Did Clinton Sabotage a Palestinian Reconciliation?

Still reeling from the
Israeli massacres in the occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinians have lately
had little to celebrate. So the strong start to intra-Palestinian
reconciliation talks in Cairo last week provided a glimmer of hope.

An end to the schism between the resistance and the elected but
internationally-boycotted Hamas government on the one hand, and the
Western-backed Fatah faction on the other, seemed within reach. But the
good feeling came to a sudden end after what looked like a coordinated
assault by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, European
Union High Representative Javier Solana, and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas
whose term as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) expired on 9

On Friday 27 February, the leaders of 13 Palestinian factions,
principal among them Hamas and Fatah, announced they had set out a
framework for reconciliation. In talks chaired by Egypt's powerful
intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the Palestinians established
committees to discuss forming a "national unity government," reforming
the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to include all factions,
legislative and presidential elections, reorganizing security forces on
a nonpolitical basis, and a steering group comprised of all faction
leaders. Amid a jubilant mood, the talks were adjourned until 10 March.

Then the blows began to strike the fragile Palestinian body politic.
The first came from Clinton just before she boarded her plane to attend
a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh ostensibly about
pledging billions in aid to rebuild Gaza.

Clinton was asked by Voice of America (VOA) whether she was encouraged
by the Cairo unity talks. She responded that in any reconciliation or
"move toward a unified [Palestinian] Authority," Hamas must be bound by
"the conditions that have been set forth by the Quartet," the
self-appointed group comprising representatives of the US, EU, UN and
Russia. These conditions, Clinton stated, require that Hamas "must
renounce violence, recognize Israel, and abide by previous
commitments." Otherwise, the secretary warned, "I don't think it will
result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian
people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that
leads to a Palestinian state."

The next strikes came from Ramallah. With the EU's top diplomat Solana
standing next to him, Abbas insisted that any national unity government
would have to adhere to the "two-state vision" and abide by
"international conditions and signed agreements." He then demanded that
Gaza reconstruction aid be channeled exclusively through the
Western-backed, but financially bankrupt and politically depleted PA.
Solana affirmed, "I would like to insist in agreement with [Abbas] that
the mechanism used to deploy the money is the one that represents the
Palestinian Authority." Solana fully endorsed the campaign waged by
Abbas ever since the destruction of Gaza that the PA, plagued by
endemic corruption, and which only pays salaries of workers deemed
politically loyal, be in sole charge of the funds, rather than neutral
international organizations as Hamas and others have suggested.

Was the Sharm al-Sheikh summit then really about helping the people of
Gaza or was it about exploiting their suffering to continue the long
war against Hamas by other means? Indeed, Clinton had already confirmed
the politicization of reconstruction aid when she told VOA, "We want to
strengthen a Palestinian partner willing to accept the conditions
outlined by the Quartet," and, "our aid dollars will flow based on
these principles."

Hamas warned that Clinton's and Abbas's statements set Palestinian
reconciliation efforts back to square one. "Hamas will not recognize
Israel or the Quartet's conditions," said one spokesman Ismail Radwan,
while another, Ayman Taha, said Hamas would "reject any preconditions
in the formation of the unity government." Khaled Meshal, head of the
movement's political bureau, insisted that the basis for national unity
must remain "protecting the resistance and the rights of the
Palestinian people."

Such statements will of course be used to paint Hamas as extremist,
intransigent and anti-peace. After all, what could be more reasonable
than demanding that any party involved in a peace process commit itself
to renouncing violence, recognizing its enemy, and abiding by
pre-existing agreements? The problem is that the Quartet conditions are
designed to eliminate the Palestinians' few bargaining chips and render
them defenseless before continuous Israeli occupation, colonization,
blockade and armed attacks.

