“Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was apparently more delighted by the banquet prepared for him by the wife of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat than he was with meeting President Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho the day before yesterday,” the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported on its website on 8 August, citing Israel’s Channel 10 television station.
Channel 10’s correspondent spoke of the “hospitality and warmth” that marked Abbas’ reception of Olmert and his delegation, noting that “Erekat’s wife insisted on personally preparing and serving” the banquet. Olmert, the report added, “was unable to conceal his delight and appetite for the rich food and for the hospitality and generosity” the Israelis received from their Palestinian hosts.
Behind all the theater, the results of the meeting were as meagre as can be expected. Olmert publicly affirmed his commitment to the “two-state solution,” while spokesmen briefed the press that Israel was not ready to discuss any fundamental issues, such as borders, halting colonial settlements, or the rights of refugees. The exercise was aimed at maintaining the fiction of a “peace process” from which Abbas will supposedly one day be able to deliver results.
Yet while he treats Olmert to delicacies in Jericho, Abbas is doing his best to ensure that Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer and starve due to the closure of the commercial and civilian crossings and tightened siege imposed by Israel since Hamas fighters routed US- and Israeli-backed Fatah militias in early June.
A source who works directly with Abbas’ ministers in the unelected and illegal “emergency government” of Salam Fayyad in Ramallah wrote to me that “Abbas has explicitly ordered the Rafah border to close and remain closed with the purpose of strangling Hamas.” The source, who was motivated to speak out by his outrage, but requested anonymity because he fears reprisals, added that Abbas “is ready to see his own people die for his political games.” The source added that while Abbas’ official public relations pronouncements are that the border is to be opened at once, “what is going on in the meetings is the opposite.”
What my source confirmed had already been revealed by Haaretz in a 8 July article that reported that Abbas “asked Israel and Egypt prevent the movement of people from Egypt to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing” and that “Abbas and a number of his aides asked that the request not be made public” (“Abbas asks for Rafah Gaza-Egypt crossing point to remain closed,” Haaretz, 18 July 2007).
Abbas’ policy of colluding with Israel to starve his own people is having its effect. The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA issued a desperate appeal for the borders of the besieged strip to be reopened. Filippo Grandi, the agency’s deputy commissioner general warned in a 9 August statement that within weeks Gaza could “be one hundred percent aid dependent” (Press Statement by Filippo Grandi, Deputy Commissioner General, UNRWA, Gaza City, 9 August 2007.)
All 600 garment factories in Gaza have shut down because they cannot import raw materials and 90 percent of factories involved in the construction industry have closed, the BBC reported on 9 August, citing figures given by the UN. As many as 120,000 workers in Gaza are likely to lose their jobs, and even UNRWA and the United Nations Development Programme have had to halt construction of shelters for refugees. (“UN warns over Gaza economic woe,” BBC News, 9 August 2007.)
In what might be a tacit admission of Abbas’ complicity, Grandi made a direct appeal not only to Israel, but to the “Palestinian authorities” to take “immediate steps to open up the Karni Crossing, to imports and exports, as well as humanitarian goods.” He added, “Only this will allow the little that remains of Gaza’s economy to survive.”
As the people in Gaza suffer strangulation, thousands of their relatives were stranded in desperate conditions on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, refugees exiled even from their place of exile. Many are people in poor health who went to Egypt to seek medical treatment, and at least 31 have died while waiting to return home.
On the political front, Hamas has continued to react to Abbas’ escalating war with equanimity, issuing daily calls for dialogue, reconciliation and a return to a national unity government. Despite the siege, it has also continued to hold its own successfully, paying the wages of thousands of government employees whose salaries Abbas and Fayyad had confiscated.
Abbas, while literally embracing the occupier and colonizer, has continued to angrily reject any intra-Palestinian dialogue. Yet it is doubtful how long this position will be tenable. Abbas, under a veto from the Bush administration refuses to talk, even as some senior Israelis have started to advocate direct dialogue with Hamas.
One of those is Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Halevy said, “I don’t say we should talk to Hamas out of sympathy to them. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Hamas. I think they are a ghastly crowd … But I have not seen anybody who says the Abbas-Fayyad tandem is going to do the job” (“What if Israel Talked to Hamas? Ex-Spymaster’s Plan, Seen as Heresy by Some,” Wall Street Journal, 1 August 2007).
Halevy expressed doubts about the US strategy of trying to prop up Abbas and isolate Hamas, calling it “political fantasy.” He called for Israel to negotiate a long-term truce with Hamas, something the movement has already offered. Halevy, the Journal reported, “is part of a small band of public figures who now say that, because of Hamas’s growing clout, it is becoming impossible to avoid such a dialogue. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined the group in a recent interview with National Public Radio.”
Unashamed, Abbas carries on; he recently received another large arms shipment — 1,000 rifles — coordinated by Israel and Jordan to strengthen his militias against Hamas. All these provocations are having an effect. While Hamas’ civilian leadership continues to offer olive branches, the rank and file of the resistance movement are showing signs that their patience is wearing thin.
Following Fayyad’s recent call for all resistance forces to unilaterally disarm in front of the occupation, and the subsequent publication of his “government program” that omitted mention of armed struggle, the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) issued an ominous warning. In a 28 July press conference a spokesman for the group — a coalition of resistance fighters from various factions including Fatah, responsible for capturing the Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit — “dubbed Abbas, Fayyad and other members of the government the ‘Ramallah traitors’ and vowed they will receive an ‘identical response as to the Israeli occupation’ ” (“PRC: Fayad and ‘Ramallah traitors’ targets for attack,” Haaretz, 28 July 2007).
Meanwhile, another Hamas member, Mou’aiad Bani Odeh, 22, died in an Israeli hospital after being transferred from al-Juneid prison, run by Abbas’ forces. Bani Odeh, Hamas alleges, succumbed to injuries resulting from torture inflicted by Abbas’ men, who continue their campaign of repression against Hamas members throughout the West Bank. (“Hamas member dies after being tortured in jail run by Palestinian Authority,” Ma’an News, 10 August 2007.)
The signs are that unless Abbas and his entourage reverse course and end their war against the Palestinian people, the apparent calm that now prevails will soon be shattered by another storm.
Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.