On Wednesday, a historic agreement was reached between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Cairo, reconciling the two factions and laying the groundwork for a new, interim government. The impetus for the rapprochement, brokered by the Egyptian government, apparently lies with the thousands of Gazans who protested last month, calling for an end to the four year rift. The rivalry dates back to the 2006 elections to the Palestinian Authority, which Hamas won, threatening the hegemony of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement. Hamas took control of the Gaza strip, leaving the PA in place governing the West Bank.
The subsequent antipathy between the two groups appeared to be forgotten on Wednesday, with the head of the Fatah delegation, Azzam al-Ahmad, saying that ‘(Abbas) has said we want Hamas, Hamas is part of the Palestinian national fabric.’ Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy leader of Hamas, said that ‘our rift gave the occupation a chance. Today we turn a new page.’
The Israeli response has been hostile. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, stated that the Palestinian Authority had to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas. Speaking in Nicosia on Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister, and head of the ultra right Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman called on international governments to withhold recognition from any joint government. Citing the repeated missile attacks against Israel by the Islamist Hamas movement’s armed wing, he said such recognition would ‘legitimise’ Hamas.
The US response has been cautious, saying that any Palestinian Unity government would have to renounce violence and recognise the State of Israel. US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor decried Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Violence between Hamas and Israel has escalated recently, sparking fears of another direct Israeli military intervention in the Gaza Strip, along the lines of the 2009 Operation Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers and up to 1000 Palestinian civilians.
The openSecurity verdict: The developments on Wednesday represent an unambiguous failure of Israel’s long-standing policy of ‘divide and rule’. It was in pursuit of such a strategy that Israel began to fund Hamas in the late seventies and eighties, in order to undermine the secular Palestinian leadership of the PLO. This strategy appears to have backfired dramatically, in a similar fashion to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in the creation of the other asymmetric threat on Israel’s borders, the Shi’ia Hizbollah movement.
In retrospect, such a development was always likely in view of the utter intransigence of Israeli negotiators revealed by the Palestinian Papers. The leaked documents reveal a supine, if not desperate, Palestinian negotiating team making sweeping concessions on refugees right to return, the legal status of the Temple Mount and illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, to no avail. Such obduracy, arguably far in excess of what hardline Zionist Vladamir Jabotinsky was recommending in his doctrine of the Iron Wall, recalls Golda Meir’s stance towards Anwar Sadat in 1971, a stance that led inexorably to the Yom Kippur War.
In the immediate to near term, if Hamas and the PA are able to bridge the numerous logistical obstacles to making this reconciliation practical, the consequences could be very destabilising. If the International Community reacts in a similar fashion to January 2006, when Hamas won the PA elections, the result could be a sharp curtailment of development support to the entirety of the Palestinian territories. More importantly, if violence from Gaza continues, the Israeli government may now have a pretext to implement even harsher measures in the West Bank.
Potentially, in view of Israel’s already darkening security situation following the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power and the ever-present issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, the result could be another war. Such an operation, again, would not be confined to Gaza but would engulf the West Bank as well. The alternative, a human security approach to Israel’s strategic dilemma, would recognise that Israel will never be truly secure as long as its own safety is bought at the price of the repression of Palestinians.
By implementing a two state solution, ceasing its settlement operations and dismantling existing illegal settlements, Israel could more rapidly achieve what sixty years of armed intransigence has failed to accomplish. However, witnessing the statements of Israeli policy-makers over the previous week, and with Washington falling back on the terrorism discourse to hide its own cupidity, this seems more unlikely than ever.
Protesters defy Syrian ban on demonstrations
On Friday, thousands of protesters in Syria defied a new government crackdown to demonstrate against the regime. After last weeks mixture of concessions and repression, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had deployed tanks and snipers to towns and cities ahead of renewed agitation after Friday prayers. The regime had also issued a blanket ban on demonstrations.
From the Ba’ath party’s perspective, the protests in the coastal city of Latakia are potentially the most worrying. Latakia is in the heartland of the governing Alawite elite, and plain clothes security forces have reportedly opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least five. Other demonstrations have been reported in Banias and Qamishli. Aside from continued anger at the regime and its corruption, a major proximate cause of the demonstrations is fury over the conduct of Syrian security forces in the southern city of Deraa.
Deraa is considered to be at the centre of the anti-government agitation and has been under a virtual state of siege since last Monday, when substantial military forces moved in to subdue to protesters. It has since been sealed off, with electricity and telecommunications cut. At least fifty people are reported to have been killed there in the last week alone, with the national death toll since the start of the demonstrations last month now standing at 450.
16 dead in Thai-Cambodian border clashes
In the early hours on Friday, Thai and Cambodian troops exchanged fire across a disputed border, breaching a cease fire put in place the day before to end a week of such clashes. The violence has flared up in the poorly demarcated Dongrak mountain range, which is home to three 12th century Hindu temples, and has led to the deaths of 16 people in the last week. Over 60,000 inhabitants of the disputed region have been evacuated. The dispute dates back to the 1950s and the end of French colonial rule over what was Indochina. Some analysts suggest that the motivation is political; it is thought that elements of the Thai military, in collusion with nationalist politicians, are attempting to engineer a crisis to force the cancellation of democratic elections due to take place in July.