Partial withdrawal is a poisoned chalice for the Palestinians

The Israeli offer to partially withdraw from Palestinian territories and let the PA takeover security in those areas is yet another poisoned chalice to be avoided by the Palestinians.

On one side lays the tempting prospect of an end to Israel’s arbitrary arrests and the disproportionate use of force, amply illustrated by the helicopter gunship attacks in the Gaza Strip which have killed over 60 Palestinians in the last week. On the other side lies the prospect of pitting Palestinian against Palestinian in an attempt to maintain “security” in the Gaza Strip, most likely the PA against Hamas, or in the worst scenario, the PA against all militants, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — a dream come true for the Sharon administration.

Not only would Israel avoid the negative publicity of using excessive force against so-called militants and, more frequently, the civilians around them, but it could sit back and watch the last remnants of active opposition tear themselves apart, whilst winning international plaudits for its restraint. The prospect of a smug Sharon watching the fragmentation of yet another Palestinian stronghold into multiple interest groups is almost too much to bear.

For a population of only around 10 million people worldwide, the Palestinians are already divided enough, not perhaps through Israeli machinations, but through the tragic events of the last 55 years which have fragmented their interests, changed their priorities and weakened their collective voice to barely a whisper against Israel’s coordinated roar.

Meet a 1948 Palestinian in Israel, or an “Israeli Arab” if you will, and they are more likely to be reasonably well-off with university prospects and dreams of traveling abroad. Meet a 1948 Palestinian in Lebanon, and they are more likely to live in a refugee camp, barely making ends meet and thoroughly disenfranchised from the local society, both politically and professionally. Former refugees in Jordan, Syria and the Gulf States are another totally different proposition to those who have lived the West Bank and Gaza experience. The only binding gel is the dream of an independent Palestine, but under the Aqaba agreement, even that dream is restricted to the 3.6 million West Bankers and Gazans.

Further divisions in the remaining rump of Palestine will undoubtedly be catastrophic for even this humble dream and for the long-awaited realization of core human rights in the Holy Land, not least of which are the right to self-determination, the right to life and the right to an adequate standard of living, given that 60% of the population live in absolute poverty equivalent to some of the worst places in Africa.

Don’t get me wrong. The Israeli occupation is an ongoing nightmare for the Palestinian people, resulting in the death of over 3,000 individuals, including 455 children in the current Intifada alone, and the arrest of 15,000 individuals, including 330 children currently locked away in Israeli prisons and detention centres.

But a promise from Sharon, the former Defence Minister found “personally responsible” for the 1982 massacres at Shatila and Sabra, combined with the fleeting interest of a partisan super power, are not the long-awaited portents of peace and an independent state, especially when there is strong opposition from inside the Palestinian camp.

The first priority for Mr Abbas, must then be to talk to his own side and not get caught up in the diplomatic whirl of US diplomacy and international agreements. If Hamas will truly hold by Abdul-Aziz Rantisi’s sound-bite that “the word cease-fire is not in our vocabulary,” then Mr Abbas needs to realize that the Aqaba process is a non-starter. There is little point in taking the reins of power, only to have them snatched away more brutally in the next year by Israel, while the US is preoccupied with its own electoral shenanigans and the rest of the world throws its arms up in despair.

A strong, united front among the remaining Palestinian population — in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — is the essential foundation for the realization of the Palestinian dream. Further division is a way of ensuring that it never comes true.

Catherine Hunter is Research Coordinator for Defence for Children International - Palestine Section. The comments above represent the views of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by DCI.