Thursday, November 09, 2006

Talk to Haniyeh first, not Assad

This year, so far, hundreds of Palestinians, including 96 children, have died as a result of Israeli attacks and counter attacks on Gaza. By contrast, the number of Israeli civillian casualties from Palestinian attacks over the same period has dwindled to a handful.

Israeli army shelling of Beit Hannoun in Gaza two days ago has resulted in the death of 20 civillians, including women and 7 children, who were sleeping in their own homes. A leading Israeli human rights organisation, B'tselem, believes this action is a war crime. What are we, ordinary human bystanders, to think and believe?

The artillery officers who fired the deadly shells may not have intended to kill innocent women and children. However, since they cannot identify, arrest or directly hit the men whom they accuse of firing rockets into Israeli settlements, any shelling of civillian homes is, by definition, indiscriminate and intended to cause real harm and deter others.

But that is not the whole story. It would be naiive to think that the operations of the Israeli military and their political masters are driven solely by a sense of revenge or insecurity. The scale, nature, patterns and timing of the operations this year suggest more sinister motives. It seems highly likely that the real purpose of these attacks is to destabilise the Hamas-led Palestinian Administration and trigger a predictable Jihadi response from Palestinian "militants". Israel is still not ready for peace with the Palestinians because ultimately that implies re-drawing border lines and withdrawing from occupied territories in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Most Israeli politicians prefer to see no progress towards a lasting two-state solution. The status quo allows them to continue to create facts on the ground, i.e. turn illegal settlements in the West Bank into larger and more permanent population centres. A jihadi response from the Palestinians serves their purpose as long as it can be contained.

We can all privately shed tears for the dead children. But they will be crocodile tears if we allow Israeli "militants" to continue to set strategic traps for Palestinian "militants". Both Palestinian and Israeli children end up paying with their lives or, at best, their future for the obstinacy and cynicism of their elders. The solution to this tragic 60-year conflict is still in the hearts and minds of the Israeli and Palestinian public, not in Washington, Damascus or Tel Aviv.

We can now hear some Israeli voices in favour of a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights. They probably think that if Syria is pacified, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Territories will be too. This is wishful thinking. The Palestinian cause has now been embraced by the entire Islamic world. There is no escape from a fair deal with the Palestinians. A peace treaty with Syria could not withstand the test of time without a genuine and permanent deal with the Palestinians first. Israeli politicians must understand this but prefer to bury their heads in the sand. While some Israeli politicians and the Syrian regime are calling for peace talks, both camps appear less than convinced that such calls would lead anywhere. The Syrian regime scores public relations points whether Israel responds to its peace calls or not but Tel Aviv cannot buy peace and security from Damascus alone.

The Road Map is dead and burried but the sooner Israeli politicians sit down with the Hamas government to talk a lasting settlement, the better for everyone. Israel demands that Hamas recognise her right to exist and cease supporting militants. In principle that is a fair demand but which Israel is Hamas supposed to recognise? The 1948 one? the 1967 one, or present day's? Shouldn't Israel too, in principle and as a starting point, recognise the right of the Palestinian people to a dignified existence on lands captured after the 1948 and 1967 wars? Compromises are necessary on both sides from the 1948 starting point but the real problem is that Israel has actively sought, over five decades, to erase from the world's memory where her borders started and would not say exactly where they will end. The separation wall is "work in progress". With Bush and the Republicans losing power in the US, Israel may well be persuaded to reconsider her unilateral and absurd attempt at forcing the world to accept the unfinished wall as her unfolding border line.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complicated by Middle Eastern oil. Both the Israelis and Palestinians should have learned to compromise decades ago away from the gaze of regional and superpowers. Now that the Islamic fundamentalist genie is out of the bottle, the best thing Israel can do to secure her future in the midst of an increasingly militant Islamic region is to start talking to the Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Dr Haniyeh is more reasonable and probably more enlightened than any future leader who might emerge from the wreckage of Beit Hannoun. Time is not on Israel's side.