It took only two days from last week’s handshakes at the Aqaba summit between US President George W Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, setting the seal on the latest peace initiative for the Middle East, for the folds of the so-called “roadmap” to start falling apart.
The plan, building on President Bush’s speech of last summer, is designed to create a “viable” Palestinian state living alongside a “secure” Israel by 2005. But the moment the summit closed, Israel and the three most active armed Palestinian groups succeeded in erecting a series of roadblocks that make the route ahead look impassable.
First, months of talks between Abbas and Hamas to reach a temporary cease-fire collapsed ignominiously, with Hamas leaders accusing the prime minister of selling out to Israel in his summit speech. Referring to Abbas’s call for abandonment of the armed uprising, spokesman Abdel-Aziz Rantisi said: “Abu Mazen, through giving up the right of resistance and calling it terrorism, gave the green light to Sharon and his army.”
Abbas was forced to cancel a meeting with Hamas leaders in Gaza on Sunday to try to talk them round after it was rumoured that officials decided his safety could not be ensured. Although Hamas, the most powerful of the militant groups, was expected to return at some point to the negotiating table, it was at best an inauspicious start.
Then, it was revealed that Palestinian Security Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan had been trying, with US and European money, to buy weapons from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Abbas’s Fatah movement, and to recruit its members to the reformed police forces he is building with CIA help and Israeli cooperation.
Although Dahlan denied the reports, several Palestinian sources confirmed that he had received $50 million and was offering as much as $6,000 for each rifle and a similar amount to join the new forces.
The Al-Aqsa Brigades’ allegiance to Fatah, it might have been assumed, would leave them less opposed to supporting the leadership, but most members were reported to have refused the offer, with the group’s West Bank leader Abu Mujahed saying: “We will not negotiate with Dahlan.”
The Brigades were apparently as outraged by Abbas’s Aqaba speech as Hamas, particularly over his failure to mention either the release of political prisoners, including the most high profile, Marwan Barghouti, or the humiliating confinement of the Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat. Having been completely sidelined by the international community, Arafat himself has little incentive to help the Palestinian prime minister out of the current impasse.
Finally, concluding a disastrous weekend for Abbas, three gunmen — symbolically, one each from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Aqsa Brigades — attacked an Israel army post in the northern Gaza Strip, killing four soldiers and leaving another four seriously wounded.
In a statement, the three groups said: “This joint operation was committed to confirm our people’s united choice of Jihad and resistance until the end of occupation of our land and holy places.”
The Israeli government response was predictable: a barrage of criticism of Abbas and Dahlan for failing to uphold their roadmap commitments to ensure Israel’s security. “If terrorism will continue, it will destroy the roadmap, it will destroy the peace process,” government Spokesman Avi Pazner said.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell took up the same refrain, saying the “tragic, terrible incident” must not be allowed to wreck the roadmap. “We all have to work together to get this terrorism under control.”
Powell and Israeli officials, however, failed to point out that the first violation of the new atmosphere of trust supposedly engendered by the roadmap had been committed by Israel, not the Palestinians, the day after the Aqaba summit.
Near Tulkarm in the northern West Bank two Hamas leaders were shot dead by the army in a house in the village of Atil and a third was seriously wounded. Nabil Abu Rudeinah, an aide to Arafat, said the shootings were proof that Israel was continuing its policy of assassinations and that it was not interested in implementing the roadmap.
If there was any doubt about Israel’s true intentions, they were confirmed on Tuesday morning when an army gunship fired a missile at a jeep in Gaza carrying Hamas Spokesman Abdul- Aziz Rantisi. He survived but it was hard to read the military strike as anything other than an unconcealed declaration of war on Hamas.
In fact, the events that unfurled in the wake of the Aqaba Summit starkly illuminated the central flaw in the roadmap, one that threatens to transform it from a blueprint for peace into a minor signpost on the path to yet more bloodshed.