None of the Western diplomats imposing conditions on Hamas have
demanded that Israel renounce its aggressive violence. Indeed, as
Amnesty International reported on 20 February, the weapons Israel used
to kill, wound and incinerate 7,000 persons in Gaza, half of them women
and children, were largely supplied by Western countries, mainly the
US. In a vivid illustration, Amnesty reported that its field
researchers "found fragments and components from munitions used by the
Israeli army -- including many that are US-made -- littering school
playgrounds, in hospitals and in people's homes."

For Palestinians to "renounce violence" under these conditions is to
renounce the right to self-defense, something no occupied people can
do. Palestinians will certainly note that while Abbas stands impotently
by, neither the US nor the EU have rushed to the defense of the
peaceful, unarmed Palestinians shot at daily by Israeli occupation
forces as they try to protect their land from seizure in the West Bank.
Nor has Abbas' renunciation of resistance helped the 1,500 residents in
the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan whose homes Israeli
occupation authorities recently confirmed their intention to demolish
in order to make way for a Jewish-themed park. A cessation of violence
must be mutual, total and reciprocal -- something Hamas has repeatedly
offered and Israel has stubbornly rejected.

While Israeli violence is tolerated or applauded, Israel's leaders are
not held to any political preconditions. Prime minister-designate
Benjamin Netanyahu emphatically rejects a sovereign Palestinian state
and -- like his predecessors -- rejects all other Palestinian rights
enshrined in international law and UN resolutions. When told to stop
building illegal settlements on occupied land, Israel responds simply
that this is a matter for negotiation and to prove the point it
revealed plans in February to add thousands of Jewish-only homes to its
West Bank colonies.

Yet Quartet envoy Tony Blair, asked by Al-Jazeera International on 1
March how his masters would deal with a rejectionist Israeli
government, said, "We have to work with whoever the Israeli people
elect, let's test it out not just assume it won't work." Unless
Palestinians are considered an inferior race, the same logic ought to
apply to their elected leaders, but they were never given a chance.

It is ludicrous to demand that the stateless Palestinian people
unconditionally recognize the legitimacy of the entity that
dispossessed them and occupies them, that itself has no declared
borders and that continues to violently expand its territory at their
expense. If Palestinians are ever to recognize Israel in any form, that
can only be an outcome of negotiations in which Palestinian rights are
fully recognized, not a precondition for them.

During last year's US election campaign, Clinton claimed she helped
bring peace to Northern Ireland during her husband's administration.
Yet the conditions she now imposes on Hamas are exactly like those that
the British long imposed on the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein,
thereby blocking peace negotiations. President Bill Clinton -- against
strenuous British objections -- helped overturn these obstacles by
among other things granting a US visa to Sinn Fein president Gerry
Adams, whose party the British once demonized as Israel now demonizes
Hamas. Like Tony Blair, who as British prime minister first authorized
public talks with Sinn Fein, Hillary Clinton knows that the
negotiations in Ireland could not have succeeded if any party had been
forced to submit to the political preconditions of its adversaries.

Former British and Irish peace negotiators including Nobel Peace Prize
winner John Hume, and former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami
made similar points in a 26 February letter they co-signed in The Times
of London. "Whether we like it or not," the letter states, "Hamas will
not go away. Since its victory in democratic elections in 2006, Hamas
has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to
destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military
incursions." The signatories called for engagement with the movement,
affirming that "The Quartet conditions imposed on Hamas set an
unworkable threshold from which to commence negotiations."

Those who claim to be peacemakers should heed this advice. They should
allow Palestinians to form a national consensus without external
interference and blackmail. They should respect democratic mandates.
They should stop imposing grossly unfair conditions on the weaker side
while cowering in fear of offending the strong, and they should stop
the cynical exploitation of humanitarian aid for political manipulation
and subversion.

There are many in the region who were encouraged by US President Barack
Obama's appointment of former Northern Ireland mediator Senator George
Mitchell as Middle East envoy. But in all other respects the new
president has continued the Bush administration's disastrous policies.
It is not too late to change course, for persisting in these errors
will guarantee only more failure and bloodshed.

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