The Hamas government crackdown on Mohamed Dahlan’s corrupt security forces and affiliated gangs in the Gaza Strip in June appears to mark a turning point in the Bush administration’s foreign policy regarding Palestine and Israel. The supposed shift, however, is nothing but a continuation of Washington’s efforts to stifle Palestinian democracy, to widen the chasm separating Hamas and Fatah, and to ensure the success of the Israeli project, which is focussed on colonising and annexing what remains of Palestinian land.
It’s vital that we keep this seemingly obvious reality at the forefront of any political discussion dealing with the conflict: the occupied Palestinian territories represent a mere 22 per cent of historic Palestine. Currently, Israel is on a quest to reduce this even further by officially conquering the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem.
Gaza is only relevant to this issue insofar as it represents a golden opportunity to divide Palestinians further, to confuse their national project and to present a grim picture of them as an unruly people who cannot be trusted as peace partners to the far more civilised and democratic Israelis.
By prolonging Gazan strife, thus the Palestinian split, Israel will acquire the time required to consolidate its colonial project, and to further rationalise its unilateral policies vis-à-vis matters that should, naturally, be negotiated with the Palestinians.
Moreover, one must not lose sight of the regional context.
The Israeli lobby and its neo- conservative allies in the US administration and in the media are eager for a military showdown with Iran, which would weaken Syria’s political standing in any future negotiation with Israel in regards to the occupied Golan Heights, and which would obliterate the military strength of Hizbullah, proven to be the toughest enemy Israel has ever faced in its decades-long conflict with the Arabs.
Thus, its was of paramount importance for Hamas’s "rise" to be linked directly to its relations with Iran; such ties, although greatly exaggerated, are now readily used as a rationale to explain Bush’s seemingly historic move from backing Israel from a discreet distance (so as not to appear too involved) to initiating an international peace conference aimed solely at isolating Hamas, which would further weaken the Iranian camp in the Middle East.
It also explains the abundant support offered by autocratic Arab regimes to Abbas, and Arab leaders’ warnings about the rise of an Iranian menace. On the one hand, eliminating Hamas would send an unambiguous message to their own political Islamists; on the other, it’s a message to Iran to back off from a conflict that has long been seen as exclusively Arab-Israeli. The irony is that to ensure the relevance of the Arab role in the conflict, some Arabs are making historic moves to normalise with Israel, and in return for nothing.
Similarly, to ensure its own relevance, Abbas’s Fatah is actively coordinating with Israel to destroy its formidable opponent, which represents the great majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories and arguably abroad. For this, assistance is required: money to ensure the loyalty of his followers, weapons to oppress his opponents, political validation to legitimise himself as a world leader, and new laws to de-legitimise the legal, democratic process that produced the Hamas victory of January 2006. In a conflict that is known for its agonisingly slow movement, nothing short of a miracle can explain how Abbas received all of these perks at an astronomical speed.
The moment Abbas declared his arguably unconstitutional emergency government, the suffocating sanctions were lifted — or more accurately, on the West Bank only. To ensure that no aid reaches anyone who defies his regime, Abbas’s office revoked the licences of all NGOs operating in Palestine, making it necessary for them to submit new applications. Those loyal to Abbas are in. The rest are out.
Weapons and military training have also arrived in abundance. Palestinians who have been denied the right to defend themselves, and for decades described as "terrorist", are suddenly the recipients of many caches of weapons coming from all directions. Israel announced a clemency to Fatah militants; the freedom fighters turned gangsters will no longer defend their people against Israeli brutality, but will be used as a militant arm ready to take on Hamas when the time comes.
As for regional and international legitimacy, the Bush administration "decided" to change its policy to one of direct engagement, calling for an international Middle East peace conference. The conference will be about peace in name only, for it will not deal with any of the major grievances of the Palestinians that have fuelled the conflict for years, such as the problem of refugees, Jerusalem and the drawing of borders. Israel is of course willing to "concede" if these efforts will reframe the conflict as exclusively Palestinian, and as long as there is no objection to its illegal annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The reality is that there has been no change in American foreign policy regarding Palestine. The US, Israel and a few Arab regimes are pursuing the same old policy, which is merely being adjusted to fit the new political context.
While Abbas and his men might bask in the many bonuses they are receiving in exchange for their role in destroying the Palestinian national project, the future will prove that Israel’s "goodwill gestures", the support of the Israeli lobby in Washington, and the latter’s generosity will not last.
Abbas could as easily find himself a prisoner in the basement of his own presidential compound, just like his predecessor, if he dares assert the legitimate rights of his people, by far the ultimate losers in this shameless battle.
RAMZY BAROUD is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net