A Nation in danger ?
Q. In an interview with the BBC, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the whole nation is in danger. How do you assess his statement?
A. The statement can be seen in two ways. First, it concerns the President’s deep seated fears that internecine conflict (Civil War) threatens to tear apart the Palestinian polity at a time when it is under enormous regional and international pressure. The decision of the new Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert to forge ahead with a the security fence and impose borders unilaterally upon the Palestinians has been justified by the view in Israel that there is no-one to talk to on the Palestinian side. Such unilateral measures, while promising substantial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, still mean that Israel will annex the main settlement blocs that run parallel to the old Green Line (the pre-1967 border) as well as continuing to build on Arab land in and around East Jerusalem. Abbas knows that time is not on the Palestinian side and the refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel only plays into Israel’s hands. Thus, his call for a national referendum on recognition of the Jewish State is meant to demonstrate to world opinion that there is indeed a Palestinian negotiating partner, a call that Israel will find hard to ignore. Accordingly, Israel would be under tremendous international pressure to halt unilateral actins that would prejudice meaningful diplomatic negotiations.
Q. Given the heavy increase of violence during recent days, are the two parties currently shifting away from the peace process?
A. While tensions have been clearly rising on the streets, it should be realised this violence between Hamas and Fatah supporters has mainly been limited to the Gaza Strip and has not yet become widespread in the West Bank where Fatah tends to be more popular. Interestingly enough, both the young guard of Fatah and Hamas who are presently incarcerated in Israeli prisons have issued a joint statement calling for a referendum on recognition of Israel. Such a referendum is not binding by itself, but it does demonstrate a pragmatism among those Palestinians such as Marwan Barghouti, jailed by Israel for his activities during the al-Aqsa intifada – who many feel will be the future Palestinian leaders.
Q. Do you consider Hamas to be a terror organisation, or is it rather the legitimate voice of the Palestinian people?
A. Hamas is not in itself a terrorist organisation, but the activities of its component parts, particularly its military wing, al- Izz-al-Din-al-Qassem – have and do embrace terrorist acts. Whatever the justification for acts of self-immolation, walking in to a restaurant, shopping mall or bus with the intention to kill as many people as possible cannot be described otherwise. It has been suggested there is a divergence between the political and military wings of Hamas but this remains to be seen. Even so, Hamas remains a, rather than THE legitimate voice simply because of its political position among Palestinians. It is worth remembering that among a people who have suffered under Israeli military occupation and the corrupt and venal rule of Yasser Arafat, Hamas, with its emphasis upon social welfare has provided a modicum of physical, as well as societal security that has been conspicuous by its absence.
Q. How can Abbas ease tensions with the rivalling Hamas?
A. Much will depend on whether he has the strength to push forward with a referendum. In one important respect, such a referendum may actually work to the benefit of both Abbas and Hamas. The refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel has brought about severe economic hardship in the Plaestinian territories as sanction begin to bite. For Hamas to openly recognise Israel however would abrogate a central tenet of their belief system: that Palestine remains a Waqf – an Islamic holy endowment - occupied illegally be an alien polity (these views have a parallel among religious-nationalists in Israel). By putting the issue of recognition to those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a yes vote would allow Hamas to claim that while fidelity to their beliefs remains paramount, they are merely following the will of the majority. However, this is but one scenario, albeit the most optimistic.
Q. Where do you see Germany’s role in resolving the conflict, given its special relationship toward Israel?
A. For historical reasons, Germany is unlikely to support policies that would appear to damage the security of Israel. Indeed, the construction and delivery of the Dolphin class submarines (at least one paid for by the German tax payer) demonstrates that Berlin is continuing to ensure Israel’s qualitative military advantage throughout the Middle East. The continuing close ties between the BND and the Israeli intelligence community remain another facet of this relationship. Any diplomatic role that Germany can play is limited to economic aid and most of this is funnelled through the EU. Given however that the EU lacks a coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy, the role that Berlin, or indeed any other European power such as France or Britain can play will always be overshadowed by that of Washington.
Q. Assuming that the majority of Palestinian and Israeli people want to live in peace, why are governments on both sides not able to realise and transfer that will into practical politics?
A. There are parties on both sides who do wish to transfer their ideas into practical ways for co-existence. The proposal 18 month ago between Sari Nusseibah, a leading Palestinian academic and Ami Ayalon, a former General, ex-head of the Shin Bet and now a Knesset member for the Labour party for a two-state solution gained widespread attention. Even so, given the context of violence and distrust engendered by the al-Aqsa intifada, both sides appear to want to seek security from one another, Rather than WITH each other. This is particularly the case with Israel.
Q. Which parties, if any, have an interest in prolonging the conflict?
A. Those whose ideological agenda negates territorial compromise. In short, extreme religious nationalists in Israel, while others point to the role played by Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The latter’s use of al-Qassem rockets to attack Israeli towns such as Sderot are meant to invite Israeli retaliation. The fact that Hamas, despite its self proclaimed Hudna (ceasefire) toward Israel, it remains unwilling to curb PIJ attacks and indeed, such reluctance to rein in PIJ suggests to many that Hamas is merely using PIJ as a proxy to continue the military struggle against Israel