Hamas-PA Reconciliation Deal Sinks Peace Process
By David Dolan
The always remote prospects that a final peace treaty would be arrived at by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this year seemed to come to an end the last week of April. This followed the radical Palestinian Hamas movement announcement on April 23 that it would join a "unity government" with the rival Palestinian Authority, prompting Israeli government leaders to pull out of the struggling peace talks initiated by the US government last year. Relations between the two main Palestinian political movements have been strained to nonexistent ever since Iranian-backed Hamas militiamen staged a bloody coup in June 2007 against the PA government then ruling the Gaza Strip.
Israeli leaders quickly denounced the Hamas-PA unity pact, saying it would spell the end of the already floundering American-sponsored peace talks that began the middle of last year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had only two choices: to make peace with Israel or to make peace with the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement that continues to call and act for Israel's annihilation.
The United States and other countries similarly denounced the unity pact, with the State Department in Washington noting that Israel cannot possibly be expected to negotiate a viable peace deal with a Palestinian government that includes politicians openly working for Israel's destruction. However the administration laid blame on both sides for the apparent collapse of the peace process, stating that both had taken actions that hindered the slow moving peace talks.
The protracted negotiations were already in great jeopardy before the reconciliation deal was announced, particularly after Abbas applied for membership as a state in 13 United Nations agencies and other international organizations late last month. The UN applications were quickly endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and later supported by a majority of member nations. This came after Israeli leaders repeatedly warned that the renewed peace process would implode if the Palestinians took any unilateral statehood actions before a final deal was sealed, as PA leaders had promised to do in exchange for the release of over 100 convicted Palestinian terrorist prisoners.
The apparent collapse of the latest American-brokered negotiating process had one immediate benefit for the long serving Israeli Prime Minister-it quickly averted a threat by his second largest coalition partner, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), to withdraw from his coalition government. The threat was dropped soon after the Hamas reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority was unveiled. Earlier in the month, party leader Yair Lapid warned he would pull his party, which holds 19 seats in the Israeli Knesset, out of the coalition if the Premier failed to somehow keep the faltering peace talks going.
While the so-called "peace process" was disintegrating yet again, Palestinian militiamen based in the Gaza Strip launched a new wave of rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian communities near the Palestinian coastal zone. As always, this in turn provoked return Israeli fire upon terrorist targets in the Hamas-ruled zone that is home to an estimated 1.7 million Arabs, most of whom are practicing Muslims.
Violence returned to Jerusalem during the month as Palestinians rioted next to the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site on earth. Clashes with Jerusalem's police forces took place during the weeklong Passover festival, when the holy city was packed with Jewish visitors; and with Christians from all over the world celebrating Easter. This came soon after an Israeli family was attacked by terrorists as they traveled in their car near Judaism's second holiest city, Hebron, where the remains of most of Israel's ancient patriarchs and matriarchs were buried. Baruch Mizrachi, an off duty high ranking security officer and the father of five children, was killed in the unprovoked shooting attack. His pregnant wife was moderately wounded, along with their nine year old son. Palestinians began rioting in Hebron soon after the deadly assault took place, protesting an Israeli decision to slightly expand Jewish settlement in the city.
HAMAS RECONCILES WITH PA
Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders like the late Yasser Arafat were hardly thrilled when the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym HAMAS, was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1988 under the guidance of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement. Tensions, and then violence, between the two rival groups grew as Hamas expanded its power and influence, leading ultimately to its electoral victory over the PLO Fatah party in the 2006 Palestinian elections-the only time that such a ballot has ever been held. Ironically, the elections were the belated result of the Oslo peace accords which Hamas vocally, vigorously and violently opposed, and yet they used the Oslo-generated vote to rise to power over the Palestinian people.
For over one year, Hamas jointly ruled over the nearly two million Palestinians living in Judea and Samaria, along with those in the Gaza Strip, its home base. While Arafat's immediate successor, Mahmoud Abbas, remained the top dog, serving as President of the PA, Hamas politician Ismail Haniyah acted as Prime Minister, and Hamas held a majority of PA cabinet positions.
However the shaky alliance proved a very temporary one, with splits growing inside the PA government. Then Hamas seized exclusive power in the Gaza Strip during a violent one day firefight in June 2007 that left many Palestinian fighters and non combatants dead or wounded. Since then, various attempts to engender reconciliation between the two largest Palestinian political factions, mainly at the instigation of Egyptian governmental leaders, have failed. Whether or not this latest marriage proposal will actually lead to a wedding, let alone a honeymoon or a lasting union, is anyone's guess. One thing seems clear: If the unity pact does hold together, any further international efforts to bring an end to the long and bloody conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli people will never get off the ground.
