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Ariel Sharon

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Hamas’s Victory

26 January 2006

Hamas’s Victory

By Gwynne Dyer

Hamas did not win its surprise victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election in the occupied territories because a majority of Palestinians are religious fanatics, nor because they believe that Israel must be destroyed. It won because the old mainstream liberation movement, Fatah, had squandered its credibility in ten years of corrupt and incompetent rule in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and because after 39 year of Israeli military occupation there is still no sign of a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

There is actually a small ray of hope in Israel at the moment. The political demise of Ariel Sharon has changed the dynamics of Israeli politics, and there is an outside chance that the Israeli elections in March could produce a government that was prepared to enter genuine negotiations with the Palestinians. Or rather, there WAS an outside chance, but most Israelis will see the victory of Hamas as evidence that Palestinians don’t want peace.

In fact, most Palestinians do want peace. They would quite like it if Israel were to vanish, of course, just as most Israelis would be happy if the Palestinians vanished. But as much the weaker party in the conflict, Palestinians have long been more realistic about what they would have to give up in a final peace settlement. For almost twenty years Fatah’s demand has been for a state in the territories that Israel conquered in 1967, not the other three-quarters of colonial Palestine that they lost to the new Israeli state in the 1948 war.

The problem is that for twenty years Fatah has made almost no progress in its pursuit of that goal through peaceful negotiations. Indeed, apart from the first three years after the Oslo accord of 1992, before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who feared that he would give too much away to the Palestinians, and a brief period around the turn of the millennium when Ehud Barak was prime minister, there have hardly been any real peace negotiations. Instead, Israel has been convulsed by an endless internal debate about how much of the conquered land it has to give back in return for a permanent peace with the Palestinians.

During this period the Jewish settler population in the occupied territories has grown fivefold to over a quarter-million people, average Palestinian incomes have fallen by more than half, and still there has been no substantial progress towards a genuinely independent Palestinian state. So it is hardly surprising that parties like Hamas, which reject the whole Fatah strategy of compromise with Israel, have enjoyed growing support among despairing Palestinians.

The fact that both Hamas and its smaller and more extreme rival, Islamic Jihad, are religious parties is simply a reflection of current political trends across the Arab world. Thirty years ago, it was secular parties like Fatah itself that were seen by the Israelis as the extremists and the rejectionists. In fact, back in the 1980s the Israeli intelligence services encouraged the growth of Hamas as a counter-balance to the secular radicals of Fatah. (To be fair, that was no more stupid than the CIA’s support for people like Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war at the same time.)

Now the Palestinians have given Hamas a clear majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament, and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Fatah-dominated cabinet have already resigned. Hamas will form a government which will not include any Fatah members — or at least Fatah leaders are currently proclaiming that they would not join such a government — and President Mahmoud Abbas, elected last year but also from Fatah, has announced that he too may resign if he cannot pursue a peace policy. So is the “peace process” finally, legally dead?

It certainly is for the moment. Hamas has reaffirmed that it has no intention of giving up the armed struggle against Israeli occupation (although its armed wing has largely respected a ceasefire negotiated with Israel by Fatah and Egypt a year ago), and it has said once again that it has no intention of negotiating with Israel. This really is a political earthquake. And yet…

And yet there is always hope, because having genuine political power and responsibility for the results of exercising that power is a crash course in realism. Fatah made the journey from rejectionism to negotiation; it is not inconceivable that Hamas can do the same. It may just take more time than remains for the current peace process, which is already fourteen years old.

In the meantime, don’t despair just because the United States, the European Union, and all their friends have officially branded Hamas a terrorist movement, and every news agency report dutifully describes it as a group that has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. So it has, but then the Israeli army is a group that has killed much larger numbers of Palestinian civilians. History has made these people enemies, and they behave accordingly.

But as Israeli general and politican Moshe Dayan once remarked: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” A Palestinian government led by Hamas and the government of Israel will end up in negotiations one of these days. This is not the end of the road.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“The fact…same time”; and “in the meantime…accordingly”)

A Curse on Sharon

16 September 2004

A Curse on Sharon

By Gwynne Dyer

The way his enemies and even his allies are talking, you’d think that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had suggested giving the country back to the Arabs. In fact, he accused his critics last Wednesday of trying to spark a civil war in Israel, so extreme are their condemnations of his plan to evacuate Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip by the end of next year.