The core failing of the document is encapsulated in its emphasis on one concept — security — to the exclusion of almost everything else.
The word, it was made clear in the Aqaba speeches, is shorthand for Israeli security, or more accurately Israel’s own interpretation of what constitutes its security, rather than the balanced idea of jointly binding security guarantees to prevent violence directed at either Israelis or Palestinians.
The repeated demand that the new Palestinian leadership guarantee Israel’s security by ending all violence from the outset of the peace process ignores the current heated debate among the armed Palestinian groups, and within the wider Palestinian society, about what is legitimate resistance to 36 years of illegal and brutal occupation.
Rather than providing for a strategy to break the tit-for-tat violence between Palestinian militants and the Israeli army, the roadmap simplistically promotes “security” as the answer to “terrorism”, another well- worn concept in which Israel cloaks all forms of Palestinian resistance.
The insistence on “security” measures to be taken by the Palestinian leadership against “terrorism” in the roadmap’s first phase — before an “interim” Palestinian state is created — has left the whole plan hostage to what Israel accepts as the implementation of this clause.
Does it mean an end to attacks on civilians within Israel’s 1948 borders? Or does it mean this plus an end to attacks on settlers, many effectively members of armed militias in the West Bank and Gaza? Or does it mean an end to attacks on all Israeli targets, including military ones?
The roadmap steamrollers over these important legal and moral distinctions, requiring that Dahlan’s police forces crack down on groups conducting or planning “violent attacks on Israelis anywhere”. All such attacks are unequivocally defined as “terror”, which explains why Powell so quickly, and unthinkingly, labelled Sunday’s armed attack on the soldiers in Gaza as “terrorism”.
Similarly, the roadmap bans all Palestinian incitement against Israel. But what constitutes “incitement”: sheikhs criticising the occupation in mosques; small boys throwing stones at tanks; women shouting at soldiers manning the checkpoints; textbooks including maps of historic Palestine?
Scepticism about the chances of the roadmap offering even the most limited realisation of Palestinian statehood hinges on this initial weakness: the central concern — security — has been weighted in Israel’s favour, with Israel largely left to judge when the Palestinians have fulfilled their obligations. (The Palestinians, by contrast, will have no reciprocal right to determine what constitutes a “settlement” or its expansion).
It is clear that Sharon will exploit this defect in the roadmap to make impossible demands of the Palestinians. Realistically, how can Palestinian security forces that have been surgically castrated by the long months of Israeli army incursions hope to take on the more motivated and resourceful resistance of Palestinian militants? And how does Israel expect these police forces, however well rehabilitated, to stamp their authority on the West Bank and Gaza when the Israeli army — one of the most powerful in the world — has signally failed to do so in the year since it reinvaded every last inch of the West Bank and much of Gaza?
What Abbas and Dahlan need, to stand even the slimmest chance of curbing violence from their own side, is a very large carrot to offer Palestinian militants, and the general population, after 32 months of a savage beating with the Israeli military stick. Why should Palestinians abandon resistance to the illegal occupation of their land when there is scant evidence that the occupation is about to end, or that the roadmap offers a route to resolving two of the most fraught issues, namely the future status of Jerusalem and the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees.
In fact, the definition of “security” implicitly weights the last problem, the return of the refugees, in Israel’s favour too. Security, according to some of Israel’s 14 submitted reservations to the roadmap, also means protection from any measure that might threaten the Jewishness of the Israeli state. Sharon’s claim that the refugees would be a demographic wrecking ball for the Jewish state is the accepted wisdom in Washington.
So the big test for the Palestinian leadership is to what extent it can persuade the White House to place Israel’s “security” concerns in more limited and realistic parameters and whether it can insist on reciprocal “security” for the Palestinian civilian population.
That will require an immediate halt to the collective punishment of the closures and the lifting of curfews. It will mean an end to the house demolitions, deportations, extra-judicial assassinations, the blocking of humanitarian aid and the refusal to issue building permits. It will also require the dismantlement of the “security fence” being built around the West Bank and the cessation of all other forms of military behaviour designed to terrorise the general population.
