By Joharah Baker
Israeli intellectuals and political pundits often accuse the Palestinians of living in the past, hashing up the old excuse of "the occupation" to push aside any "real and genuine" Israeli efforts for peace. They say that not only is their argument "old", Israelis cannot possibly consider arriving at a peace deal with a people who continue to attack them. Palestinians, of course, see this approach as just one more way of postponing any final settlement to the conflict and furthering even more Israeli facts on the ground.
Over the past few years, Palestinians have provided fuel for this fire, with the internal split between Hamas and Fateh, the geographical and political separation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the various Palestinian factions that continue to fire homemade rockets into Israeli territory, even though these rockets cause minimal or no damage at all.
However, recently, the Palestinians have been showing increasing signs of willingness to put these divisions both between themselves and even with Israel, aside for the sake of creating an atmosphere of calm. Unfortunately, however, Israel is not reciprocating, proving once again that its goals are far more insidious than they seem and are fundamentally expansionist in nature.
Ever since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israeli rhetoric has focused primarily on the isolation and condemnation of the Islamic movement’s hold on the Strip. Israel, the United States and by proxy, almost the entire international community, has shunned Hamas and insisted that no peace talks would ever move forward if its de facto government in Gaza remains in place.
For a long time, Hamas also towed a similar line – Israel was not to be recognized, its only capacity on any political playing field being one of a belligerent occupation which by no means should be negotiated with. Coupled with the Fateh-headed West Bank government under President Mahmoud Abbas in place and towing a similar line vis-à-vis Hamas, the internal situation and that with Israel took turn after turn for the worse.
Keeping this status quo was in Israel’s best interests, no doubt, in spite of all of its hullabaloo about the constant threat Israeli citizens are under from the rocket attacks coming out of Gaza. Yes, the rockets, if nothing else, are a nuisance and have occasionally killed a few Israeli citizens. However, the benefits reaped by Israel from maintaining the situation in Gaza far exceed any real threats to its "security." For one, it has the full backing of the international community in isolating and besieging Hamas and therefore the entire Gaza Strip. Israel has blockaded Gaza, killed scores of innocent civilians and has denied the population food, medical supplies and fuel for days on end, with virtual impunity, all under the guise of combating this "terrorist" organization and trying to curb the rocket attacks.
Furthermore, the continued internal Palestinian divisions have played straight into Israel’s hands. Especially now with peace talks restarted after the Annapolis conference in November of last year, Israel is keen on keeping a united Palestinian front at bay. A weak Palestinian leadership at the negotiating table equals fewer concessions from the Israelis.
Luckily, the Palestinians seem to have realized this, even if considerable damage has already been done. On the Palestinian front, President Abbas has called for reconciliation talks with Hamas based on the Yemeni Initiative last March. This time, it looks as if the two sides may actually make some headway as opposed to previous efforts.
Furthermore, Hamas in Gaza is also trying to put its best face forward, offering a truce agreement – mediated by the Egyptians – to Israel. It has said it would withhold rocket attacks into Israeli territory and has presented a letter – via the Carter Center in Ramallah – penned by captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, which was handed to his parents as a gesture of good faith.
These are quantum leaps for Hamas, particularly when coupled with its efforts to reunite with the leadership. But like the old saying goes, "It takes two to tango." Rather than embrace this offer, Israel is threatening wide scale military action in the Strip. This morning, on June 11, a nine-year old Palestinian girl, Hadeel Al Sumeiri, was killed by an Israeli tank shell in the town of Qarara, east of Khan Younis. Civilian casualties in Gaza have become the rule rather than the exception, with Israel continuing its attacks, which it claims are defensive rather than offensive.
Should Israel carry out a massive military operation into the Strip, this would all but obliterate any talks of a truce and most likely hinder Palestinian-Palestinian talks as well given that Abbas’ government opposes Hamas’ hold on Gaza and its militarization of the conflict there. Israel will thus have more time to stall any peace talks with the Palestinians at the negotiating table, all under the pretext that its number one priority is to protect its citizens from "terror."
Understanding Israel’s intentions better exposes its bogus argument about Palestinians holding on to the past. It also proves how imperative it is for Palestinians to retain this position if they are ever to make major strides in negotiations. Israel does not want to talk about the illegal nature of its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. For one, this would de-legitimize its presence there, which it cannot afford because of the high stakes, least of which are the Israeli settlements in these areas. Israel has adopted a policy of imposing virtually irreversible facts on the ground in the form of settlements, bypass roads, the separation wall and the airtight encirclement around Jerusalem. Hence, the more physical structures there are on the ground, the more wiggle room they have for negotiations.
In the past, the Palestinians have fallen into this Israeli-concocted trap. As a result, the Palestinian leadership signed the Oslo Accords, the Wye River Agreement and the Roadmap all of which do not demand the one thing that would ensure an end to the conflict, which is the complete end to the Israeli occupation of 1967.
Israel’s belligerent attitude today towards Gaza despite of Palestinian efforts to bring about calm is further evidence that with Israel, there is just no winning. Palestinians have brought calm to their areas before under Israeli pressure but this has never stopped Israel from continuing its expansionist and oppressive policies towards them.
That is why Palestinian efforts to unite and to relieve the pressure off of Gaza’s residents should be applauded. If Israel continues to shun these efforts, perhaps this will sound the final wake-up call for the international community. It’s about time the alarms go off.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (This article was originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)