The surprise reconciliation pact, which pledges that a new PA unity government will be knit together by the end of May and that Palestinian parliamentary elections will be held by early next year, was arrived at after several clandestine meetings were held in Gaza City and Ramallah between PA and Hamas representatives. The talks began shortly after Abbas effectively ended all prospects that the negotiations launched last year under the tutelage of American Secretary of State John Kerry would succeed by announcing his bid to join various world bodies as a fully fledged state. This came soon after the Israeli government postponed the fourth and final Palestinian prisoner release in late March that had been reluctantly agreed to last year by the Netanyahu government. At the time, the Premier said he was putting off the scheduled release for several reasons, among them a threat issued by Abbas to leave the negotiating table by the end of April if no significant progress had been made by then. Earlier the PA leader effectively quashed the talks when he proclaimed that the Palestinians would never recognize Israel as a state for the Jewish people as part of any final peace deal, which is a basic final peace accord requirement issued for many decades by all Israeli governments.
While Israeli leaders were denouncing the unity pact, most Palestinian officials were hailing it. Ismail Haniyeh, who is widely expected to return to the post of PA Prime Minister if the pact holds together, praised the deal at a press conference he held with PA leaders in Gaza City. Mustafa Bargouti, a PA affiliated Palestinian legislator who participated in the reconciliation talks, said the deal "spells the end of the division between the Palestinian people," which Israeli commentators said was an extremely optimistic and undoubtedly flawed expectation. He went on to maintain that "The Palestinians are in a unified camp, and Israel cannot claim that Palestinians cannot negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians."
Bargouti's last statement was an apparent reference to Israel's long held and logical contention that no final peace deal can be reached with a divided Palestinian people, half of whom support an Islamic militant group that openly seeks the Jewish state's total destruction. However Israeli officials were certainly not calling for Hamas to be drafted into the struggling peace process, but for the Palestinian people as a whole to decide for peace and stop supporting militant Muslim groups that work day and night to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, with the help of allies like Iran and Hizbullah.
NETANYAHU DENOUNCES UNITY PACT
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted quickly and sharply to the announced PA-Hamas unity deal, telling various reporters that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas "needs to choose between peace with Israel and an agreement with Hamas. Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace." In other words, the PA is not really interested in a viable peace accord with Israel at this time, which has been the exact contention of many Israeli officials and commentators all along.
In an interview with the American CBS television network a few days after the PA-Hamas pact was unveiled, Netanyahu said both he and Secretary of State Kerry were "absolutely stupefied" that Abbas had engaged in a sudden and unexpected about face to embrace Hamas. The day before the reconciliation announcement was made, Netanyahu said he spoke by phone to Kerry following what turned out to be the final negotiating session between the Israeli and Palestinian teams. "We were remarking on the fact that we had made some progress, and then the next day, we were both shocked-there is no other word."
When asked if Israel could still negotiate peace with the PA if its politicians were not actually recruited to sit around the PA cabinet table, but only supported the government from the outside, Netanyahu replied that Israel could not engage with any PA cabinet that was backed by Hamas since it "does not accept Israel's legitimate right to exist." He added that "You want to make peace with an enemy, but only with an enemy that's decided to make peace. An enemy that seeks your destruction? What are we going to talk about? The method of our self-annihilation? I mean, it just doesn't make sense."
In response to the reporter's premise that possibly this was precisely the right time to engage Hamas since it is perceived to be relatively weak at present as a political, if not a militia movement, PM Netanyahu replied with his own rhetorical question, a well-known Jewish practice: "If al-Qaida is weak, you don't say, 'Well, let's bring al-Qaida into the tent' and begin to negotiate with them. There are some groups, some movements, and some organizations that you do not negotiate with."
The veteran Israeli leader's statements came as the European Union's effective foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, actually welcomed the PA-Hamas reunion. However she at least did add that any new Palestinian government "must uphold the principle of nonviolence, remain committed to a two state solution," and accept Israel's "legitimate right to exist," all of which of course Hamas does not even pretend to do. United Nations Special Envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry echoed Ashton, saying the UN continues its "support for unity on this basis as the only way to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under one legitimate Palestinian Authority."
