[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

June 11, 2006

 

This week in Palestine….. Behind the news with Hanna Siniora

 

 

Israeli Shelling of Gaza

 

A serious tragedy took place in Gaza when seven members of a family last friday were killed by a tank shell fired on the Beit Lahia beach. Targeted killing a day earlier caused the killing of the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committee Jamal Abu Samhadana who last April was appointed inspector-general at the Ministry of Interior and the commander of the executive force created by the Minister of Interior Said Siam.

 

This escalation led Hamas military wing Izzidine Al-Qassam to abruptly call off Al-Tahde’a which Hamas observed for the past 16 months, and fired 7 Qassams on Israeli areas next to the Gaza strip. Tensions are at the breaking point in Gaza, and the exchange of shelling and Qassams might escalate to a war of attrition with many victims.

 

Abbas Declares a Referendum

 

President Mahmoud Abbas at the end of the extension period to the national dialogue declared on Saturday the 10th of June in a press conference held in Al-Muqata’a the Presidential offices that on July 26 a national referendum will take place over the prisoners’ document. Abbas added that the internal dialogue will continue until the referendum deadline, if it succeeds, the referendum will be cancelled, if not it will take place as scheduled. After the announcement, Abbas left for Gaza, and had a meeting with PM Ismail Haniyeh, but both sides held to their convictions, with Haniyeh continuing to reject the referendum, at the same time declaring a new round of talks will take place with President Abbas.

 

After more than two weeks of national dialogue, the two major political blocs, Fateh and Hamas, are miles apart, and despite that both sides are in agreement that a continuous effort has to be exerted to avoid an open rift, the realities on the ground indicates that Fateh and Hamas might fail to arrive toward an understanding.

Already the friction internally had led to shootouts and kidnappings and if the political leadership is unable to reach an understanding, the internal disputes will lead to more shootings and a civil war. Abbas and Haniyeh are trying to avert such an outcome.

 

Olmert’s Declaration

 

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert commenting on the prisoners’ document and the referendum equivocally said that the prisoners document is unacceptable to the Israeli side and would not lead to bilateral negotiations. Dr. Azmi Bishara MK (member of Knesset from the Balad Party) accentuated to Palestinian friends that Olmert and the Israeli Cabinet are not ready to recognize Palestinian national rights even if Hamas accepts the three international conditions (recognize the state of Israel, dismantle the military infrastructure and accept previous agreements that the PLO and Israel ratified). Even a mandate for unilateral convergence, has no Israeli public banking, the latest poll indicates about 37% of the public supports such a development.

 

The policy of targeted killing, and the indiscriminate shelling of Gaza in retaliation to the firing of Qassams, has led to a break in the ceasefire that Hamas militants have observed, an escalation of violence that would lead to the estrangement of the Israeli public toward disengagement. PM Ismail Haniyeh publicly said that the Tahdi’a should be resumed, and he still insists that a long-term ceasefire should be negotiated between Israel and the PA. Under present circumstances a step that would lead to a ceasefire observed by both sides, is more urgent and important for the short term and will open the way for more ambitious steps in the future. Sanctions against dialogue with Hamas should be reconsidered.

 

Is it Possible to Break the Impasse?

 

In the Palestinian camp, the positions are clear: Hamas is not willing to accept to go the referendum way, at the same time, President Abbas has announced a date to hold the referendum. Those positions would lead to national suicide; both Hamas and Fateh would lead their followers to a civil war. Fateh and Abbas want to resume bilateral negotiations with Israel, under the road map process. Hamas is only willing to discuss a long-term ceasefire. The national dialogue should concentrate on the effort to reconcile these two positions. At this stage, the holding of the referendum will only had to civil war. The alternative is to mandate Mahmoud Abbas by all the Palestinian factions to negotiate with Israel and allow Hamas to negotiate a long term ceasefire. Such an internal understanding will pave the way for President Abbas, with the support of the Quartet, to put life in the road map process. If such a step would lead to a bilateral agreement, then Abbas can call a referendum on such an agreement.

 

If the dialogue, which has not stopped, would go in such a direction, neither the Presidency nor Hamas would lose face. Hamas leaders have said in the past that Mahmoud Abbas as head of the PLO is able to negotiate with Israel.

 

It is thus impossible to give Abbas a mandate by all the factions to attempt to negotiate. Hamas by being allowed to pursue a long-term ceasefire will not alienate its public, more than that, a cease fire observed by all the parties, can meet, to a certain extent, the first clause of the road map, the unification of the Palestinian security forces.

 

Fateh has to understand that it important to allow the internal democratic process to proceed. Hamas won a mandate to govern and only the people can take away the mandate. Fateh should lick its wounds and work to reform the movement. It is still one of two most important parties in Palestine, and if it can control the urge to govern now, it will have the chance in three years.

 

Hamas in the meantime will have to face the reality that Israel exists, that the international community supports Israel, and that to serve the Palestinian people it has to face the reality on the ground with courage. A dialogue with Hamas is the only course that would lead in this direction.

 

Civil society in Palestine and Israel should not be bystanders; the area will explode under the feet of the two peoples, and, only through doubling and tripling the efforts can we prevent the slide toward disaster. The international community, through their civil societies, can assist and help in advocating and supporting such a course.

 

 

 

Mr. Hanna Siniora is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.   http://www.ipcri.org