If the political purpose behind this week’s attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank is still hard to decipher, it seems the message they sent out was directed more to Palestinians in the West Bank than to the parties currently gathered in Washington.
Nicolas Pelham considers Hamas’ resilience as a political force and notes that the recent attacks “earned plaudits not only from Hamas’ core constituency, but also from a broad swathe of Fatah and secular activists, including some senior actors, disillusioned by 19 years of negotiations based on an ever flimsier framework.”
In its attacks on settlers on two consecutive nights in different parts of the West Bank, Hamas demonstrated its reach despite a three-year, US-backed PA military campaign and exposed the fallacy of the PA’s claims to have established security control in the West Bank. “It’s not muqawama (resistance) against Israel,” says ‘Adnan Dumayri, a Fatah Revolutionary Council member and PA security force general. “It’s muqawama against Abbas.” It also enabled the Islamists to catch seeping popular disaffection across the political spectrum toward a process of negotiations that appeared to Palestinians to be leading into a blind alley of continued Israeli control. Should Abbas fail to negotiate a halt to settlement growth, Hamas in its armed attacks against settlers would emerge from its three-year political wasteland to offer Palestinians an alternative.
In contrast to the international media, where the attack was roundly condemned, in Palestine the attack earned plaudits not only from Hamas’ core constituency, but also from a broad swathe of Fatah and secular activists, including some senior actors, disillusioned by 19 years of negotiations based on an ever flimsier framework. Unlike the Annapolis process or the “road map,” the twin Bush administration initiatives that the Obama administration chose to ditch, the current negotiations lack any terms of reference or agreed-upon script. Palestinians ask why Abbas agreed to meet Netanyahu given that none of the Arab targets required to turn proximity talks into direct ones were reached prior to the Obama administration’s announcement of the meeting. When American elder statesman George Mitchell presented the parties with 16 identical questions on the core issues requiring yes or no answers, Israel responded to each with a question of its own. In his August 31 press briefing before the White House meeting, Mitchell again declined to specify if Israel had agreed even to extend its (partially honored) settlement freeze past the September 26 expiration date.
Even the architects of the new process admit their concern that time is against them. Unveiling his plans for statehood within a year at a Ramallah press conference in late August, Fayyad warned that “every day that this conflict is not resolved there are more facts on the ground that make a two-state solution less likely.” Yet public incredulity is eroding confidence not only in a future peace deal, but also in the Palestinian leadership itself. The less Fayyad and Abbas deliver, the more tenuous their legitimacy, and the more Israel’s doubts about their reliability as neighbors become self-fulfilling. (Typifying the extent to which the leadership is removed from grassroots sentiment, the PA sponsored a groveling televised address from PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to Israelis on the eve of the talks, in which he assumed Palestinian responsibility for the previous peace process failures. “Shalom to you in Israel. I know we have disappointed you,” he said. “I know that we have been unable to deliver peace for the last 19 years.”) Outside Abbas’ headquarters, Fatah activists derisively draw a distinction between the Fatah of the sulta, or regime, and that of Yasser Arafat. And away from Ramallah’s cafés, in the back streets of Jenin, which Fayyad’s proclaimed economic boom has yet to reach, talk of revolution and intifada is again in the air. Without something tangible to show for his continued pursuit of negotiations, due to resume in the rosy after-dinner glow in Washington, even the president’s advisers predict that Abbas and his political institution are finished.
The London-based Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper interviewed the Gaza-based senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar who struck a conciliatory tone in his remarks about Mahmoud Abbas.
Al-Zahar, speaking by telephone to Asharq al-Awsat said: “our policy has always been to let the negotiations continue, and we have not devoted one day of our work to stopping them”. Al-Zahar added: “There is a portion of the Palestinian people [Fatah and its supporters], who are in favor of negotiations in order to impose their political program, and we are convinced that this political program will not bring what is needed. The question then is: why take responsibility for undermining something that has already failed? In relation to our program of resistance, as you can see the West Bank has buckled under overwhelming pressure. Therefore, our program’s activities relate to the level of pressure imposed on the Palestinian people in the West Bank”.
In response to a question about whether he meant what he said, that the synchronization of the terrorist attack with the launch of the negotiations was just a coincidence, he said: “Coincidence or no coincidence, it was the decision made by people in the field [Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas]. Some say [the timing of the attacks] was intentional, that is not true. When people are presented with opportunities, as well as the means and targets, they act”. He went on to say that: “any attempt to try and belittle these actions, and link them to the negotiations, is not true at all”.
Al-Zahar believes that the vision of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the negotiations is: “like our vision. The issues [that will be raised] and their results are already known. Jerusalem: Israelis are united on the issue of Jerusalem and the Palestinian negotiator will not get anything from them. Secondly: refugees, can convince the discarded refugees in Jordan, Syria or Lebanon [to accept what is being proposed]? As for the [issue of] water, there is no indication that Israel will give up the groundwater located in the West Bank”.
In response to a question regarding the reasons which prompted Mahmoud Abbas to go to Washington to negotiate, if his vision was the same as that of Hamas, al-Zahar claims that “if there is a call from Washington, he must go”. He added that “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] will not do what Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat at Camp David] did, in that he will not give up on the principles and the issue will be over”.