OTHER ISRAELI REACTIONS
The Israeli Premier's opposition to the Palestinian unity pact was mirrored by his top cabinet ministers. This included Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, who had earlier threatened to pull out of the coalition if Netanyahu did not continue to pursue a peace accord with the PA at this time. The same position had been espoused by Justice Minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni, who led the Israeli negotiating team on behalf of the government. In fact, some Israeli commentators had speculated in recent months that the real goal of the Obama administration in tenaciously pursuing an extremely unlikely peace accord at this time was precisely to topple the Netanyahu government, as occurred when the PM caved in to strong pressure from President Bill Clinton in 1999 to withdraw IDF forces from Hebron despite the fact that the Oslo accords were already severely crumbling by that time.
Both Lapid and Livni expressed surprise and sorrow that Abbas had chosen a pact with Hamas instead of a possible peace treaty with Israel. Calling the reconciliation pact "a game changer," Lapid noted that the government had "transferred some of the most vicious killers to the Palestinian Authority, only to find that they have this agreement or they were working on this agreement with Hamas without telling anybody." Lapid added that he assumed "the Americans must be as disappointed as we are from the fact that this was hidden from everybody and was done underground." He noted that the PA leader had "violated Israel's trust" by procuring the agreement with Hamas, pointing out that "trust is a necessity for Israel to make a deal with him." Obviously feeling betrayed, the centrist populist politician added that "Hamas is a jihad terror organization that is proud of killing civilians-women, children, the elderly-just because they're Jewish. If the Palestinians really want a treaty with Israel, how did they not demand from Hamas to say it is abandoning terror and committing to not hurt innocent people and to follow international law?"
While denouncing the PA-Hamas reconciliation deal, chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni also expressed her opinion that the peace process was not necessarily dead in the water. "We are not closing the door on the talks. We need to take some time to see how we respond to this harsh incident." However the Kadima party leader clarified that she will not negotiate with Hamas, noting that it was considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union, and even by Russia, now apparently on the warpath in south central Europe.
Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the coalition's right wing Beit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party and has vocally opposed the previous Palestinian prisoner releases, wrote on his Facebook page that "the signing of the merger between Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas introduces to the Middle East a whole new political era." Warning of the dangers that the unity pact represents, he opined that "The Palestinian Authority has just become the largest terrorist entity in the world, located just twenty minutes from Tel Aviv." He also noted that just as the United States government "does not talk with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Qaida, so Israel needs to be clear: We do not talk with killers. These three terrorist groups have killed more than 1,000 Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa since 2000."
ISRAEL PULLS OUT OF PEACE TALKS
Just one day after the Hamas-PA pact was dramatically unveiled, Prime Minister Netanyahu called his inner Security Cabinet into special session to discuss the jarring move. Later it was announced that the government ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Yapid, had unanimously decided to "suspend" the US-sponsored peace talks at this time.
Speaking before the vote, the Premier told his ministers that "Instead of choosing peace, Abbas formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for Israel's destruction." He reminded his subordinates that the PA leader had "formed an alliance with an organization whose covenant calls for Muslims to wage jihad against Jews" wherever they live in the world. He added that he hoped Israel will one day "have a partner that is truly committed to peace."
A statement put out by Netanyahu's office soon after the faltering peace talks were suspended warned that "Israel will respond to unilateral Palestinian actions with a series of measures," without detailing what those might be. Israeli commentators speculated that Netanyahu might now go ahead and annex the three large Jewish settlement blocks that straddle the pre-1967 border between Israel and territory taken by Jordan during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Later the Israeli leader told reporters that "the door is not closed" to future peace talks if Abbas and company break their pact with the nefarious Sunni Muslim terrorist organization that has launched hundreds of deadly attacks over the years, along with thousands of rockets and mortar shells aimed at Israeli civilian areas.
Reacting to the peace talk's suspension, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed what he claimed was his "deep disappointment" with Israel's decision, maintaining that PM Netanyahu was using the reconciliation pact between the PA and Hamas as "an excuse" to discontinue a peace process that Israel had "never had much enthusiasm for in the first place."
The United States and some of its Western allies publicly backed the Israeli government decision to quit the talks. However a State Department spokeswoman averred "there have been unhelpful steps taken by both sides" in the run up to the breakdown of the unfruitful peace talks. Earlier she issued a call for Israel to openly condemn Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and other portentous moves made in recent weeks by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. With over one million Russian speaking Jews currently residing in Israel, many of them openly supportive of Putin, the Netanyahu government has been reluctant to take sides in the growing international dispute, angering officials in Washington.
