In search of justice in the Middle East

The US decision to back Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in the recent turmoil virtually guarantees an escalation in violence. Abbas has installed an unelected “emergency” government to replace the democratically elected Hamas-led national unity government.

Some have portrayed, Hamas’ takeover of Palestinian Authority security compounds in Gaza as a “coup.” But many Palestinians do not view it that way. In January 2006, Hamas decisively won legislative elections, giving it the right to form an administration. The US, despite its rhetorical support for democracy, decided to crush Hamas rule, imposing sanctions that have harmed ordinary Palestinians in the hope that Hamas would be forced out.

When it won the elections, Hamas had already observed a one-year unilateral truce with Israel, and had suspended the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians that had made it notorious. It tried to enter mainstream politics through the front door, to play by the rules of the game, but was undermined at every step. The bitter conclusion for many Palestinians is that the US is not interested in supporting real democracy, and will intervene relentlessly to overthrow leaders it does not support, regardless of the will of the Palestinian people.

The militias that Hamas took on and defeated in recent weeks were particularly hated in Gaza because they had abducted, tortured and killed many Hamas members and were widely seen as thoroughly corrupt. It so happens that these militias received arms and funding from the United States and had vowed to take on and defeat Hamas in a violent showdown, overturning the result of the election.

We have seen this strategy before. Does anyone remember the Nicaraguan Contras? Is it a coincidence that one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, US Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams, who illegally channeled money to the Contras, has been the architect of the US strategy to support anti-Hamas militias?

Despite the power-sharing deal Fatah and Hamas signed in Mecca last February, key Fatah leaders refused to place their militias under the control of an independent interior minister. He resigned in frustration, and the US continued to funnel in weapons.

Following its dramatic rout of Fatah positions, Hamas leaders gave televised speeches emphasizing that they were not at war with Fatah’s rank and file (many of whom did not even fight) and did not want to seize power or overthrow Mr. Abbas, whose legitimacy they explicitly reaffirmed. Their problem, they said, was only with the US-supported militia leaders, such as Muhammad Dahlan and Rashid Abu Shbak who had made the job of the elected Hamas-led government impossible. As a goodwill gesture, Hamas leaders issued a general amnesty for all captured Fatah commanders and appealed for dialogue, reconciliation and reconstructing a national unity government.

Abbas rejected these appeals and has opted to form an unelected government and rule by decree even though Palestinian law denies him that authority. This government will have little real power and will be considered illegitimate by a significant part of the Palestinian public.

After more than a year of sanctions against the Palestinian people, Hamas is stronger and more popular than ever. Throwing more US support behind Abbas and his unelected cabinet will not reverse this trend.

There has been much talk that the events in Gaza herald the birth of a “three-state solution” — Israel, plus a Hamas stronghold in Gaza and a Fatah-led West Bank. In reality, the West Bank and Gaza had already long been isolated from each other by Israeli policy. Ultimately, neither Hamas nor Fatah controls the fate of Palestinians; they remain under crushing Israeli military rule that is increasingly likened to apartheid.

And just like apartheid South Africans, who cited “black on black” violence, some Israelis assert that intra-Palestinian fighting proves that Palestinians are incapable of democracy. They hope that all the heat will be off Israel as it entrenches Bantustan-like separation and discrimination against non-Jews under its rule.

The reality remains that 11 million souls — half Palestinians and half Israelis — inhabit a small country. Closing off Gaza and allowing it to descend into further misery, and propping up a Fatah-led Palestinian Authority that has lost legitimacy, while Israel continues to build Jewish-only settlements across the West Bank, is not the path to peace.

Intra-Palestinian dialogue without outside interference, and South Africa or Northern Ireland-style peace talks aimed at ending all forms of military occupation, inequality and discrimination, with strong outside support, may yet save the situation. But so far there are no signs that the Bush administration will heed these obvious rudiments of peace.

A slightly edited version of this piece ran in The Chicago Tribune.

Ali Abunimah is cofounder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

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