Thursday, 30 July 2009


There can be no Middle East
settlement without Hamas

By throwing their weight behind repression on the West Bank,
the US and Britain are only making a viable peace
less likely

Seumas Milne
29 July 2009

Barely six months into Barack Obama's presidency and public
tensions between the US and Israel, unthinkable for most of
the past two decades, have already spilled over into open
recriminations. Israel will not take orders or accept
"edicts" from Washington, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
has declared, while reportedly branding two of Obama's most
senior aides – Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod – as
"self-hating Jews".

A posse of Obama emissaries has now been dispatched to
Jerusalem to smooth Israeli feathers with talk of a
"discussion among friends". In the face of intense Israeli
resistance, Obama's demand for a "complete freeze" on
Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories
is now expected to become a fudge about 2,500 more homes
currently under construction.

But all the signs are that Washington is determined to use
pressure to halt settlement expansion, combined with some
gestures of Arab "normalisation" with Israel, to create the
conditions for restarting peace talks later this year.
Assuming that those negotiations flounder, as in the past,
the administration is then expected to produce a peace plan
of its own – perhaps based around a provisional West Bank
state, with the most contentious issues of Jerusalem and
refugees once again postponed till a later date.

If that's the direction of travel, it's not a recipe for
lasting peace but for further conflict. For all the welcome
US shift from its blank-cheque policy towards its closest
Middle Eastern ally, Obama's attempt to balance a freeze on
illegal Israeli settlements in illegally occupied territory
with the kind of diplomatic concessions the Arab world has
always held back for a final peace agreement is a pretty
lopsided kind of exchange.

For Palestinians on the ground, even more urgent than a
halt to settlement expansion is effective pressure on
Israel to take its heel off their windpipe: to lift the
life-choking checkpoints, halt the construction of the
land-grabbing wall, and end the continuing siege of the
Gaza Strip, which has left tens of thousands of people
living in rubble since the destruction and slaughter
unleashed on them in January.

But more fundamentally still, from the point of view of any
lasting settlement, is the continuing veto by the US on
talks with the Palestinians' elected representatives, who
won the closest thing to free elections possible under
military occupation three years ago. Obama acknowledged
support for Hamas in his Cairo speech last month, but
insisted the movement could only "play a role" if it signed
up to conditions he knows it will not accept.

Since Israel's onslaught on Gaza, Hamas has resumed its
earlier ceasefire: last month, only two rockets were fired
into Israel from the strip. And the Hamas leader, Khalid
Mish'al, has reiterated its commitment to an indefinite end
to hostilities in exchange for full withdrawal from the
territories occupied in 1967 and recognition of the
refugees' right to return.

It should be clear enough that no settlement is going to
succeed unless it commands broad support or acquiescence on
both sides: most obviously from the Palestinians, the
victims of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and occupation,
many of whom have little to lose. Recognising that basic
reality, Britain's parliamentary foreign affairs committee
called on the government at the weekend to end its ban on
talking to Hamas – echoing influential voices in the US and
Israel itself.

But the only deal envisaged by the US is one with the
unpopular Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president expired
last January. As the Democratic chairman of the Senate
foreign relations committee, John Kerry, put it recently:
"Hamas has already won one election – we cannot allow them
to win another."

And far from supporting the Palestinian national unity
necessary to make any peace agreement stick, America and
its allies are doing everything possible to deepen the
split between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement. In fact,
the US, Britain and the EU make support for the Palestinian
Authority (PA) dependent on a continuing security crackdown
against Hamas activists in the West Bank – justified as
fighting terrorism – which makes reconciliation between the
two Palestinian parties ever more far-fetched.

As a result, more than 1,000 political prisoners are
reported by human rights groups to be held without trial in
PA jails, while extrajudicial killings, torture and raids
on Hamas-linked social institutions have become routine by
security forces trained and funded by the US and the EU.
And heading the effort to build up Abbas's forces that
carry out these operations is US Lieutenant-General Keith
Dayton – increasingly regarded as the real power in the
West Bank – supported by British officials and the Foreign
Office-sponsored security firm Libra Advisory Group, fresh
from working for the occupation forces in Iraq.

Needless to say, all the governments and security outfits
concerned reject any link with torture and insist their
training is aimed at overcoming human rights violations –
while Hamas has retaliated with its own arrests and abuses
against Fatah members in Gaza. And the destructive impact
of the mobilisation of the PA as an instrument for policing
the Israeli occupation isn't only felt in the split between
Fatah and Hamas, but within Fatah itself, which is holding
its first congress for 20 years next week.

The aim of Abbas, under US and EU guidance, is to complete
the transformation of Fatah from a national liberation
movement into the governing party of a state that doesn't
exist. Money and gerrrymandering are likely to see off
internal opposition, such as from the grassroots West Bank
Fatah leader Hussam Khader, who calls for unity with Hamas
and a twin strategy of resistance and negotiation.

"We expect nothing from Obama," Khader told me yesterday.
Even if Abbas were to sign up to the half-baked collection
of walled-in West Bank bantustans masquerading as an
independent state that currently seems the most the US
might be ready to squeeze out of Israel, he would not be
able to sustain or legitimise it. Until the US feels it
necessary to use its leverage with Israel to deliver
something closer to a genuinely just settlement, the
prospect must be of renewed violence, with ever greater
global consequences.

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