Friday, June 09, 2006

Palestinian Unity Means Hamas Must Deal with Israel


By Ghassan Rubeiz Daily Star, Commentary (Lebanon) June 9, 2006

Little is known about a community of several thousand Palestinianpolitical prisoners being held in Israeli jails. These prisonersfollow the news and discuss politics. A West Bank commentator,Daoud Kuttab, has explained that political prisoners are highlyesteemed by Palestinian society. They do not have to prove theirpatriotism.Recently, imprisoned Palestinian leaders issued a document callingfor talks with Israel and (implicitly) recognizing its legitimateexistence. The prisoners were united in calling for moderation andin accepting the June 1967 borders as the boundaries for a futurePalestinian state. In so many words, these leaders, among whom wasa Hamas official, endorsed a two-state solution. Their documentreflected the sentiments of most Palestinians and was based onearlier secretive negotiations between various factions.The prisoners gave Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas anopportunity to propose a reconciliation plan. He has demanded thatHamas join him in peace talks with Israel and endorse an 18-pointnegotiation proposal. Abbas warned the Hamas-led government that ifit rejected the prisoners' proposal he would call for a referendumon the document.Hamas initially refused to accept the prisoners' appeal. On June 4,Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya told reporters that"referendums are not permitted in the Palestinian lands." He cited"Palestinian law and unspecified experts in international law" forthis claim. However, since then, Hamas officials have asked formore time to review the moderation proposal. In response, Abbas'spokesman declared that "the referendum is a political step thatwould help end the siege imposed on the Palestinian people andwould help resume funds and aid to the Palestinian NationalAuthority."Israeli government officials see mixed signs in the prisoners'document, and in the referendum that Abbas intends to organize, andhave refrained from supporting its proposals. Israel perceivesthreats in an initiative that highlights the right of return forPalestinian refugees and the government is not ready to endorsefull withdrawal to the June 1967 borders. This would implyevacuation from all Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.Increased suffering and loss of land and image should compel thePalestinians to adopt fresh ideas to unite and review the characterof their struggle. The prison document is a face-saving mechanismdesigned to offer Hamas a graceful exit from the diplomatic hole ithas dug for itself, as Israel dictates peace terms, as Abbas asksfor leniency from threatening donor agencies, and as the Arab worldpleads for patience with Hamas. Israel builds a wall of exclusionin the name of security and Hamas builds a wall of rejection in thename of patriotism. Both walls are built on irrational fear.If Hamas cares to heal the rift within its own ranks, to join handswith other Palestinian parties and to respond to the currentsentiments of Palestinian society, it should accept the prisoners'proposal in order to avoid a risky referendum. If the movementwishes to gain international sympathy, to reduce Jewish fears ofcompromise, and to weaken the unilateralist strategy pursued byIsrael, it should be more flexible.While a referendum is a logical consequence of the likely Hamasrejection of the prisoners' document, administering such a pollwill not be easy. A referendum assumes that Hamas can be peacefullydefeated through a formal process of testing opinion. Moreover,Arab public opinion has been rallying around Hamas because of thepunitive Western response that it has faced despite winning ademocratic election. What may be logical may not be politicallyfeasible. A national referendum in the Occupied Territories wouldface cultural, logistical and political hurdles.Will the referendum be a step toward peace or another move towardPalestinian civil war? If Hamas accepts the proposal it would scorea new victory for Palestinian unity and enhance the chances of anempowered nation winning out in its struggle for liberation from anawful occupation.Ghassan Rubeiz is a former secretary of the Middle East at theGeneva-based World Council of Churches.


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