Published on Saturday, June 14, 2003 by Inter Press Service
Road Map Looking Like a Dead End to Palestinians
by Peter Hirschberg
JERUSALEM, Jun 14 (IPS) - With the U.S.-backed road map peace plan in danger of being swallowed up by the latest round of bloodletting in the Middle East, the prevailing sense among Palestinians is that they are hopelessly trapped, unable to end 36 years of Israeli occupation either through negotiation or through armed conflict.
"Palestinians want an end to all of this but can't see a way out of the whole situation," says Ali Jarbawi, professor of political science at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "They tried negotiations, in the form of Oslo, for nine years and it didn't work. Then they tried confrontation and it didn't work. They see no way out, but to endure. Endurance has become the strategy."
There was talk Friday of security contacts between Israeli and Palestinian officials being revived, and of a renewed dialogue between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and Hamas leaders over an end to attacks on Israelis.
But violence continued unabated. Toward evening, an Israeli was shot dead in the northern West Bank. Then, nightfall brought more strikes by Israeli helicopter gunships in Gaza, where a Hamas militant was killed after his car was hit by two missiles - the sixth such attack in just three days. Israeli security officials, who have vowed to fight Hamas "to the bitter end" said helicopters had targeted a car carrying militants who had earlier fired rudimentary rockets into Israel.
If the appointment of a new Palestinian prime minister in late April, U.S. pressure on Israel to accept the road map last month, and the decision by President George W. Bush to personally back the plan, had bred some hope among Palestinian leaders, it has rapidly evaporated.
Jarbawi says there was always skepticism about implementation of the latest peace initiative. "The Palestinian public doesn't have much faith in the U.S. or (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon," he told IPS. "They've been sold promises, but they want to see implementation on the ground. Removing a (settler) caravan from a hilltop isn't serious. Not when the reality on the ground for Palestinians remains curfews and roadblocks. We can't move, we can't work, we live in cantons, people are being killed, and houses are being demolished."
The idea of an armed international monitoring force in the region to separate the two sides was revived Friday by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Not surprisingly Palestinian leaders, who have always been keen to internationalize the conflict, embraced the idea. Palestinian minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said an armed force "is the only realistic solution to get out of this cycle of violence and counter-violence."
But Israel strongly opposes international intervention in the conflict, insisting it will not place its security in the hands of a third party. So, for now, the only game in town is the road map. Palestinian leaders, especially Abbas, know this.
Nevertheless, when Abbas and other Palestinian officials returned from the U.S.-orchestrated summit in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba on June 4, they were somewhat buoyed. They felt Bush had listened to their case, including their demands for the transfer of funds frozen by Israel. They believed also they had found time to reconstruct the Palestinian Authority security apparatus destroyed by Israel in 32 months of fighting.
But since then, and as a result of his speech at the summit, Abbas's credibility among his own people has crashed. He called for the end to the "armed intifada" and recognized"Jewish suffering" but forgot to mention the suffering of his own people and their demands.
He arrived home to a barrage of criticism. If the U.S. and Israel detected moderation in the Palestinian Prime Minister's words, his own people viewed what he said as a capitulation to international dictates. "Abu Mazen did himself a lot of harm with his declaration in Aqaba," says Jarbawi. "He made his declaration without getting anything in return, such as the removal of roadblocks or something else tangible on the ground, with which to convince the general public."
Now, the latest series of strikes by Israel on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip has further weakened Abbas and the moderate message he has been peddling. Hamas leaders who have not hidden their desire to torpedo the road map have broken off truce talks with him.
U.S. and Israeli leaders had hoped Abbas would emerge as an alternative to Arafat, but while Palestinians recognize the historical role Abbas has played in their national movement, they have never viewed him as a possible replacement for Arafat. Neither has Abbas, who reported back to Arafat immediately after the Aqaba summit, and has made it clear that no substantive decisions are taken without Arafat.
Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, who heads the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in East Jerusalem says Abbas was appointed by Arafat, constantly reports back to him, and so poses no threat to the Palestinian leader. "Abu Mazen has no political ambitions and no charisma," he told IPS. "And he cannot afford to anger Arafat who appointed him and who can destroy him with a single remark."
Israeli, U.S. and even some European leaders have given up on Arafat, believing that after he rejected the Israeli offer made at Camp David in July 2000, he is incapable of cutting a deal that will end the conflict. But if they believed he would be rendered inconsequential after the war in Iraq and with the launch of the road map, they have been disappointed.
In fact, since Aqaba, Arafat's position among his own people has strengthened. Following the summit, he explained Abbas's failure to mention key Palestinian demands by saying that the prime minister had not been allowed to say what he wanted - an explanation that helped cultivate further the portrayal of Abbas as a U.S. lackey.
Arafat was never happy with the creation of the post of prime minister, which he feared would cut into his powers, but agreed to it under international duress. Since then, he has done little to help Abbas establish himself.
Despite Israel's insistence that he crush Hamas, Abbas has made it clear he does not plan to use force - certainly not for now - in persuading the armed militias to lay down their weapons. Jarbawi says that for Hamas leaders to be convinced to suspend attacks, Abbas will have to get a guarantee that Israel will stop assassinations.
Yohanan Zoref, a senior scholar at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies located not far from Tel Aviv believes Palestinian public pressure will play a key role in curbing Hamas. The Palestinian public, he contends, is fatigued after two-and-a-half years of the intifada, and groups like Hamas ultimately cannot ignore this. "I believe in the power of the public," he says. "When wisdom returns after this latest wave of violence, they will tell Hamas to stop."
But Jarbawi insists that for the Palestinian public to begin to pressure "those who are trying to wreck" the road map, "they will first have to be convinced that it is worthwhile."
© Copyright 2003 IPS