Here in the Gaza Strip, we sit and wait for the next Israeli bomb. People feel that the next assassination of their leaders and fighters and the civilians that happen to be standing next to them is imminent–perhaps arriving this very moment. At the same time, there is a sense of terrible disappointment at the chasm that opened wide within the Palestinian Authority between President Yasser Arafat and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. These things appear to have no end in sight.
Inside Hamas, the movement is resolute to continue its attacks, since it sees no let-up from Israel, and the hudna (truce) or an alternative political process no longer exists. Instead, they see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon exploiting the delicate situation to heighten his attacks. In particular, Hamas was bitterly angry at the targeting of the home of Hamas political leader Mahmoud Zahhar, when Israeli F-16s dropped a half a ton of explosives on his house, killing women and children in the attack. So unless there is a way opened for Hamas to talk about a new hudna, it seems very likely that we are now descending into a situation of revenge and dramatic escalation.
It is not that Hamas is unprepared to consider the current stage carefully. Sometimes its leaders heed international considerations. They don’t want to be accused of being the reason for tension or the downfall of the government. Hamas has several times offered to craft a political agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), but has not yet succeeded in reaching compromise with the factions that make up that organization. And Hamas continues to fear a peace process or a crackdown from the Palestinian Authority. The road is open for discussion with the Authority, but both sides have their reasons for being wary of a final pact.
It will not be easy to get out of this deep crisis, but the simplest route lies in Israel’s hands. All it would take would be an Israeli declaration of intent to end the occupation and a moratorium on all kinds of attacks, aggression and control that it now wields over our heads. But as we have learned through the Zinni and Tenet proposals, the Mitchell plan and the hudna, short-term compromises will not succeed. Indeed, they are a waste of time and effort and push us to the breaking point of promises lost in the wind.
The way out for the Palestinian Authority is just as clear: there should be no negotiations with Israel until there is a settlement freeze, a halt to the construction of the wall, and the release of the prisoners. This must be a serious commitment. That was Abu Mazen’s problem; he didn’t stand a chance. He was deceived so many times by those in Israel who promised him this and that honest gesture of good faith, but none materialized. To facilitate this new strategy, the Palestinian Authority should collect all of the Palestinian factions under one umbrella to speak in one voice and react as one body. Only then can we form a new unified force against the occupation. Otherwise, these continuing disputes between Abu Mazen and Arafat, or Hamas and Fateh, or Hamas and the Authority, are an invitation to Sharon to attack a divided cause and reassert the military occupation against the Palestinian people.
Yes, the situation is very complicated. It would be beneficial for the United States to exert pressure on Israel to stop its aggression, in particular to prevent the deportation of Arafat. But the truth is that we don’t even feel the US glancing our way.
At this critical juncture, all options remain open: for an escalation of violence or a return to negotiations. But we should not think that Prime Minister-designate Ahmad Qurei will deliver the answers. He will face the exact same obstacles from Israel, the US, Arafat and the Fateh Central Committee that were the undoing of his predecessor. He will face the very same trials.