Early last week, 70,000 people, including many members of his own Likud party, rallied in Jerusalem to denounce him as a “traitor” and a “dictator”. His chief rival within the Likud party and the government, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has demanded a referendum on Sharon’s Gaza pull-out plan. And a settler-rabbi, Yael Dayan, has announced that he is prepared to put a death curse on Sharon.

Yael Dayan has a track-record in this matter. He conducted a similar mystical ceremony to put a death curse on then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly before he was murdered by an ultra-nationalist Israeli Jew in 1995. The thought of Ariel Sharon being murdered because he is soft on the Arabs boggles the mind, but right now he probably is more at risk of being assassinated by a fanatical Jewish settler than by a suicide-bomber from Hamas. Can this be the Sharon we all know and love?

Relax, he hasn’t really gone soft on us. He’s just not as totally blind to inconvenient realities as the more extremist Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. In the West Bank, which is over a third as large as Israel itself and quite close to the most densely settled areas of that country, the 230,000 Jewish settlers make up over a tenth of the total population and effectively control about half the land. With few exceptions, their settlements are relatively easy to protect from the hostile Palestinian majority around them.

The Gaza Strip is different. It is a tiny, mostly barren strip of land, right on the Egyptian border and far from Israel’s main population centres, packed tight with 1.3 million Palestinians whose parents or grandparents fled or were driven from their homes further north in Israel proper in 1948. Amid them live only 8,000 Jewish settlers — but those settlers control one-third of the land, and require an approximately equal number of Israeli soldiers to guard them from the Palestinians who surround them.

The Gaza settlements make no economic or military sense, and while many of the Jewish settlers there are driven by a religious vision, the enclaves were probably always seen by the secular Israeli governments that authorised them as bargaining chips in some potential future deal with the Palestinians. Sharon is certainly using them as bargaining chips, though he has no intention of making a deal with the Palestinians.

Sharon’s strategy aims to separate Israelis from Palestinians as much as possible while still retaining almost all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and carving the Palestinian areas up into enclaves separated by Israeli-patrolled roads and military checkpoints. The Gaza pull-out saves Israel money and troops while also letting him throw the world a bone: Look, Israel is withdrawing voluntarily from some settlements. But about 96 percent of the Jewish settler population, up in the West Bank, will remain.

Asked what would happen after the Gaza withdrawal last week, Sharon replied: “Israel will continue its war on terrorism, and will stay in the territories that will remain.” But the furious arguments in Israel over the Gaza withdrawal serve to divert foreign attention from all that, and to make Sharon appear a beleaguered moderate assailed by wild-eyed fanatics. If Yael Dayan hadn’t volunteered to put a death curse on him, Sharon would gladly have paid him to do it.

It is vintage Sharon: brilliant tactics, but not even a hint of strategic vision. Of course, Sharon was the main political patron of the settlers from the start, and though he does not share their religious fanaticism he has a deep emotional attachment to the territories they have settled on. Now he has turned the more extremist settlers against him, but he still wants to keep almost all of the land. The problem is that this means no deal with the Palestinians, and a future of endless war.

The late Yitzhak Rabin was at least as tough a general and as dedicated to Israel as Ariel Sharon, but he was a great deal wiser. He thought long-term, and understood that the day will eventually come when Israel no longer enjoys all its current advantages of overwhelming military superiority over its Arab neighbours, a regional monopoly of nuclear weapons, and unwavering US support. It was therefore necessary for Israel’s long-term survival to reach a lasting settlement with the Palestinians before it lost the upper hand.

Sharon and his allies deny that a deal is possible, because “there is nobody to negotiate with,” and by now they have managed to discredit or kill most of their potential Palestinian negotiating partners, but they don’t really want a deal anyway. They are unwilling to contemplate the sacrifices that it would require, so they have no coherent vision beyond endless military occupation of the territories and an endless war on terrorism.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Sharon’s…remain”; and “It is vintage…war”)