Peace appears to be breaking out all over, after one of the gloomiest recent periods in the region, during which speculation about imminent war has been nearly non-stop .
The truce or calm (“tahdiya”) between Israel and Hamas – which the parties say they hope will last at least an initial six months — started at 0600 Thursday morning.
A comment this week by a Syrian official this week that peace with Israel would be “bliss” caused pulses to race — not only in Israel.
And, despite a pro-forma Lebanese rebuff, an Israeli overture to Lebanon, following U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s surprise visit there earlier this week – after which it has been reported that she is now backing the return of the Shebaa Farms area to Lebanon (as Hizballah has insisted) – also appears to hold future promise. If true, it is an astonishing but eminently pragmatic decision – indicating that the Bush Administration might be ready to shed its highly-ideological positions in order to make some solid moves for peace in the region.
The Israeli overture appears to contradict its satisfaction when the UN (after strong urging by the Secretary-General’s special envoy, Norwegian former Oslo negotiator Terje Roed Larsen) said that the information it had on file suggested that the area was part of occupied Syrian territory, a position close to Israel’s own view. Israel, until now, has felt it only needed to address the issue of relinquishing Shebaa Farms when the time would eventually come – in a far distant future – to make peace with Syria. One of the arguments made by UN officials is that neither Syria nor Lebanon had made their positions perfectly clear in writing.
But. a week ago, Lebanon indicated it would be formally presenting its claim – in writing – to the UN Secretary-General in New York.
After a period of anxious dragged-out uncertainty, all these developments now appear to be converging at a dizzying speed.
The Egyptian-brokered “tahdiya” between Israel and Hamas is being explained primarily, by all sides, as a “face-saving” way of ending the Israeli military-imposed sanctions on Gaza that all reasonable observers now say has, in fact, caused the humanitarian crisis that the Israeli military and political leadership has promised the international community it would not allow to happen.
An Israeli media report in advance of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent visit to Washington said that he would be told that the closure and siege of Gaza had failed, had become counter-productive, and must be ended.
The Jerusalem Post reported in early June that a “a senior State Department official told the Post that policy has appeared to have backfired. Palestinian rocket attacks against southern Israel have continued and Hamas is gaining strength due to popular disaffection, while Hamas can still get the resources it needs. “Within Gaza, Hamas seems the least affected by the closure,” he said. A new approach must be found “that wouldn’t benefit Hamas… but to find that new approach is very difficult because Hamas is in control.”
However this policy turn-around was packaged and justified is of rather lesser importance than the fact that it appears to be getting underway.
Rice hinted, in remarks she made at a joint press conference with Palestinian President Abbas this week, that European displeasure with the overall situation was a factor which needed to be taken into account.
Amnesty International reported from London at the end of May, in its 6oth anniversary annual report, that “in June , the Israeli government imposed an unprecedented blockade on the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoning its entire 1.5 million people population, subjecting them to collective punishment and causing the gravest humanitarian crisis to date.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory stated starkly, in a report published this week in Geneva, that “regular military incursions, the closure of crossings, the reduction of fuel and the threat to the banking system have produced a humanitarian crisis in Gaza”.
And, even many Israelis appeared to be fed up with the situation, at least as indicated in an independent poll commissioned by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha. The results of the poll, released on Wednesday (yesterday), indicated that “Seventy-nine percent of respondents believe that the closure primarily affects the civilian population in Gaza and causes hardships in the daily lives of the residents”, Gisha reported.
Gisha reported that “the survey was conducted upon the one-year anniversary of the closure Israel imposed following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007”.
Intriguingly, the poll also reported that “Seventy-six percent believe that Gaza residents deserve human rights. Fifty-seven percent disagree with a statement that those who advocate for human rights on behalf of Palestinians are anti-Israel; 39% think these advocates are anti-Israel”.
The poll did not, however, seem to dare to ask whether or not the respondents believed that the closure of Gaza and the Israeli military-administered sanctions were collective punishment that are immoral and illegal under international law – a position that Gisha itself has consistently espoused.
But, Gisha Director, Sari Bashi, wrote that “It turns out that the Israeli public is more realistic than the politicians acting in its name, who are trying to justify a gross violation of the rights of Palestinian civilians, using a ‘security’ justification that most Israelis think has no basis … Israeli decision-makers would do well to listen to the people, who are warning them that Israel ‘s policy in Gaza is primarily harming Palestinian civilians – against Israel ‘s own interests.”
And, AFP reported from Gaza Thursday that the Hamas (and “deposed”) Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told reporters “on an unusually conciliatory note” that the truce could also offer “comfort” to Israelis who have suffered shelling from Gaza.