So how does the roadmap fare on these key Palestinian security concerns during the make- or-break first phase?
To be sure, the plan does include a prohibition on some of these activities: Israel must take “no actions undermining trust, including deportations, attack on civilians; confiscation and/or demolition of Palestinian homes and property, as a punitive measure or to facilitate Israeli construction; destruction of Palestinian institutions and infrastructure; and other measures specified in the Tenet Work Plan.”
But these injunctions are made teethless in three ways. One is in the wording itself. Although these actions are banned, who is to decide, for example, what constitutes an “attack on civilians”? Will it include the “collateral damage” of bystanders killed in a “targeted assassination” — as happened during Tuesday’s assassination attempt on Rantisi — or by the “return fire” of a tank after a mortar attack? Will it include schoolchildren killed for throwing stones or holding a slingshot? Will it include pregnant women shot for breaking a curfew or students killed for evading a closed roadblock? At the moment Israel classifies such attacks as legitimate retaliation against the “terrorist infrastructure”.
A monitoring team — at Israel’s insistence composed entirely of Americans — is supposed to oversee the implementation of the roadmap. But how will 13 monitors, even if they are free of American domestic political pressures to side with Israel, be able to stand at every checkpoint or follow every tank? And if they are not witness to events, whose word will they trust: that of the army commander or of ordinary Palestinians?
Even the land confiscations and house demolitions prohibition is subject to the get-out clause that these measures are prohibited only if they are “punitive” or designed to assist settlement expansion. Note that they are not prohibited if Israel deems them necessary to ensure its “security”, as it has claimed when demolishing hundreds of homes, levelling thousands of acres of crops and uprooting tens of thousands of olive trees.
Second, the frailty of the injunctions against Israel is highlighted by another section of the roadmap that requires Israel to “normalise” Palestinian life by withdrawing from areas “occupied from 28 September 2000” — the day of Sharon’s visit to the Haram Al-Sharif and the effective eruption of the Intifada, followed by Israel’s incursions into Areas A and B, the self- rule areas set by Oslo.
The problem here is the assumption that returning to the status quo pre-Intifada is “normalisation”. The Intifada occurred precisely because life for the Palestinians was not normal during the Oslo years.
In fact, some 60 per cent of the West Bank and 20 per cent of Gaza were still under the control of the Israeli army. Even in areas nominally under Palestinian authority, life was severely circumscribed by roadblocks and checkpoints making movement difficult.
Furthermore, through the Oslo period the occupation was enforced at arm’s length by Israel’s exclusive control of Palestinian borders, airspace, trade and key resources such as water. None of this is expected to change in the foreseeable future.
For example, the roadmap will do nothing to end the policy of “general closures” which took off during the Oslo years, effectively the regular sealing off of the West Bank and Gaza from Israel. For a Palestinian labour force largely dependent on the Israeli economy for work, the consequences have been catastrophic. This kind of normalisation is hardly likely to weaken Palestinian support for armed resistance or make Abbas’s job of ensuring Israeli security any easier.
And third, how is one to believe that Israelis and Palestinians can move from the first phase to the second phase — the creation of the “interim” Palestinian state — when Israel has been required only to “freeze” settlement activity in the first phase? What chances are there that Israel will allow this fledgling Palestinian state, and its fledgling police forces, to take responsibility for the security of more than 400,000 Israeli settlers? And how will Abbas sell the idea of ending — let alone actually halt — armed resistance to occupation when his temporary state is cut to pieces by the existing settlements?
The one certainty in the coming weeks and months is that goodwill from Sharon will not be forthcoming.
