Saturday, March 12, 2005

Palestinian Factions React to Condoleezza Rice

Hopes brightened for a revival of the Middle East peace process today in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh. With Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in attendance, Palestinian and Israeli leaders declared a cease fire. Meanwhile, in her first visit to the region as America's chief diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday shuttled from Jerusalem to Ramallah, where she announced the appointment of General William Ward as "security coordinator" to supervise an overhaul of the Palestinian security services. She also said the United States would remit $41 million in aid to the Palestinians--the first installment in a $350 million package proposed by President Bush last week in his State of the Union address.

But to read the Palestinian press from the last few days is to learn that all this good news is not without its detractors. Palestinian factions from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the PLO itself are voicing criticism of Rice and serious reservations about the new plans. They are also trading blows with one another, revealing rifts both within the Palestinian Authority and among the various movements that could stymie a push for peace with Israel.

Some PA officials welcomed Rice's visit in warm tones. Chief Islamic Judge Sheikh Taysir al Tamimi, for example, had an op-ed in Sunday's edition of the PA mouthpiece Al Hayat al Jadeeda, titled HER EXCELLENCY DR. RICE, WELCOME. The piece cited Rice's success in overcoming prejudice as a child in Birmingham, Alabama, as a sign that she might learn to empathize with the Palestinian cause. But the same newspaper's editor-in-chief, Hafiz al Barghouthi, penned a piece in yesterday's edition headlined NO TO SUBORDINATION, which slammed the specifics of America's $350 million aid package. He claimed that an allocation of $80 million to Israel to build modern transit points (intended to facilitate the import and export of goods between Israel and the territories) "will once again benefit the Israeli economy, and not the Palestinian [economy], because the crossings in practice amount to economic subordination--that is, rather than establish the port of Gaza and permit our merchants to import by way of Jordan, we find Israel, together with the Americans, eager that our economy should be made to remain hostage to Israel." In fact, the allocation is for $50 million and does not preclude expenditures on the port of Gaza. But Barghouthi's greater argument reflects his disdain for the notion of economic interdependency in a two-state solution: He argued that "[d]isengagement from the Palestinians ... means economic disengagement as well." Not strictly true--at least, not as far as American and European policymakers have envisioned. Another op-ed in the same pages by a deputy PA minister, Adil Sadiq, opposed America's "Middle East project" for similar reasons, but more broadly:

They are striving for a coercive and deceptive peace process by which the American administration may spread lies among the countries of the region, that the Middle Eastern market may thereafter be opened to the Israelis, and the engagement with the Palestinian Israeli conflict--as if it is the remnants of the conflict--will be relegated to a small pocket, which may be contained, within a broader strategy.

It is true that Washington wants to reduce Palestinian-Israeli violence and that Israel eventually wants to establish political and economic relations with most Arab countries. Both achievements would stand to bolster the Palestinian economy, as well as the Israeli economy. If a deputy minister of the Palestinian Authority doesn't see this as desirable, that's not a good sign.

Nor did a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of the PLO responsible for many attacks on Israeli civilians in recent years, offer the most winsome assurance, in his televised statement on Al Jazeera yesterday, that the cease fire would stick. "Abu Layth," a masked spokesman, reiterated calls for the release of all Palestinian prisoners, "particularly those who placed their hands in the bowels and necks of the tyrants, without condition or discrimination. Furthermore, we demand of our Authority to release the General Secretary of the Popular Front, the brother Ahmad Saadat, and not to return to opening the door to political arrests." The specific reference to PFLP hit man Ahmad Saadat--arrested in Jericho on Israel's insistence and detained under American and British supervision after being accused of killing Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi three years ago--came only a day after Sharon's denial that Israel would agree to such a release. By making such a demand and risking a rebuff, the Al Aqsa Brigades spokesman created a potential pretext for further attacks on Israel.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their own beefs with the American-backed initiatives, stemming from both Rice's announcement of a "security coordinator" yesterday and from the overall suspicion that the United States wants PA President Mahmoud Abbas to confront Islamists by force. The leadership of Hamas, buoyed by the movement's recent landslide in municipal elections in Gaza, would like to be treated more like Shia Islamists in Sadr City--as opposed to Sunni insurgents in Fallujah. Both in Gaza and in Cairo, Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials have been negotiating the terms of a temporary truce with Israel through mediators from Egypt's intelligence services. Palestinian Islamic Jihad chief Ramadan Abdullah Shallah told Al Jazeera yesterday he was open to the possibility of joining the political umbrella of the PLO, while Hamas ideologue Mahmoud al Zahhar told the Palestine Press that his group might conceivably join the Palestinian Authority's legislative assembly. But any such ventures, both groups contend, would not lead to their movements disarming.

Thus the pro-Islamist daily Al Quds ran an editorial Sunday, RICE AND HER CRIPPLING CONDITIONS, which faulted the Secretary of State for "call[ing] upon the Palestinian Authority to confront the armed Palestinian opposition factions, which the Secretary describes as terrorist, and go[ing] in her demands so far as to make this confrontation a condition for the resumption of the peace process and proof of the good intentions of the Palestinian side toward Israel." An official Hamas communiqué yesterday explicitly condemned "the appointment of an American security coordinator to reform the Palestinian security services" as "not merely an intervention into internal Palestinian affairs, but also representing ... a new attempt to push the Palestinian security services toward confronting the Palestinian resistance." And an open letter to Abbas in yesterday's edition of the daily Falastin contained a thinly veiled threat:

Isn't what happened two days ago--the violent clash because of the results of the municipal elections between Fatah and Hamas in the middle of the Gaza Strip--the first step toward showing that you [President Abbas] understand what the enemy is demanding of you? ... Those who carry out these acts of sedition are a greater danger to us than the Jews.

Whether the United States or Israel will press Abbas for the all-out confrontation his opponents expect remains unclear. In her press conference in Ramallah yesterday, Rice evaded a question by a Washington Times reporter about the implications of the Hamas landslide in Gaza. What is clear is that Islamist groups want a prominent political role in a nascent Palestinian state, and to that end they have committed to indirect negotiations with Israel. Some hard-line nationalists already fault the Islamists for having caved, just by agreeing to hold talks over a cease fire. Writing in yesterday's London-based daily Al Quds al Arabi, for example, Al Najah University professor Abd Al-Sattar Qasim says of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, "The two movements have broken their political barriers which they had made clear in their rhetoric by dealing directly with the Egyptian government, which recognizes Israel and is exchanging with it diplomatic, economic, and security relations." Qasim, whose aborted run against Mahmoud Abbas for the presidency had hinged on his unsuccessful attempt to unite the opposition groups into one coalition, is in many ways the odd man out in the maelstrom of Palestinian politics today. The "rejectionist front" he represents is weaker than it's been in four years or more. Then again, that doesn't mean the rejectionists have disappeared. They're simply waiting at the doorstep of the Palestinian Authority, with the price of entry not yet determined.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on February 8, 2005.


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