The 40-year Palestinian Tragedy

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The San Francisco Chronicle

The 40-year Palestinian Tragedy

Shlomo Ben-Ami

Forty years ago, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights after a lightning six-day war that repelled the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Today, ending the occupation of Palestinian territories that began that June seems as distant a dream as ever.

The Somalia-like chaos and civil war that is now unfolding in Gaza can be blamed partly on ill-conceived Israeli policies, and partly on an American administration that, for six long years, all but ignored the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But the Palestinian crisis is first and foremost one of leadership. Yasser Arafat was not a model democrat, but his charisma and political acumen were crucial for holding all the Palestinian factions together. Now, not even Fatah, Arafat's own party, can claim to be a coherent organization. Hamas' electoral victory in January 2006 helped fuel Fatah's fragmentation under Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

With no effective central authority to inspire fear or respect, and the PLO devoid of legitimacy precisely because of its refusal to give Hamas its rightful share in the organization, a grotesquely ineffective brand of cohabitation between a Fatah president and a Hamas prime minister has emerged. As a result, Palestinian politics has degenerated into a naked struggle for the spoils of power.

Last February's Mecca agreement, which was supposed to establish a civilized system of power-sharing, now appears to be collapsing. The flare-up is largely due to the fact that Fatah, encouraged by the international community's boycott of Hamas, never really accepted its electoral defeat and Hamas' right to govern. Moreover, Fatah's challenge to the new Palestinian rulers has been enhanced by lavish financial support it secured from the United States and Europe, and by a generous supply of weapons from the U.S. and Arab countries.

Thus, the conflict is essentially a pre-emptive war by Hamas - aggravated by lawlessness and banditry, clashing freelance militias, tribes and families, and a spiral of senseless massacres - to prevent Fatah from being turned by the international community into a formidable challenger to its democratic right to govern.

For Hamas, this is a life-and-death struggle, and its determination to assert its authority can be gauged by the desecrated corpses of Fatah fighters, many of them with bullets fired at their heads, a practice dubbed "confirmation of death." The rocket attacks against Israeli territory are a transparent attempt to divert attention and rally the masses around Hamas as the true champions of the Palestinian cause.

However vibrant, Israel's democracy is not exactly manageable or predictable. But although Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might seek to regain his popular credibility by a major new peace demarche, the two-headed Palestinian Authority, always a dubious partner in the eyes of the Israelis, is now more suspect than ever.

"Every day that goes by only causes more people to wish for the renewal of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. Let the Jews come already and save us!" But that despairing hope, uttered by a desperate Gazan, will not materialize. Israel will avoid, at all costs, a large ground incursion. Yet, engaged in a war driven by fury and vengeance, the Israelis are now focused again on a manhunt for gang chieftains, targeted killings of Hamas squads, and the arrest of its political leaders, not on peace overtures.

Only a dramatic move by external powers can still save Gaza from becoming a second Mogadishu and both Palestinians and Israelis from a total war that would only breed more rage and desperation. For the building blocks of a renewed peace process to be sustainable, an international force must be deployed along Gaza's border with Egypt to prevent the constant smuggling of weapons and isolate the conflict. Simultaneously, the international community must help make the unity government work by recognizing Hamas' right to govern in exchange for a performance-based stability plan.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, now serves as vice president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. His latest book is "Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy" (Oxford University Press, 2006).

© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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