Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Palestinian Public Opinion

A year ago I went to hear Dr. Khalil Shikaki speak at the Notre-Dame de France in Jerusalem (the first place in Jerusalem to have electricity, a hundred years ago... but this has nothing do with anything). I have long considered Shikaki to be one of the most intelligent and careful analysts of Palestinian public opionion; he is the head of the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research. The Centre conducts opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza every few months; it's a joint project with Truman institute (Hebrew University) which runs similar polls in Israel.

They just published the latest poll, conducted a month ago, and it brings interesting results.

* Hamas popularity increased since the elections.

* Only about half the people explained Hamas's victory as relating to its Islamic agenda; the other half said it was about Fateh's corruption.

* The majority (59%) opposes recognition of Israel under pressure from Europe and the U.S.,
BUT evern greater majority (75%) wants Hamas to negotiate with Israel, and two thirds would support recognition of Israel as "the state for the Jewish people" under a two-state solution!!!

Does it sound a bit contradictory?
My take is that Palestinians feel that Hamas recognition of Israel is an 'asset' which should not be given easily, and certainly not under international pressure (I think there national pride is playing here). But this is not because they have turned their back on negotiations and will accept nothing less than the destruction of Israel. The overwhelming support for negotiation is clear.

Last week I predicted a third Intifada coming soon. Does this poll prove me wrong? perhaps. The poll did not ask about support for armed actions against Israel, so it's hard to know if it's going up or not. At any rate it really depends on what happens in the next months. And as Iyad Barghouti (head of Rammallah Human Rights Centre) said this week to Bitter Lemons, if anyone in Israel has any illusions that destroying the Hamas PA (through embargo/military action) will create a more favourable situation, they better think again.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The suicide bombing this week at the Shawarma in south Tel Aviv claimed the usual set of victims: the security man, standing in the entrance; a taxi driver, stopping to grab something to eat; a Romanian immigrant worker; a man who covered his children with his body; and five others. The area is popular with suicide bombers; it's easier to get to, and not so much security, not like in the big malls. It's an area of pound-shops, fake-cds, cheap bargains and "massage parlors". A Hammas spokesperson called it 'self-defence' and this statement made even less sense than the IDF description of the shelling of Palestinian civilans as 'preventetive mesures'. How can a suicide bombing be 'self-defence'? more like 'self-attack'.

Haaretz says that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of suicide-bombing attempts in recent months. Various explanations are suggested: e.g. Fateh feel that they can go back to military actions, now that Hamas are in charge (but Fateh have not resumed suicide bombing yet); or 'orders' from Damascus, money from Iran, channeled to the Islamic Jihad, who were behind this attack. It's easy to point to outside elements, but I think that it's lame.

What Israeli 'security analysts' consistently fail to understand is that these operations require a high level of support and assistance. Probably not all involved know that it's for suicide bombing - and the where and when - but all the same they help, by giving a shelter, supplying food or whatever. These organizations are not regular armies: very few people make a living out of it. This is why they depend, very critically, on the attitude of of their societies to their actions. A lot of people need to help out. So if at the moment there are three times more attempts than last year, this means that something in Palestinian society has changed. The lull of the last 15 months is about to end.

I will stress that I am writing from London. Therefore I might be missing on some things, or getting the wrong picture. But seeing things from a distance helps sometimes, some things become clearer.

So I believe that we are on the eve of another Intifada in the West Bank. It can happen in a month or in six months. The question is what shape it will take, and what will be its focus. The worst would be a wave of suicide bombings - worst for Palestinians because it will only strengthen the unilateralist direction of Israel. But there are other options. It might be centred around the Wall, or Jerusalem. 'Popular Intifada' like the 1987 one, or the early stage of September 2000 - these demand great masses of people to risk themselves by confroting the Israeli Army. It usually takes a trigger (like the Sharon visit to the Haram) If the Hammas-led PA is brought to its knees, this might be it.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Comments policy

I am hoping to use this blog as a weekly comment on Israel/Palestine situation. I am aware the topic attracts usually a lot of comments. So I want to express my comment policy clearly.

This blog is my website; it is not a discussion board. I think of it as extension of my home. Everybody is welcome to make comments, even more welcome to disagree with me. Please challenge my views. However you have to be polite; you are my guests. So no name-calling, no offensive tone please.

The other day I was called a “self-hating Jew” and compared to Jewish collaborators with the Nazis in Warsaw Ghetto. I suppose that if I ever intend to publish my views in public media (newspapers etc) I’ll have to put up with this kind of crap and learn not to get upset about it. Not here. I am keeping these comments as an example of what I mean by offensive.

I will delete any comments I don’t like. As one notice in Brixton says
This is our front door.
Piss on your own front door.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's been a bad week: the pictures of Tom Hurndall's in the Observor last week, and then the photos from Bayt Lahia. Those pictures touched my nerves in a very raw way and made me question the benefit of a detached analysis; the callousness of pretenting to understand the grand geo-political game, in which I am only an observor from afar. Pictures of senseless death are always difficult: you either shut yourself from them and carry on with your life, or you open yourself to the sorrow they bring. But then what?

My education has taught me to try to think of a bigger picture, to try to make sense, to suggest alternatives. This is what I do here. I'm not sure this has any use; I have no power over the situation.

* * *

What we see at present in the Gaza strip may only be the beginning. It is not long before militant factions will have longer-range rockets (katyushas) and then they will be able to launch them from any position they want. This, in turn, will mean that Israeli artillery fire will be used against heavily populated areas. A series of cease-fire agreements will be reached, and then always broken, both sides blaming each other.

