gaza, and has told several international interlocutors that it is ready to accept a two-state solution. Surely it is time for the United States to engage with it — as it has with Iran, Sudan and Syria?

There are rumours, however, that, under Israeli pressure, the United States — in the person of Middle East special envoy George Mitchell — may even have advised Mahmud Abbas that the time was not ripe for a deal with Hamas. If these rumours are true, the Obama Administration is shooting itself in the foot and its peace policy is doomed to failure.

In Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government is evidently delighted by American dithering and Palestinian divisions. While Netanyahu’s popularity ratings in Israel have soared, Obama’s ratings in America have plummeted. Having won the battle with Obama over settlements, Netanyahu is now confident that he can resist international pressure to negotiate on final status issues. “We have no partner for peace,” he can claim, “Abbas is too weak to deliver peace, while Hamas are terrorists who want to kill us.”

In the meantime, Israel evidently intends to continue its land-grab in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Quite apart from the large settlement blocs close to Israel’s borders, which house some 225,000 Israeli settlers, there are already another 75,000 settlers beyond the security barrier. The nationalist-religious fanatics are more powerful than ever, while the Israeli peace camp seems to have abdicated.

The stalemate seems total. The cruel siege of Gaza continues. The Arab states are unable to pull their weight. Israel is relentless. The European Union is preoccupied with its own problems of enlargement and integration. And the great expectations which Barack Obama aroused just a few months ago are slowly but surely evaporating.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

If you liked this article, please consider making a donation to Australians for Palestine by clicking on the PayPal link
Thank You.
Bookmark and Share

Add a Comment

required, use real name
required, will not be published
optional, your blog address