Allister Sparks tries to take a dispassionate view of the Gaza conflict and concludes that Israel has to negotiate with Hamas.
Now that the carnage that has ravaged the 1.8 million inmates of that open-air prison called Gaza for the past month appears to be sporadically winding down, it is time to take stock of the political realities as they now stand in that benighted place that is supposed to be the Holy Land.
Trying to look at the situation as dispassionately as possible, which I admit is not easy, the following points strike me:
1. Despite all the bloodshed and destruction - which has left nearly 2 000 Palestinians dead, the great majority of them civilians, including 400 children, and 260 000 people homeless in a shattered neighbourhood, as well as 67 Israelis killed - it has all ended in another stalemate.
Hamas has been weakened but it is still in control of Gaza, its leadership is still intact and it reportedly still has some 3 000 rockets in its armoury. Israel has suffered a public relations setback, but is still the dominant power in the region. Politically, nothing has really changed.
2. There can never be a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians until there is direct negotiation with Hamas. Yes, Hamas is a militant organisation, but there are militants on the Israeli side, too, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The fact is Hamas is a major factor in the region and it is not going to go away.
The ANC was a militant organisation that took up arms against the National Party government, which, like Israel, labelled it a terrorist organisation and took the position that, “We don’t talk to terrorists”. Eventually they did and that was the only way we reached a peaceful settlement to our own long and bitter conflict.
It’s no good talking only to negotiating partners of your choice, because it is the militants who have the guns and therefore the capacity to blow up whatever deal is cut with a moderate group. No deal between the Nats and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi that excluded the ANC could ever have stuck in our country. Peace agreements are negotiated between enemies, not friends.
Nor is talking to one’s adversary through brokers satisfactory. The chemistry of negotiation is best when you meet face-to-face, and particularly during those informal moments during breaks. Only then does one’s adversary become a human being and not just a stereotyped image.
Israel, together with the US and the EU, refuse to negotiate directly with Hamas because the latter refuses to recognise Israel, and its charter denies Israel’s right to exist. But Likud, the ruling party in Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has never recognised the right of a Palestinian state to exist – and its 1999 charter claims that Israel’s borders are from the Nile to the Euphrates, which excludes any prospect of a Palestinian state. The Western media never mention this.
When I raised these points in a series of discussions with the then deputy leader of Hamas, Moosa Abu Marzook, in Damascus some years ago, his response was: “We don’t recognise Israel’s right to exist (because the Arab states opposed the UN decision to carve up the mandated territory of Palestine), but of course we recognise the reality of Israel’s existence.”
After Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006, the prime minister-elect, Ismael Haniyeh, sent a despatch to US president George W Bush asking to be recognised and offering a long-term truce with Israel and the establishment of a border along the 1967 Green Line. He sent a similar message to the Israeli authorities. He received no reply from either.
3. The US cannot be an effective arbitrator. It is not neutral. It constantly proclaims Israel to be one of its most important allies, with the result that Israel need never fear US sanctions being applied against it no matter what it does to crush Palestinian resistance to the occupation of its territories. The US labels Hamas a “terrorist” organisation, so how can Hamas trust its good faith in trying to mediate the conflict?
Even on the day the White House harshly criticised Israel’s bombing of a UN school in Gaza, killing 10 children, the Pentagon announced that it had resupplied the Israeli army with ammunition and given it a further $225 million in military aid.
4. Neither can Egypt be a neutral arbitrator. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, its new dictator, has just overthrown and imprisoned the democratically elected president, Mohamed Mursi, and is intent on crushing Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood – to which Hamas happens to be aligned. If Israel can reject Turkey and Qatar as being pro-Hamas, how can Israel be expected to accept Egypt as an honest broker?
5. The two-state solution is dead. It has been dead for some time as a result of Israel’s insistence on establishing more and more settlements in the West Bank. Now it is buried – and Netanyahu himself has been the undertaker. During the blitz on Gaza he declared unequivocally that Israel would never withdraw its military forces from the West Bank.
“We can’t allow Judea and Sumaria (the West Bank) to become another Gaza,” he said, implying that if Israel’s occupying forces left the West Bank, Palestinian resistance fighters might start firing rockets from there as they have done from Gaza.
Well, you can’t have an independent state permanently occupied by foreign forces. Which means Netanyahu has declared that there can never be a Palestinian state. Therefore no two-state solution. This comes as no surprise: many informed observers have long noted that, despite the empty rhetoric, this is the actual Israeli position. They describe Netanyahu’s policy as being to “maintain the status quo”.
In other words, keep the Palestinians separate in their two little pieces of territory, but keep them under occupation and keep on extending and expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israel’s powerful army and even more powerful ally in the US can maintain that situation indefinitely.
6. Let’s not beat about the bush. That is an apartheid solution.
A contiguous land of Israel as a Jewish state with two Palestinian Bantustans. Or should we call them Palestans?
That is an illegal, immoral and in the long run unsustainable situation.
7. The harshest truth of all is that Israel has no end-game for this blood-soaked saga now in its 67th year.
So what is to be done? In my conversations with Marzook (who, incidentally, is now Hamas’s chief negotiator in Cairo) back in the noughties, I suggested that if Israel were to accept Haniyeh’s proposition and withdraw its military forces from Palestinian territories in exchange for a long-term ceasefire, surely the different demographic groups in their own areas of concentration would have to form collaborative institutions to handle their common affairs, as the European Union has done. And over time, wouldn’t that lead to the organic emergence of some kind of confederacy with different mini-states, or cantons, like Switzerland.
“Yes,” Marzook replied, “and that would suit us. But they would have to withdraw their military first. We can’t negotiate while we are killing each other.”
I don’t know whether that is still Hamas’s position. But perhaps the Israelis could ask them. But of course that would involve talking to Hamas, which is taboo.
* Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** ** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.