Al-Ahram Weekly – 19 June 2003
The roadmap looked dead last week, wrecked by the combined actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the militant Palestinian factions as they launched a series of tit-for-tat strikes. This week, following heavy American pressure, the roadmap was resuscitated. But while the words of the document remain unchanged, its guiding spirit has emerged in much sharper relief.
The lofty vision articulated at Aqaba on 4 June, when Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas promised to force their two nations onto the path of peace and reconciliation, has been replaced by much more familiar terrain as the Palestinians found themselves once again hostage to joint political manoeuvrings by the US and Israel.
Although the White House was infuriated by Israel’s botched assassination of senior Hamas Spokesman Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi in Gaza last week, which left three bystanders dead and Abbas’s immediate chances of winning round the group’s leaders to a cease-fire in tatters, the American denunciations were restrained.
Even President Bush’s mild rebuke that he was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli attack caused a wave of outrage from Zionist lobby groups in Washington.
The US reaction to a Hamas bus bomb in Jerusalem the following day, which killed 17 people, was more definitive.
“The free world,” said Bush, echoing the refrain familiar from the war on terror, “those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers.”
Despite the US assessment, most of the violence of the past week was unleashed by Israel: of some 65 people killed, and dozens more injured, the majority were Palestinian civilians, many of them “collateral damage” of seven assassination attempts on Hamas leaders over five days.
American efforts to revive the roadmap have concentrated on two objectives, both directed at the Palestinians.
First, intense pressure has been put on militant factions, and particularly on Hamas, to approve a cease-fire. Egyptian officials, led by the deputy chief of Egyptian Intelligence, Mustafa El-Beheiri, shuttled between Gaza and Damascus, where the group’s exiled leadership is based, to secure an agreement.
Foreign ministers from the EU, one of the four parties to the Quartet, also waded in, announcing that they were considering adding Hamas’s political wing to the EU’s list of terrorist organisations unless it became more cooperative.
Hamas — backed by Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Brigades — is reported to be holding out, at the very least, for an Israeli commitment to halt assassinations and incursions into Palestinian areas; Israel is reported to be insisting, before it makes any concessions, not only on a cease-fire but on the Palestinian Authority dismembering all the armed factions.
As Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, observed of the Palestinian leadership’s plight: “We have to get an agreement with Israel in order to get an agreement with Hamas, and we have to get an agreement with Hamas in order to get an agreement with Israel.”
Even then it is far from clear what sort of deal might be brokered. The Egyptians and several Palestinian officials suggested that a cease-fire would cover only attacks inside Israel and not the West Bank and Gaza.
Despite lack of progress on this front the US is also pressing for the Palestinian leadership, under Abbas and his Security Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan, to take “security responsibility” for the northern Gaza Strip and Bethlehem as soon as possible.
Abbas and Dahlan have refused to countenance such a move for some time, mainly because they fear that their much battered security forces are too weak to take on Hamas in its Gaza heartland.
On Tuesday, following a meeting with Amos Gilad, Israel’s military coordinator in the occupied territories, Dahlan reiterated his refusal to accept a handover of policing until Israel agreed to a full withdrawal from Gaza. He accused the Israelis of offering only to move a few tanks. Israel itself has been sending out confusing signals.
At the weekend Sharon taunted Palestinian leaders for being “cry babies” after they accused him of wrecking their negotiations with Hamas. The Israeli prime minister also labelled Abbas a “chick without feathers”, implying that sidelined Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was still ruling the roost.
On one hand Sharon appears to want the Palestinian police to take responsibility, for a trial period, in northern Gaza — possibly because he hopes that the Palestinian Authority will be sucked into a damaging civil war with Hamas, or maybe because he needs to relieve himself of some of the crippling costs of the military reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
On the other he hopes to extract from the Palestinian leadership — after yet more US arm-twisting — a pledge to start “demilitarising” Palestinian areas by collecting weapons. Again, this risks plunging the Palestinians into a civil war.
On Tuesday Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weissglass, was joined in Washington by the head of the Shin Bet security services, Avi Dichter, to lobby American officials to delay implementing the security handover until Hamas has been neutered.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell was expected to briefly meet with Sharon and Abbas at the weekend during his visit to the region.
Overlooked in all the talk of Palestinian violence was Israel’s failure to make progress on its limited, first-phase objective under the roadmap: the dismantling of more than 100 settlements established under Sharon’s premiership.
Only 10 outposts were removed by the army last week, most of them uninhabited “decoy” sites. Attempts to dismantle a handful of inhabited sites were quickly ensnared in legal challenges from the settlers.
A survey by Peace Now at the weekend found that at least four new outposts had sprung up in the West Bank in the meantime.