Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Equal Pressure on Hamas and Israel

Pressure on Hamas May Work if Matched by Pressure on Israel
Ghassan Rubeiz, June 14, 2006.

Regrettably, with guns Palestinians debate their planned national referendum on the two- state peace plan. While domestic and international pressure on Hamas mounts, the international community, on the whole, ignores Israel’s extended Palestinian occupation. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is not unrelated to Hamas’ hard line policies.
A referendum about Israel’s right to exist within pre-1967 borders has become a fierce contest of wills between Hamas-led government and Palestinian President Abbas. Hamas’ leadership has deliberated and agonized over this referendum. It has calculated the cost of opposing a referendum that demands from it to join the rest of Palestinian society in accepting a two-state solution. Its strategy is to abort the referendum, to make it difficult to administer or render it useless. Hamas is bent on fighting the initiative as it considers it a threat to its legitimacy.
Given the explosive tension that the referendum issue has created among Palestinian military factions, it may be wise to assume that this initiative has partially served its purpose. The initial debate has generated a university public opinion survey that showed that most Palestinians support a two-state solution. The Beer Zeit study revealed that 81 % of Palestinians support peace with Israel with a terminated occupation. The data also showed that Hamas is loosing some of its popularity. Six months ago, Hamas won elections with an impressive majority.
The wisdom of Abbas’s late July referendum is being tested under increasingly questionable circumstances. Under conditions of near civil war and a coercive occupation, the quality of data that would emerge from a hastily planned referendum may not be more accurate than the Beer Zeit University poll.
Where is the referendum leading the Palestinians? As Abbas’ referendum aims to compel Hamas to bow to public opinion, the social climate for opinions to matter disappears. Palestinians are wondering if it is worth risking a domestic street war over a peace plan that Israel is known to have rejected.
Grim political developments are moving beyond the referendum crisis. On June 10, Hamas announced a dramatic decision to terminate a 16-month truce implying that it will resume its military operations against Israel. Linking this escalation to the referendum, it simultaneously accused any Palestinian group that puts policy pressure on it of “being a collaborator with the Israeli occupation”. So Hamas is threatening both Israel and the silent majority of Palestinians who oppose its current unrealistic policy.
A series of analytical questions come to mind. Is Hamas starting to lose control of governance? Or is it simply reacting to a series of Israeli attacks (e.g. Gaza-beach tragedy) that do not spare innocent civilians? Is it feeling too vulnerable to a program of Israeli assassination of targeted Palestinians? Is it exploring an escape from its political predicament by threatening to bring chaos to the Palestinian House? Is Hamas firing political rhetoric in order to rally the Arab street around its “martyrdom”? Are Iran and Syria giving Hamas strong support to face local and international sources of stress? The answer may be a combination of all of these projections.
The battle over the referendum may be a symptom rather than a cause of a wider emerging crisis. A new out break of a Palestinian-Israeli war maybe approaching; a war that could turn into a larger Arab-Israeli confrontation, with Iran and the Muslim world on one side, and the US on the other.
Israeli war strategists view Hamas’ intransigence, Syria’s militia alliances and Ahmadi Najad’s defiant nuclear moves as a pretext for an opportune new war. As long as Hamas keeps its current policies of militant rejection, as long as Israel sees its future security in land acquisition, as long as the “9/11”tragedy continues to fuel American bias in foreign policy and as long as Arab regimes remain divided and incompetent, the Middle East conflict calendar will remain active.
As war risks increase within Palestinian territories and beyond some type of international diplomatic intervention is urgently needed. Is the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) ready for an intervention that goes beyond starving Hamas out of power? Pressure on Israel should be integrated within a new approach to Hamas and the Road Map to peace. The Palestinian referendum is a path on the Quartet’s “road map” that may disappear due to regional and international neglect.

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