In fact, the Israeli prime minister has conceded almost nothing so far: a few thousand Palestinians may be allowed out of their cages to work in high- security Israeli industrial parks; 100 security prisoners, most of them never charged and many nearing the end of their administrative detentions, have been released from a jailed population of 8,000; a trickle of money is to reach the Palestinian Authority from the huge stash of tax monies Israel has been withholding for the long months of the Intifada; and a dozen or more “unauthorised outposts”, mostly uninhabited caravan sites, are to be dismantled to meet the roadmap’s stipulation against settlement expansion since Sharon took office (and be sure Sharon will happily show the settlers’ violent response to even this minimal crackdown to milk world sympathy).
As for the main problem facing the Palestinian population, the rigid imposition of roadblocks and checkpoints that have effectively choked off all economic life, as well as stripping Palestinians of the last vestiges of their dignity, there is no progress at all. Israel reimposed a complete closure on the West Bank shortly after the Aqaba summit and before Sunday’s Gaza attack. Even if the closure is lifted again, any Palestinian attacks will almost certainly bring the stranglehold back.
Despite the miserliness of Sharon’s offers, the price he is demanding of Abbas is exorbitant. What will satisfy Sharon is not an end, temporary or permanent, to attacks on civilians, nor will he be happy with a halt to attacks on military targets.
What Sharon requires of Abbas is the complete disarmament of all Palestinian militant groups, by force if needs be. Israel’s security, according to Sharon, can only be ensured by the abandonment of even the potential for armed struggle against the occupation — and the demilitarisation must take place before he takes any concrete action to end the occupation.
If Abbas was not aware of the reaction of his own militant groups to this requirement, it was clarified for him in the aftermath of the Aqaba summit. As he observed of Sharon’s demands on Sunday: “We will not allow anybody to drag us into a civil war.”
The fear of unleashing a civil war — one Abbas might well lose against the combined forces of Hamas, Jihad and the Brigades — is the main reason for his and Dahlan’s repeated refusal, despite Sharon’s almost gleeful offers, to take security responsibility at this early stage for parts of Gaza and the West Bank.
A report by the respected analyst Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz newspaper revealed that at one such meeting between the two sides, it was demanded of Dahlan that he prove his seriousness by staging a gun battle between Hamas and the new police forces in which several Hamas members would be killed. Dahlan refused.
Optimistically, Abbas hopes to make better progress through continuing negotiations with Hamas, his biggest obstacle to securing a cease- fire. But have the other roadmap participants — primarily, of course, the Americans, as well as the Europeans and the Arab states — appreciated the faulty logic at the heart of the roadmap?
Apparently not. Everyone is falling over themselves to be seen helping to engineer a cease-fire and resurrect the Palestinian police forces.
The leading player from the Arab states is Egypt, whose Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman has been hosting intermittent talks for many months between representatives of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to agree on a temporary cease-fire.
Egypt believes the Gazan leadership of Hamas can be brought to heel by increasing the pressure for a cease-fire on the group’s exiled leadership, under Khaled Meshal, in Damascus. The overseas Hamas has traditionally been more hard-line than the Gazans but it is supposedly being “softened up”.
Syria, being menaced by Washington for its alleged role in sponsoring terror, has closed the offices of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in the capital. Egyptians delegates were expected to return to Syria and Lebanon this week to put further pressure on Hamas.
In preparation for confrontations between Dahlan’s forces and the militants, the Europeans and Americans have been sending shipments of police equipment to the territories to bolster the new police forces, including jeeps, riot shields and helmets, and light pistols. And in the West Bank town of Jericho the US Central Intelligence Agency has been helping to train what remains of the Palestinian security forces.
In line with Sharon’s thinking, all the outside actors seem determined to invest the fate of the roadmap solely in the successful resurrection of the Palestinian police forces, as the guarantors of Israel’s security. Any voice raised in opposition will be choked into silence.
The fallacy from Oslo is being repeated: that a solution to the conflict can be found in the Palestinians realising Israel’s national ambitions rather than their own, far more limited, ones. Palestinians must once again be made to enforce the occupation on Israel’s behalf.
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