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From myopia to disaster

Print edition : Jul 13, 2007 T+T-

The West's backing for Israel's attempt to further isolate and humiliate Hamas is a recipe for political catastrophe in Palestine.

AS if the crisis in Palestine after the Fatah-Hamas armed clashes, the dismissal of the Ismail Haniyeh government by President Mahmoud Abbas, and the imposition of a quarantine on the Gaza Strip were already not grave enough, the Western powers have introduced a new element of venality and Machiavellian manipulation into it.

The United States and the European Union have resumed direct aid to the Palestinian Authority (read, Fatah), encouraged Israel to release some $350 million of the PA's tax revenue it had impounded, and endorsed the so-called Sharm el-Sheikh summit in Egypt, where the leaders of Israel, the PA, Egypt and Jordan met to negotiate the outline of what is likely to be seen as a collusive compromise by large numbers of the Palestinian people. As a symbolic first step, Israel has announced its intention to release 250 Fatah prisoners a small fraction of the number it holds.

The resumption of Western aid has a specific, well-defined purpose: to strengthen Abbas and the military wing of Fatah led by the pro-US security chief Mohammad Dahlan, and to corner and humiliate Hamas. The West is not merely taking sides in the intra-Palestinian rift, to which it has contributed in no small measure ever since Hamas won the January 2006 elections to the Legislative Council of the PA.

It is also consciously drawing Abbas and Fatah into its own orbit and trying to dismantle and bury the Makkah accord, negotiated in February at Saudi Arabia's initiative, which led to the installation of a national unity government in the Palestinian territories, with Fatah and Hamas as partners.

The appointment of Britain's discredited Tony Blair as the special West Asia envoy of the Quartet (comprising the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations) is likely to advance that process further. Blair carries the terrible baggage of servility to Washington and complicity in Iraq's invasion.

The US, the EU and Israel have thrown their full weight behind Abbas' new "emergency government" led by a former World Bank staffer, Salam Fayyad. This is inspired by a calculation that can only charitably be described as myopic: continue the physical isolation of the West Bank from Gaza, lavishly assist the Fatah-controlled PA, while punishing Hamas and further impoverishing an already desperate Gaza, where 1.5 million people subsist in unspeakably bad conditions, deprived of the basic amenities of life.

To make the partisanship towards Abbas appear somewhat attractive, Israel would be persuaded to lift some roadblocks in the West Bank, release in instalments the $700 million of PA money it has illegally impounded, and offer what the Americans call a "political horizon" to the PA, with the promise of talks on a "shelf agreement", which would outline a future settlement of the Palestinian question.

The basic idea, as Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni put it with characteristically cynical candour, is to "take advantage of the [Fatah-Hamas] split to the end" because it "differentiates between the moderates and the extremists". The "moderates" (Fatah) would be favoured and the West Bank's economy would hopefully do well. The "extremists" (Hamas) would have their nose rubbed into the ground. Soon, the Palestinians would understand, as an Israeli official told The Guardian, that "moderate policies bring home the bacon, while the other road brings only pain".

Voila! Hamas would rapidly lose support and Fatah would emerge triumphant. Fatah then can also be told to smash the "infrastructure of terror" by cracking down on Hamas in return for some crumbs, and eventually, moth-eaten statehood.

An extreme version of this is a possible "three-state" solution, in which one Palestinian sub-state emerges on what is left of the West Bank after Israeli settlements and the 730 km-long "Apartheid Wall", while Gaza becomes a degraded, landlocked Bantustan.

The notion of a "three-state" solution is alarming, indeed hair-raising. It fails to understand that the sequestration of Gaza from the West Bank would be utterly and completely unacceptable to the Palestinian people, who have close and inseparable blood ties across the two territories.

Indeed, even in the short term, any talk of treating the two as distinct political entities would be deeply unpopular. Such an approach also fails to recognise that Hamas has a big constituency in the West Bank too. Excluding a substantial section of the Palestinian community which backs Hamas would be a Himalayan blunder. Any arrangement that keeps out Hamas will remain fragile and vulnerable. Attacks on Israel engineered from within the West Bank could instantly wreck any deal that the West and Israel make with Abbas.

The Western-Israeli calculation is shot through with other contradictions and is a recipe for disaster. Selective aid for Fatah is likely to weaken, not strengthen, Abbas and is bound to be seen by most Palestinians as a way of rewarding a puppet. This is likely to widen and deepen Hamas' popularity all over the territories.

That is exactly what happened in the years preceding January 2006, when Fatah, with its corruption and nepotism, and its willingness to compromise the Palestinians' rights, came to be hated by the people, including many of its former committed supporters. Attempts to ostracise Hamas could well help it bounce back with greater vigour. The last 18 months prove that.

One does not have to be a supporter of Hamas to say this. Hamas' ideology and shady aspects of its past, when it enjoyed covert Israeli support against secular Palestinians, raise uncomfortable questions. But the fact is, Hamas was mandated to lead the PA government in elections, which were found free and fair by international observers the only free elections in the Arab world.

Further, Hamas conducted itself responsibly after the elections. It set aside its Islamic agenda, stopped suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, observed a unilateral ceasefire, and offered to honour all past PA agreements. This last was tantamount to the implicit recognition of Israel.

Hamas has to be included in any negotiation of the Palestinian question. But that can only happen if Israel stops treating it as a terrorist organisation and the US and EU iron out the contradictions in their own stands by reaffirming their respect for the principle of recognising as legitimate the outcome of the 2006 elections, which they had themselves demanded.

The US is unlikely to do this on its own. Its policy is being shaped by people like Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrahms, who was at the centre of the 1980s strategy of arming the extreme-Right Contra guerrillas against the elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. (Abrahms served a prison term for this).

The EU too has chosen to tail the US pusillanimously as part of its participation in the Quartet, which is dominated by Washington. One reason the EU did not take a more independent line, which some of its members favour, is its anxiety to avoid a trans-Atlantic split over Palestine/Israel, of the kind that occurred during the build-up to Iraq's invasion. This subservience to the US is deeply deplorable.

If the Israeli-Western approach prevails, it will leave insensate violence, economic and social devastation and human misery in its wake.

However, there may be one way of bringing some European countries around to a more reasonable approach and rebuilding the EU's credibility. This means generating opinion against the present Western-Israeli strategy. That entails launching an international initiative to promote Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and bring Hamas to the negotiating table.

Such an effort may or may not succeed. But it is worth launching through the collective endeavours of countries such as India, South Africa, Brazil, China, Japan and as many Western European states (for example, the Nordic countries) as can be mobilised.

India could take a lead here if the United Progressive Alliance sheds its ambivalence on Palestine/Israel and stops paying mere lip-service to the Palestinian cause. It might be persuaded to do so only if a cross-section of political parties and civil society groups hold a major convention, which generates public opinion and lobbies the Indian government.

The idea is not as utopian as might appear. Such initiatives played a major role in building opinion against apartheid in South Africa. Palestine is an equally worthy cause, which will be grievously and irreparably damaged under the present Israeli-Western approach. Can India's political and social movement leaders rise to the occasion?