This scenario should not surprise anyone; in a sense it was the desired effect of the Israeli withdrawl from the Gaza strip. As long as Israeli settlers and troops were there, means such as artillery and heavy bombing could not be used. Now they're out, Gaza is a fair game; the successful marketing of the pull-out means that international pressure on Israel is abated.
"We have full legitimization to apply considerable force when they continue to fire on our towns and villages. The Israeli public also understands this, as does the international arena. I don't see anyone in the world getting too upset about this," says a the Head of Operations in the Israeli Army to Haaretz today, in an especially obnoxious interview which demonstrates the narrow-mindedness of the Israeli Military.

Perhaps, in economic terms, it is cheaper to bomb the Palestinians from outside and sustain the rocket attacks; cheaper, that is, from keeping a direct occuption with Israeli troops. I don't know, and don't really care. What should be clear that further unilateral pull-out in the West Bank will create the same situation there.

This need not be. The Hamas government and the pragmatic majority in the Israeli parliament
provide a unique chance to reach an agreement on two-state solution that will be respected by solid majorities on both sides. Is it the last chance? I don't like to make such predictions. What I do know is that the destruction of Palestinian economy and administration will be a heavy blow for any such plans.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Recognition double-speak

There is a lot of talk about Hamas refusal to recognize Israel at the moment: when would it do so, if, and on what terms, and what if not... all this is very much a double-speak; things are not what they seem. I'll try to explain why.

Hamas has never 'recognized Israel', and as far as I know its platform still calls for an Islamic state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. However, by participating in the parliamentary elections, winning them, and forming the government, Hamas has given Israel a de-facto recognition that is far more important the any formal one. First, the legal basis for the Palestinian Authority is the Oslo accords, and a Palestinian (PLO at the time) recognition of Israel. Any attempt to change this basis will require Israeli or international approval. Second, on a more practical level, Israel retains complete control over the Palestinian territories: in the West Bank through direct military occupation, and in Gaza by controlling the air, water and borders. The Palestinian Authority, as Hamas leaders are now finding out, is a body which has the powers of a municipal authority. It has some control over civil matters (health, education), and a grotesequly inflated police force. But it has no sovereignty in any real sense of the word. Anything that you might think of as sovereignty: border control; population register; water and electricity - all depend, in one way or another, on Israel. In many ways, a Israeli non-commissioned-officer in a check-point in the West Bank has far more power over the life of Palestinians than Ismail Haniya, the new Palestinian PM.

These are the rules of Oslo, which form the legal basis of the Palestinian Authority, which Hamas is now running. And so far Hamas was careful not to repudiate Oslo. Palestinians elected Hamas for many reasons, but the desire to see full-scale confrontation with Israel was not one of them. If Hamas attempts any radical, unilateral changes to the terms of reference of Oslo, this may lead to such escalation.

The demand for 'recognition of Israel', which is voiced from Israel, Europe and the U.S. has several reasons. It can be seen as an attempt to coax Hamas into the Oslo game, to play the part Fateh has been playing for 13 years: first recognize Israel, then 'prove yourself' through implementing endless lists of demands, while Israel continues its unilateral policies (settlment, closures etc) without interference. Hamas is unlikely to play this part, for good reasons (see Alastair Crooke article on Laila's blog).

But as it comes from Israel, the demand for recognition is used to justify Israeli unilateral policies. For this purpose, Israeli politicians deliberately conflate recognition of Israel's existence, with recognizing Israel's historical right to be established - most Palestinians (in historical Palestine) would have no problems with the first, but will never agree to the second.

Another excuse for the boycott on Hamas is that it is a 'terrorist organization'. True, Hamas were the first to use the deplorable, hideous tactic of suicide bombing of civilian targets, in the early 1990s, but in the last Intifada Fateh has used it as well, and sadly it has become a legitimate military means in the eyes of most Palestinians (only to their detriment). There is no real difference between the Hamas and Fateh on moral ground. Only that Hamas has proved that it is much more able to abide by the cease-fire.

However, the Israeli demand for recognition is a double-edged sword. Embargo on Hamas-led PA will inevitably bring its demise, sooner rather than later. The PA budget relies heavily on European aid money. If Israel witholds the Palestinian tax money it collects (in the customs), and pressures Europe to stop the aid, then the PA cannot possibly go on for much longer: with 50% unemployment and more, Palestinian revenue from taxes is pitiful. I personally don't think Arab/Iranian aid is likely to bridge the gap. The end of the PA will be against Israeli interests, because it would force Israel to assume responsibility over, and pay for, health and education in the occupied territories. The present occupation deluxe state of things - a Israeli military occupation funded by European money - can continue only as long as the PA survives.

To sum up, both sides do not mean what they say. Hamas may be playing the card of recognition (it's the only card they've got), and pretending 'not to recognize Israel' but they know well that (a) by running the PA they de-facto recognize Israel and the Oslo accords and (b) if they are serious about making life better for Palestinians (which I think they are) they will have to come to terms with Israel.
And Israel may pretend to be advocating a total boycott of Hamas-run PA, but its biggest nightmare is that such boycott will succeed; if the PA collapses, this might spell the end of the 2-state solution, and Israelis' worst fear is a Palestinian call for one state, one man, one vote.

Where will this catch 22 lead to? I don't know. But I am afraid that this game of pretence will lead to an escalation that nobody actually wants.