Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Abbas tries to muscle in on Gaza peace talks

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas made a powerplay for Fatah involvement in the Gaza peace talks when met his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Monday. He criticised Hamas saying they promoted conflict with Israel and says they must respect his authority as leader of the Palestinian state. He also warned he will not talk with any group that fails to recognise the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Abbas’ party Fatah is the largest faction within the PLO whereas Hamas is not aligned with it.

Abbas’s call comes a week after Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal described the PLO as impotent. Meshaal, who is exiled in Damascus, said the PLO “expresses a state of impotence, abuse and a tool to deepen divisions". Hamas have ruled Gaza alone after defeating Fatah security forces in a five day civil war in 2007. However Gaza's borders have been closed in an 18-month Israeli blockade as revenge for continued Qassam rocket attacks from the Strip. Israel launched a devastating all out attack on Gaza in late December that left 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead (a disparity of a hundred casualties to one). The war ended with on 18 January both sides declaring unilateral ceasefires.

Egypt has been mediating between Israel and Hamas in attempt to avoid further bloodshed as well as end the blockade. Mubarak will now walk a delicate tightrope as he holds separate talks with Israeli officials and Palestinians from both Hamas and now Fatah factions. Relations are at an all-time low between the two groups. Fatah accuses Hamas of killing, torturing and beating up Fatah activists in Gaza while Hamas in turn accuses Fatah of helping the Israeli military to strike Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip during the war. While the talks go on, so do the tit-for-tat attacks between Israel and Gaza. Gaza resumed rocket fire on Israeli border towns shortly after the ceasefire and in response warplanes launched air strikes across Gaza late on Sunday. Yesterday, one Palestinian was killed and four others wounded in an Israeli air strike on a vehicle carrying militants in the southern town of Rafah.

Meanwhile Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy George Mitchell outlined American priorities for the region. Speaking in Israel last week, he said the new administration wanted to consolidate the truce and immediately address Gaza’s humanitarian needs. His appointment was welcomed by Palestinians who remember his last mission to the Middle East in 2000 when he recommended the Israelis lift the restrictions that prevent the Palestinians building up their economy. But Israeli PM Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would respond to what he called “every Hamas violation of the cease-fire, be they rocket attacks, strikes along the border fence or smuggling through tunnels.”

Olmert also told Mitchell that Gaza border crossings will not open permanently for the passage of goods unless a deal is reached on kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. As The Guardian points out, what Mitchell offers is sustained engagement right from the start of the Obama administration. The British daily says George Mitchell is “someone who will stay with it day after day, as he did in Northern Ireland.” This will be necessary as the history of Gaza’s politics is just as intractable as Northern Ireland’s.

Originally part of the British mandate of Palestine, Gaza came under harsh Egyptian military control after the 1948 war. Its citizens were forbidden from entering Egypt itself but in the 1950s its teeming refugee camps were a breeding ground for the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood network which brought about an which brought about an awakening of political Islam. Some refugees became Palestinian fighters known as “fidayun” and began conducting raids on isolated Jewish settlements near the border. Yasser Arafat emerged as leader of the “fidayun” calling his group The Movement for the Liberation of Palestine (which spelt “fatah” – victory – in reverse).

After the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip. The crowded Strip held 850,000 of the 1.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories. A third of these were children and the unemployment rate was around 35 percent. For the next twenty years Gaza suffered a form of apartheid under a new occupier while continuing to be ignored at Arab summits. The failure of the PLO to provide protection against harassment propelled many people into the arms of Islamist groups. In 1987 the people’s frustration turned into the intifada (“shaking off”). This involved throwing stones at soldiers, preventing workers from getting to Israeli crossing points and liberating villages for a few days before the Israeli army returned. In response, the IDF bombarded villages with tear gas, charge in large numbers and used steel bullets wrapped in rubber.

Initially the 1993 Oslo Accords were viewed positively in Gaza. There would be no more curfews, or nightly break-ins or harassment on the roads. However as the Israelis imposed border closures it quickly became apparent that Oslo had turned Gaza into a huge prison. In the mid 1990s Israel encircled Gaza with a huge wall, electric fences and guard towers which effectively sealed off the Strip. The second intifada in October 2000 saw the beginning of primitive rocket attacks across the border into Israel.

In 2005, Israel enacted its unilateral disengagement plan to evict Israelis from 21 settlements in Gaza despite intense criticism from right-wing factions. But hopes that this would lead to a permanent settlement soon died. The locals were far from grateful and voted Hamas to victory in Palestinian government elections a year later. They would eventually muscle Fatah out of the Strip. Israel was left guarding a very hostile prisoner that does even recognise the existence of its jailor. Mitchell will need all his considerable skills of diplomacy to sort out the mess.

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