Two stark truths lie at the heart of the current renewed hostilities between Israel and Hamas. The first is Israeli refusal to allow some four or five million Palestinians, most of whom live in the occupied West Bank, ever to have an independent homeland of their own. The second is the determination of the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, ever to allow Israel to live in peace. The two refusals make a settlement impossible unless the United States uses its clout to compel both sides. Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s frantic travels and parleys, Washington has not shown any serious desire to come to grips with the heart of the problem.
Neither side will, of course, ever admit to the intransigence that is causing untold suffering in the 146 sq km Gaza Strip, where nearly two million Palestinians live in a permanent state of siege. Israel’s permanent plea, even while mounting the most devastating attacks on Gaza, is that negotiations can lead to Palestine, providing it gives the cast-iron security guarantees Israel demands. For most Palestinians, this is only a temporising tactic to gain time, while Jewish settlers and a network of security roads and fortifications eat up more of the West Bank. There will be no territory left, they fear, by the time the negotiations end. To justify their scepticism about the so-called peace process, they need only cite the veteran and venerable Shimon Peres, who stepped down last week as Israel’s ninth president.
Now 90, Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for helping engineer the Oslo Accords. He has repeated over and over again that peace is within reach and could be achieved in his lifetime. But it isn’t at all ironical that the final months in office of the man who has served as Israel’s prime minister and defence minister and is widely hailed as another apostle of peace, should see the embittered collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and a series of vicious reciprocal murders, leading to Israel’s bloodiest military offensive in five years.
Peres may be known today as a peacemaker, but he began his career in the defence ministry in the 1950s, by helping to cement a close military alliance with France, and developing Israel’s nuclear programme in the 1960s. It was he who advocated Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War. It was only in the 1980s, as Labour Party leader, that Peres became the peacenik he is known as today. And it was only after he left party politics for the presidency in 2007 that he rose above the parliamentary rivalries to become a unifying figure in Israeli life.
One has to delve into his writings to understand Israel’s true logic. Peres has written with eloquence of how Israel, and Israel alone, can make the desert bloom and bring prosperity to the entire land. No one doubts Israeli competence in that respect, but the land he has in mind is not Israel’s land … not yet. It is what the Palestinians still have (or had) left to themselves, a few scraps here and there, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, Gaza and, of course, the West Bank. They will all be brought under single management for the benefit of all the inhabitants, Jews and Arabs alike. In that grand, indeed, idyllic vision, the state will not differentiate between citizens of different religions. They will all prosper, and the Arab per capita income will grow exponentially.
I said Arab and not Palestinian, for that is one of two political points Peres makes. There is no such thing as a Palestinian, he says. They are all Arabs. Palestinian is a recent artificial, coinage, a political invention created only to pressure Israel. His second point is even more didactic. Two states already exist in the territory that was called Palestine, and they are Israel and Jordan. There is no room for a third sovereign entity. Israel and Jordan must between them absorb the land and its people.
The present round of hostilities erupted when three young Israeli settlers were kidnapped in the occupied West Bank. Israel blamed Hamas (which denied any involvement) and the heavy-handed military punishment began. One school of thought in Israel holds that Hamas deliberately precipitated the crisis in order to radicalise the entire Palestinian population and emerge as their sole spokesman. Internal rivalry may well play a part in the crisis, but anti-Israel sentiment is the stronger force.
Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2007, after winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament and defeating the Fatah political organisation in a series of violent clashes, argues that Israel must lift siege and blockade conditions and allow the people of Gaza to live as free people.
The Israeli answer is that the moment siege and blockade conditions are lifted, Hamas will start importing arms to attempt its long-term aim of destroying the Jewish state. The two miles of tunnels Gazans have burrowed under Israel appear to bear out Israeli charges. There are also tunnels under the narrow western border with Egypt, but they are used for contraband trade and not to wage war.
Hamas’s political bureau chief, Khaled Meshal, said in July 2009 that the organisation was willing to cooperate with “a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which included a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders”, provided Palestinian refugees enjoy the right to return to Israel and East Jerusalem is the new nation’s capital. Neither condition is acceptable to Israel. In any case, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, deputy chairman of Hamas’s political bureau, announced earlier this year that “Hamas will not recognise Israel.” He added, “This is a red line that cannot be crossed.”
Perhaps. But realism should advise Hamas, which was founded in 1987 (during the First Intifada) as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and is designated as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US, Canada, the European Union, Jordan, Egypt and Japan, that it will never win militarily against a US-backed Israel.
The old aim of an Islamic state in the area that is now Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, as the Hamas Charter affirmed in 1988, will never be achieved. But a two-state solution need not be impossible if Hamas plays its cards well.
A continuing peaceful non-violent protest such as the Intifada between 1987 and 1993 might help to consolidate the wave of outrage against Israel that is now sweeping the world. It could also persuade the US that the alternative to some placation could be global Islamic terrorism on an even more terrifying scale. There will be no solution in West Asia without American mediation.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray