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Politics

Israel and Palestine: The End of the “Calm”

17 July 2005

Israel and Palestine: The End of the “Calm”

By Gwynne Dyer

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called for a “period of calm” when
he took over the late Yasser Arafat’s job in January, and for a while some
people allowed themselves to believe that peace was within reach. But that
delusion depended on the belief that Arafat had been the main obstacle to a
permanent peace settlement, and it is now melting in the summer sun.

“This calm is dissolving,” said General Dan Halutz, the Israeli
military’s chief of staff, last Friday. Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman of the
radical Hamas movement that rejects a permanent peace deal with Israel,
sort of agreed: “The calm is blowing away in the wind, and the Zionist
enemy is responsible for that.” But the truth is that neither Halutz’s
political superiors nor al-Masri’s expected the calm to last.

Last week began with a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad (which
never agreed to the ceasefire) killing five Israelis in the town of Netanya
on Tuesday. Israeli troops killed two Palestinians in Tulkarem on
Wednesday night, and on Thursday another Palestinian was shot dead as he
tried to escape Israeli forces in Nablus. That night, a shower of homemade
Qassem rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas militants killed one Israeli woman
in Nativ Haasara.

In an attempt to reassert control over the Gaza Strip, Palestinian
police under Mahmoud Abbas’s orders opened fire on a Hamas vehicle late
Thursday night, wounding five Hamas fighters. The response was an attack
on a police post by dozens of Hamas gunmen who burned two police cruisers.
Another clash in Gaza City early Friday morning left two civilian
bystanders dead, a police station and more vehicles burned out, and Hamas
fighters in control of the streets. Later Friday, Israel helicopters
killed seven Hamas militants and wounded five civilians in two rocket
attacks.

It was a pattern all too familiar from the intifada of 2001-2004,
but with the added complication that the Palestinians themselves were now
on the brink of a civil war. By the weekend, US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice had announced an unscheduled visit to the area in an
attempt to save the ceasefire, but neither side has much incentive to help
her out.

Israel would prefer the Palestinians to remain quiet, of course,
but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategy does not aim at serious
negotiations with them. He is instead going for an imposed peace that
leaves all the main Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank under Israeli
control, and last August he got official US support for that policy.

Sharon is building a “security fence” that translates that policy
into a de facto new border for Israel. He is expanding Jewish settlements
around predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to cut it off from the West Bank
and eliminate the possibility that it could ever serve as the capital of a
Palestinian state. And Washington has promised to put no pressure on him
for concessions to the Palestinians until he completes the unilateral
withdrawal of some 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, due to begin
next month.

The Gaza settlements never made economic or military sense, as they
are surrounded by 1.3 million Palestinians. “Disengaging” from them cuts
the burden on the Israeli army and saves money — but it also gives Sharon
a useful smoke-screen. It lets him claim that he is making a major gesture
for peace, and that he cannot be expected to act on other issues when he is
fully occupied with fighting off extreme right-wing Israelis who are
resisting the “disengagement process.”

In reality, as Sharon’s chief of staff Dov Weisglas explained last
October, the disengagement process is intended to supply “the amount of
formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process
with the Palestinians….When you freeze that process, you prevent the
establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the
refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called
the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed
indefinitely from our agenda….all with a presidential blessing and the
ratification of both houses of Congress.”

Sharon spoke bluntly about his strategy to the Knesset in April: “I
am doing everything I can to preserve as much (of the West Bank
settlements) as I can.” He is succeeding: by the time the Gaza withdrawal
is complete, so should be the wall that cuts through the West Bank and
defines the new de facto border between Israel and the occupied
territories. But since Palestinians understand all this, they have
concluded that Mahmoud Abbas’s gamble that a “period of calm” would lead to
genuine peace negotiations with Israel has failed.

Palestinians are turning more and more to Islamic movements that
reject the whole notion of a permanent division of the land between Israel
and a Palestinian state. Hamas’s popular support has risen so fast that
Abbas postponed the parliamentary elections scheduled for this summer,
since a vote now might give Hamas and its allies a majority of seats. And
there is no earthly reason to believe that a visit by Condoleezza Rice will
change any of this. The Bush administration has given Sharon a green
light, and she is not going to switch it to red.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“This calm…last”; and
“In reality..Congress”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.