06/18/2007, 00.00
PALESTINE - ISRAEL
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Hamas’ isolation, a chance for peace with Israel

by Arieh Cohen
While there’s the risk of increased terrorism with the fundamentalist group’s victory in Gaza, there is also a possibility, if more weight is given to the PLO, for peace in the Middle East. It is urgent that Israel, the PLO and Arab countries begin peace talks.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – With the swearing in of the new Palestinian emergency government and Hamas’ hold on power in Gaza, new scenarios are taking shape in the  Middle East, which include the possibility of increased terrorism, but also new possibilities for peace.

The relatively quick collapse of the PLO, and specifically of  its leading component, Al-Fatah, in the Gaza Strip, under the Hamas onslaught last week, was not – properly speaking – a military defeat. The Palestinian Authority forces nominally loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas (Abou-Mazen), together with allied Fatah forces, were much more numerous and much better equipped than Hamas insurgents, and had already proved this in action in recent weeks. Their collapse was rather political and psycho-social. They had been left without a persuasive reason to fight. They had been left without any hope or future prospects to offer the around 1.3 million residents of the Strip, or any other Palestinians for that matter. They had been left facing the abject failure so far  of the PLO’s strategy of reaching a peace treaty with Israel that would free both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank from forty years of increasingly burdensome military occupation by their powerful Israeli neighbour.

The PLO had first adopted its peace strategy in 1988. It was then, on 15 November, that, in Algiers, it accepted the legitimacy of the State of Israel, through recognition of UN Resolution 181 (II) of 29 November 1947, which ordered the creation of both a Jewish and an Arab State in what was then Palestine. Until then the PLO had rejected the Resolution and demanded a single “secular and democratic State” in the whole of Palestine, replacing the Jewish State of Israel. And while the 1988 decision still implicitly sought for the Jewish State to be confined to the borders envisioned for it by the UN in 1947 - in signing the Declaration of Principles with Israel (the original “Oslo Agreement”) on 13 September 1993, the PLO went further and, in effect, agreed to recognise Israel within its – more spacious – borders as set by the 1949 Armistice that ended the first Arab-Israeli War. Palestine, it was then agreed, would be limited to the 22 % of its territory that were then – and are now – territories under Israeli “belligerent occupation” (as international law calls it), and not a part of the State of Israel itself.  Those are territories, from which Israel would, in any case, have  to withdraw once peace were achieved, in accordance with international law, and the prohibition in the UN Charter on acquiring territory by force.

But the PLO’s strategy for peace with freedom has not borne fruit. For a variety of interconnected reasons, the occupation has simply gone on and on, and its effects have only become more serious since the establishment of the “Palestinian Authority” in the mid-1990’s, as an interim agency for the semi-autonomous management of parts of the occupied territories until the achievement of a definitive peace treaty.

Under these conditions, aggravated by grave phenomena of  corruption and lawlessness in various Palestinian organisations - including “security organisations” dominated by al-Fatah - the extremist Hamas, with its apocalyptic vision of an integrally Islamic polity, has gained in force. Even though this vision is alien and repugnant to a majority of Palestinians, the alternative of peaceful compromise with Israel was losing credibility fast, and the organisations identified with this alternative vision were therefore being undermined.

The President of the PLO, and of the Palestinian Authority, Abou-Mazen, has been calling for peace negotiations with Israel since he first took office, but has been unable to persuade the other side to agree. Under these conditions, his al-Fatah movement  first lost the latest parliamentary elections to Hamas, and now lost the will to fight for actual physical control of the Gaza Strip.

As President of the Palestinian Authority, Abou-Mazen has now established an “emergency government” in the West Bank, under his – and the PLO’s – control, ending the ambiguities surrounding his earlier “co-habitation” with Hamas. This move, in itself, has understandably  met with deep satisfaction in Israel and the West. But this is no time to bask in such satisfaction. This “window of opportunity” too may soon start closing, unless there is rapid and decisive action to take advantage of it by re-starting purposeful peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO, with a view to an honourable peace treaty, based on equity and international law, that will secure freedom with dignity to the Palestinians in the now occupied territories. Whatever credibility Abou-Mazen and the PLO are able to maintain, or regain, may soon evaporate (with disastrous consequences), unless they are able to show results.

What the saddening and horrifying events in the Gaza Strip have once more shown is that the “status quo” in the occupied territories is never an option, that any hope by anyone to be able to “manage the conflict” is doomed to failure, that the only option is for Israel to enter into a peace treaty with the PLO, and that the time to do this is now.

Such a peace treaty will by itself delegitimise Hamas, and deprive it of any broad popular support either in Gaza or the West Bank. It will give renewed legitimacy and vigour to the PLO, and will morally equip its own security forces to put down insurgency and terrorism. They will once more have a reason to do so, and popular consent for doing their duty.

Palestinian-Israeli peace is not only in the supreme interest of those two nations themselves; it is also in the national security interest of neighbouring nations and the West. It is both a regional and an international concern. And if there is no adequate, concrete, farsighted movement towards it locally, it must be once more for the international community to take the initiative, and convene a peace conference. Ideally such a conference will be the continuation of the 1991 Madrid Conference, initiated by then U.S. President George H.W. Bush, and will seek a wider regional peace between Israel and the remaining enemies on her borders, Syria and Lebanon too. In this case, it could build on the promises of the Arab League’s  truly historic peace initiative, and secure for Israel the normalisation of its relationship with the entire Arab world.

At a time when the Hamas victory in Gaza is threatening to enlarge significantly the bases for regional and international terrorism, the best answer, the only real answer, is precisely this, a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace conference and interrelated peace treaties that will put up the strongest defence against the hurricane of  horrifying violence and terrorism that has already engulfed other areas – notably in Iraq and now also in Afghanistan – and that is threatening to spread further. Peace, freedom, dignity, equity, magnanimity, honourability, legality – these are key terms that must guide the renewed, reinvigorated, untiring effort to bring peace to the Holy Land, to its region, and beyond..

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