Thursday, October 05, 2006

A struggle among losers

By Danny Rubinstein

In an open letter to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the leadership of Hamas and Fatah, Dr. Ali Jarbawi, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University writes: "If you think that in your fighting, there will be a winning side, you are delusional. In such struggles, no one wins; everyone loses!

He is probably right. The strength of the Palestinian groups currently at odds is about equal. The two movements, Fatah and Hamas, with their private militias in the Gaza Strip, are unable to overcome one another. It is clear to almost everyone in the territories that neither side will be able to emerge victorious from this fighting; a deal is necessary.

It is easy, in theory, to strike an agreement between Fatah and Hamas on a joint political platform. Just two-three weeks ago, Abbas and Haniyeh announced they had formulated such a plan. Abbas then claimed that Hamas officials had distanced themselves from the agreement, and all accused Damascus-based Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political office, of being responsible for the failure of the deal.

This may be because Meshal has absolutely no use of a stable government in the Gaza Strip, with most of his associates, just like himself, in exile and not part of such a government.

It could also be because his Syrian hosts are pressing him to adopt more extreme positions because of their own considerations.

Either way, according to one Palestinian report, during his visit to Qatar last week, Abbas managed to hold talks with Meshal, and the two may even have reached an agreement. The main points are: A national unity government will be established with a neutral figure at its head, neither from Hamas nor from Fatah. This government, which will comprise members of both movements, will recognize past accords with Israel and accept the principle of two states for two peoples.

The Palestine Liberation Organization will undergo reforms and Hamas will join it. The agreement also includes a prisoner exchange deal under which abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit will be freed.

In addition to this report, recent days have seen a plethora of Palestinian proposals for solving the crisis. It appears that Abbas' associates are deliberating the idea of early elections (according to the head of the Fatah faction in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Azam al-Ahmed), or the disbandment of the Hamas government and its replacement with a temporary cabinet of technocrats.

The latter was an option raised by former minister Nabil Amar, who is close to Abbas. There are those who are also saying that the chairman is fed up and occasionally repeats his threat to resign.

It is possible that nothing will alter the situation and the chaos will only get worse. In recent years the inclination in the Gaza Strip has been for a return to a tribal society, in which family-based militias impose order.

When authority and public services collapse, the sole security of the individual - physical, economic, social and spiritual - is family based. A teacher from Khan Yunis, who works at an UNRWA school, said on a radio show from the Gulf that in the past, his meager wages provided for two households - his and that of his widowed sister. Now, he says, he also provides for the families of his two unemployed brothers.

But the problem in the Gaza Strip is not a deal between Fatah and Hamas. The problem is that tens of thousands of its residents no longer work in Israel, and all the local economic initiatives have collapsed. Goods from subcontracting work for Israeli firms (mostly in textiles) and agricultural produce are blocked at the Karni crossing, which is closed most of the time.

The Erez industrial zone is destroyed; infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the port, have been halted; and there is no way to find employment and develop a career. In an effort to show that they are of some value, the youth join the gangs, carrying guns in displays of manliness.

If this situation continues, the Gaza Strip will explode - in Israel's face too. A courageous and creative Israeli government could announce the flow of extensive aid to the Gaza Strip.

This would include the transfer of funds and investments, an increase in subcontracting work, the construction of the port, the development of natural gas and water resources, and the passage of workers into Israel. This is unlikely to happen. The bleak forecasts are the realistic ones.

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