Joining forces

Published : Dec 01, 2006 00:00 IST

Events after the killing of 18 civilians by Israeli artillery in Gaza point to the shifting of equations in the region.


TENS of thousands of mourners clogged the streets of Beit Hanoun, a town in the Gaza Strip, to bid farewell to 18 civilians who were killed there by an Israeli artillery barrage. Amid chants denouncing Israel and the United States, the bodies of the victims - 14 of whom were women and children - were laid to rest in a separate enclosure of a cemetery. Palestinians want to turn the enclosure, named "The martyrs of the Beit Hanoun massacre" wing, into a de facto memorial that would help energise their push for independence. They say that the civilian death toll resulting from the shelling on November 8 was second only to the atrocity in a Hebron mosque in 1994, where a gunman shot dead 29 Palestinians.

The killings have triggered an international outcry, and generated a heated debate in several world forums, including the United Nations Security Council. In West Asia, it has exposed the shifting power equations. After resisting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Hizbollah has now acquired a high public profile in support of the Palestinians. Following the shelling, it stressed that Palestinian resistance was not localised, but was linked to a broader struggle in the region against Israeli occupation and violence.

"From Qana (in south Lebanon where nearly 30 civilians were killed in Israeli bombardment in July) to Beit Hanoun, it is always the same massacres and the same fighting," Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said. Nasrallah said that the Palestinian had to be supplied with weapons and cash in order to challenge the Israelis. "Arms, money and medicine must be delivered to this nation of resistance fighters and the blockade imposed on them must be broken." He added that if this was achieved, Palestinians would be able to repeat "the victory that took place in Lebanon". Nasrallah was referring to the 34-day war in July and August, in which his fighters effectively countered the Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon. Regretting the inadequate support that was coming from Arab countries, Nasrallah said: "Where are the Arabs? Where are the Arab rulers? ... Where are their courageous people? Where is the resounding scream of anger in the face of the butchers?"

Iran, which has close ties with Hizbollah, has come out strongly in support of the Palestinians. Linking the Beit Hanoun incident to the war in Lebanon, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that Israel had carried out the atrocity to cover up for the humiliation that it had suffered in Lebanon. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Al Hosseini said that the incident in Beit Hanoun was a reminder of Israel's "crimes in the Lebanese town of Qana".

Amid pervasive sadness and fury, the killings in Beit Hanoun appear to have brought the Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah - the latter led by President Mahmoud Abbas - closer. After several months of acrimony, influential sections within Hamas and Fatah have realised that they need each other to achieve two common objectives. First, the international aid boycott imposed on Palestinian territories has to end. For Hamas this is vital, as it will lose its credibility in case it fails to bring about a change in the appalling living conditions inside Palestinian territories, especially Gaza. Consequently, both sides have agreed to form a national unity government that would replace the existing one led by Hamas.

The second objective of the two, especially of Hamas, is to secure the release of some lawmakers who were taken prisoner by Israel in June. The Hamas parliamentarians were arrested after the Palestinian faction seized an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. After several months of silence, Abbas on November 9 spoke on the telephone to the political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. After the call, there are some signs that talks for a national unity government could gather momentum. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Meshaal could meet Abbas in Cairo soon after he appends his signature on a fresh list of Cabinet Ministers in the new government. Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman is also likely to visit Gaza shortly for talks with all the Palestinian factions on the formation of a new government and Shalit's release.

Abbas' talks with Meshaal are significant as they can indirectly draw the Syrians and the Iranians into the negotiating channel. Meshaal, who is based in Syria, is known to be close to Damascus, Teheran and Hizbollah. Despite his proximity to the Syrians and Iranians, he also maintains active contacts with other regional heavyweights, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Given his links within and outside Palestinian territories, Meshaal has emerged as a central figure, whose role would be crucial for the emergence of a durable new government in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli atrocity has come in for debate in the Security Council, which met at the request of the 22-nation Arab League and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference. The 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement backed the move. Arab states urged the Council to push for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the withdrawal of Israeli forces. After prolonged discussions, the draft was amended to call upon the Palestinian Authority to take "immediate and sustained action" to bring an end to violence, including the firing of rockets on Israeli territory. These changes were made after U.S. diplomats stressed that the earlier draft had avoided mention of the Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel.

The new draft also sought the U.N. Secretary-General's intervention to establish a "fact-finding mission" on the Beit Hanoun attack. Besides, it called for the "possible establishment of an international mechanism for protection of the civilian populations" and the revival of the peace process. However, despite the changes, the adoption of this resolution is not definite. In June, the U.S. had vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding that Israel halt its offensive in the Gaza Strip, which was launched after the capture of Shalit,

Notwithstanding the fate of the new resolution, the Beit Hanoun killings have made their mark on the collective consciousness of people in West Asia and in large parts of the globe. The incident is likely to have a lasting impact on shaping the Israel-Palestinian discourse in the future.

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