Rather than signaling a permanent separation between the West Bank and Gaza, as some analysts had predicted, this “tahdiya” appears to be somehow linked, both conceptually and politically, to a reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas administration in Gaza – despite official Ramallah’s previous reluctance.
One of the biggest surprises after last year’s rout of Fatah security forces by Hamas in Gaza was the vicious and venomous attitude of the Fatah losers.
“Hamas is worse than Israel – Hamas is like the Nazis”, more than one of the evacuated Fatah personnel said excitedly to journalists, including this one.
Over the past year, most Palestinians have been as angry with the Fatah rivalry with Hamas and its complicated consequence as with the increasing burdens of the continuing Israeli occupation.
To the surprise of many international observers, who have become conditioned to thinking of Fatah as the “good guys”, many Palestinians blamed Fatah even more than Hamas — though strong criticism of Hamas was not lacking.
Sitting in the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah last year, where many of the Fatah evacuees spent their early days after getting out of the Gaza Strip in various surprising ways (some even via sea in coordination with both Egypt and Israel), and still in a state of shock, one man on crutches with his lower leg in surgical support bandages, one Fatah member said to this corresponsent, with a perfectly straight expression on his face: “Hamas has killed other Palestinians – Fatah never did that”.
Challenged on his point that Fatah had never harmed other Palestinians, he continued to resist the argument. “Name me names”, he insisted. “Tell me who, exactly, was killed by Fatah?”
He said that what upset him most – and his voice cracked and his eyes swelled with tears as he spoke –was seeing the late Yasser Arafat’s uniform, looted from one of the buildings that Hamas fighters entered during the fighting, on sale in the Gaza City market for a relatively few shekels.
Like the other evacuees, he got out of the Gaza Strip with his lives, but without his family. He was worried about his family left behind, and he said that one of his young daughters was so scared and upset that she had to be hospitalized.
That would not happen now, of course, in Gaza, where hospital services and facilities are so limited due to the Israeli military-administered sanctions that have caused so much suffering in the coastal strip over the past months, and resources previously devoted to such tender treatment of more priviledged patients might well be foregone now in favor of rather more urgent cases.
Recently, the Minister of Health in the “deposed” or “de facto” Government trying to function in Gaza, Bassem Naim, appealed for the return to work of thousands of badly-needed Ministry of Health employees who have been paid from Ramallah to stay home, and not work since last year’s “military coup” by Hamas in Gaza — and the subsequent “political coup” by President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, who dismissed the Hamas-led National Unity Government formed only a few months earlier after Saudi mediation efforts in the holy city of Medina.
This was only one of the absurd consequences of the Fatah-Hamas rivalry – which an article published in the April issue the American monthly magazine Vanity Fair magazine argued – with convincing testimony – was encouraged by the U.S. Administration in an effort to oust Hamas, which was regarded as an obstacle to peace with Israel.
Palestinian Authority technocrats in Ramallah did their best to negotiate with their multiple Israeli counterparts to get whatever vital supplies they could into Gaza – and the negotiations were complicated and intricate, both with the Israeli private sector (the Dor Alon fuel company which has the exclusive contract to deliver fuel to Gaza, paid for either by the Palestinian Authority of – in the case of the special industrial diesel fuel used only by Gaza’s Power Plant, by Europen Union donors), and with the various branches of the Israeli Government, bureaucracy including the Ministry of Finance, and, most importantly, the Ministry of Defense as well as the Israeli Defense Forces.
But, these technocrats reported in recent months that attacks from Gaza on the border crossings seemed specifically aimed at exacerbating the various crises – particularly the shortage of fuel.
Israeli Government spokespersons were also quick to seize on the apparent paradox – the attackers on Israeli crossings, the Israeli spokespersons said in chorus, were really victimizing their own people.
Other sources, including some in the Palestinian media, said that these attacks on the crossing were ordered by Fatah in order to provoke Israel into a full-scale invasion of Gaza.
A few foreign journalists, on the other hand, said they were told that the attacks on the crossings were being carried out by various families (“hamula”) who were putting on pressure to stop Israeli and Egyptian efforts to close down their smuggling tunnels that ran under the border to the Sinai.
It was – and remains – very difficult to know what actually was going on.
Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General welcomed the announced Israel/Gaza Cessation of Violence, saying in a statement issued in New York that he “hopes that these efforts will both provide security and an easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and end rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli targets. He also hopes that this cessation of violence will lead to a controlled and sustained opening of the Gaza crossings for humanitarian and commercial purposes”.
The UN Chief might have gone even further than that diplomatic phrasing, and said that he hoped that the Gaza crossings would be opened for all normal aspects of human life