President Barrack Obama's deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken, said the US is prepared to suspend economic aid to the Palestinian Authority if it sets up a unity government that includes Hamas. However, he also expressed skepticism that the reconciliation deal would hold, noting that previous reconciliation efforts had come to nothing. Under American law, Hamas must first drop its calls for Israel's destruction and recognize its right to exist before it can join any PA government that is supported by American tax dollars. Currently the US sends over $400 million annually to the PA, along with helping to train its security forces and other things.
VIOLENCE MARS PASSOVER HOLIDAY
Almost every Passover, Palestinian terrorists seem to go out of their way to launch deadly atrocities upon Jews celebrating the ancient festival of freedom from slavery in Egypt. The most notorious attack took place in 2002 when Hamas terrorists exploded bombs during a Passover Seder meal takikng place at the Park Hotel in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. Some 30 Jewish civilians were slaughtered in that heinous attack, with 150 others injured. Twelve years later, unidentified gunmen shot at two Israeli civilian vehicles traveling to attend a Passover meal on a road near the holy city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem, killing one man and injuring his pregnant wife and nine year old son.
The murdered victim this year was 47 year old Baruch Mizrachi, who served in a number of high ranking intelligence positions in the Israeli army, and before that with the police. His military commander told reporters that Mizrachi's killing was "a loss for his family first and foremost, and a great personal and professional loss to this army force, to the police force and to the entire state of Israel." It was not immediately clear if the Mizrachi family was deliberately targeted because of his work, or if it was a random terrorist attack aimed at Jews on the eve of the Passover Seder, whoever they were.
Two days later, intense Palestinian rioting broke at the base of the sacred Temple Mount inside of Jerusalem's walled Old City, which was packed at the time with Jews and Christians visiting the city for the spring holidays. Police spokesmen said that the rioting was apparently carefully planned in advance, since scores of unprovoked young Palestinian men simultaneously hurled rocks, bottles and other objects at Israeli security forces operating in the area. The assault was launched just moments after locked gates were opened to let visitors up to the Temple Mount, which Muslims claim as their third holiest site on earth despite no evidence that the Islamic founder, Muhammad, had ever actually visited the sacred Jewish site, as Muslim clerics would later claim had been the case.
The Palestinian media, along with other Arab outlets in the region, later claimed that Israeli forces had used excessive force in quelling the rioting, quoting Palestinians on the scene who insisted that dozens of Palestinian rioters had been seriously injured in the clashes. Mickey Rosenfeld, the Israeli Jerusalem police spokesman, told reporters that "the reports of multiple injuries are a gross exaggeration," adding that "police forces used maximum restraint throughout the riots to disperse the crowds. Order was restored within 30 minutes and two Palestinians were arrested." Also during Passover week, more Iranian-supplied Palestinian rockets were fired at Israeli civilian centers near the Gaza Strip. This prompted Israeli return fire upon terrorist shooting positions and other known militant targets, which Hamas claimed left dozens of people wounded.
Violent incidents continued to take place during April along Israel's northern border with Syria and Lebanon, along with attacks from the southern Gaza Strip. Israeli officials watched with great apprehension as Sunni Muslim jihad fighters battling to topple the Syrian Assad regime fought pitched battles with Assad's military forces not far from Israel's Golan Heights border. Israeli officials fear that the Iraqi based Al Qaida linked Muslim warriors will later turn their guns on Israel if Assad's forces are driven from the area. However the dictator's men appear to be on the offensive in recent months, regaining control over several important battle zones around the Arab country including one on the border with Lebanon.
In neighboring Jordan, the Hashemite government ordered its warplanes into action in April after a convoy of camouflaged Syrian vehicles attempted to illegally cross the international border. A government statement said that the vehicles did not respond to warning shots fired by the aircraft, which were then ordered to bomb the vehicles. A Jordanian official later said that the vehicles contained Muslim terrorists who were planning to attack American targets in the small desert kingdom. Israeli analysts say hundreds of hardened Al Qaida linked terrorists are streaming into Jordan all the time, pretending to be Syrian war refugees seeking shelter from the fighting in Jordan. The stability of the pro-Western government led by King Abdullah is always of great concern to Israeli officials, especially given the long shared border between Israel and Jordan and the peace treaty between them.
With the sadly usual violence and upheaval continuing to rock the explosive Middle East, it is with joy and gratitude that we can join Israel's ancient Kind David in proclaiming that "My soul waits for God only, from Him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be greatly shaken" (Psalm 62:1-2).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.