By Sami Abdel-Shafi
It was a surreal but telling reflection of how lonely Palestinians have become as their leadership has seemingly been pushed into breakdown and failure, while Israel watched from the sidelines. Late one night, I was suddenly yelled at to stop my car, turn the lights off and roll down the windows. Two masked men, without any identifying insignias, closed in from the sides; one pointed his machine gun at me while the other, two steps behind, shouldered a loaded rocket-propelled grenade launcher. That was a week last Thursday, hours after fierce clashes erupted between Hamas and Fatah, ending the seventh ceasefire between the factions, and ushering in the deadliest power struggle yet.
To Palestinians it seemed sadly clear that the moral credit of their cause was being eroded: how must it look to the outside world that they had flip-flopped in one year between democratic elections and internecine violence?
A day before this incident, a House of Commons development committee report warned of drastically deteriorating conditions in the occupied territories as a result of the US-led economic embargo in the wake of last year’s elections. The report questioned the proportionality of Israel’s own blockade and its implications for the prospects of a lasting peace. The Palestinian infighting only underlined the sense of those warnings.
The militiamen I had run into had no clear lines of authority. One turned out to be a recent accountancy graduate who had never been able to find a job and had been given no weapons training. Many such armed men simply need an income. Without any means to provide for their families, they join one of the many security outfits to secure a salary. The international community needs to grasp the dire consequences of maintaining what is the largest regional prison in the world: Camp Gaza Strip.
Thursday’s agreement between the leaders of Fatah and Hamas in Mecca has contained the conflict and Gaza is now calm. But as Palestinians resumed constructive dialogue, Israel employed its classic approach of shifting the pressure between Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. For Israel to have begun an inflammatory dig at one of the entrances to the holy city of old Jerusalem – on the first day of the talks in Mecca – was clearly not without calculation. Yesterday, the morning after the Palestinian agreement had been reached, Israeli forces attacked Jerusalemites protesting at the project and barred Muslims from the al-Aqsa mosque.
Despite all this, the Quartet (the group, consisting of the US, EU, UN and Russia, entrusted with advancing Palestinian-Israeli peace) still appears unable to accept that no positive developments can be hoped for as long as the Gaza Strip remains sealed off, or the West Bank wall continues to be built. The current stance of the US and the EU is in practice an endorsement of Israel’s policy of blockading the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, and gobbling up West Bank and east Jerusalem territory. This can only guarantee the flight of the very people the international community says it counts on to forge peace: Palestinian "moderates".
It is one thing for the Quartet to demand a Palestinian rejection of violence, but unless pressure is brought to bear on Israel to release its military grip from the Palestinian territories – which long predates the election of Hamas – it will suffocate Palestinian hope and show that the world is only chasing a phantom of peace. No political initiative can compensate the suppression of an entire people’s potential to develop in freedom.