Monday, December 18, 2006 

Cause and effects.

Despite some disdainful remarks towards the chances of Tony Blair's tour of the Middle East actually achieving anything, there in actuality could be no better time for him to visit the Palestinian people, in order to see the actual effects of his policies.

Making his journey as he is during the season of goodwill, the boycott imposed on the Palestinian people for making their legitimate democratic choice is close to reaching what is its only logical conclusion: civil war. Even if the situation in the occupied territories has not yet descended to its lowest point, then the people themselves are suffering almost as they never have before, and by Palestinian standards, that's quite something. 160,000 government workers have largely gone unpaid since March; two-thirds of the 4 million Palestinians are living below the poverty line; Gaza, despite the continuing ceasefire between those firing Qassams and Israel holding, remains the world's largest open-air prison, with the border checkpoints both into Israel and Egypt remaining closed for inordinate lengths of time, mostly justified on "security grounds", despite agreements previously agreed with the backing of the EU and the US.

Blair's comments at his press conference with Mahmoud Abbas were, as has become natural for him, willfully ignorant and blase:
"I hope we will be in a position over these coming weeks to put together an initiative that allows that support for reconstruction and development and to alleviate the plight and suffering of the Palestinian people and also, crucially, give a political framework to move forward to a two-state solution.

That it has been the boycott set-up in response to the election of Hamas, a decision made by a people fed up with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Fatah, that has grossly exacerbated the plight and suffering is completely glossed over. As long as the Palestinian people change their minds from a decision made only 12 months ago, then they will get the support for reconstruction. This is the carrot and stick approach taken to new extremes: we seem to be prepared to take the Palestinian people to the edge of the abyss, only to offer them salvation while pretending that we didn't push them to the precipice in the first place.

All this said, it's hard not to agree with Mahmoud Abbas's decision to call fresh elections. While Abu Mazen's move may well be illegal, it is not as some are suggesting a coup attempt. It would be easier to sympathise with Hamas's situation if its year of governing had not been such an unmitigated disaster. Its continued refusal to so much as share power with Fatah just to end the boycott has sentenced the people they are representing to a life few of us can imagine. They have every right to continue to not recognise Israel, but their alternatives, such as a period of hudna, are no alternative to a negotiated peace settlement, however far off that seems.

Likewise, Blair's moves for peace would be easier to be optimistic about, let alone support, if we knew that Israel felt the same way about proper negotiations. Olmert's few words are from a big enough shift to suggest that their is substance beneath them. Before the Palestinian elections in January, Mahmoud Abbas had for months been pleading for direct talks. Instead Sharon continued with his disengagement plans, thinking that leaving the Palestinians with a shell of a West Bank would somehow lead to peace. This summer's war with Hizbullah has showed that only a full settlement can even start to remove the hatred and grievances which have built up over the years; otherwise, you leave behind an embittered people waiting for their time to come. Israel's apologists will always claim that the Palestinians don't want peace, but the continued building of settlements and establishing of yet more checkpoints, designed to disrupt the lives of Palestinians as much as they possibly can, suggests that successive Israeli governments are not yet prepared to face up to the backlash from the extremist settlers which will come when it becomes clear that their outposts have to be removed for peace to have a chance of flourishing.

The overwhelming support that has been given to Abbas from both Blair and others is also naive in a region still smarting from the refusal of Britain to join the others in the EU in calling for an immediate ceasefire during the summer Lebanon war. While there may be good, clean motives behind doing so, it simply makes it even easier for Hamas to cry about western backed coups. Their apparent decision to boycott the polls seems unlikely to backfire, and if Abbas was simply aiming to get Hamas to return to negotiations over a national unity government, then he appears to have succeeded only in making Hamas even more recalcitrant.

As it is so often in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the only thing can be hoped for is that the worst doesn't happen. The ceasefire between Hamas and Fatah is likely to remain shaky, and there could be no bigger disaster than a civil war, even it only involves those with direct party affiliation rather the wider populace. Blair, the lame duck, would be better putting his energies into getting the boycott lifted or cut down to size, as its only effect so far has been to entrench Hamas's power, as well as sending them even further into the arms of Iran, unless that of course was the intention of Israel and the wider international community in the first place.

Related posts:
Lenin's Tomb - The politics of the Palestinian 'civil war'.
Mask of Anarchy - US backed groups force fresh elections in Palestine.

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