The primary purpose of the Palestinian unity agreement this week was internal Palestinian unity. But Palestinian security also depends on the lifting of the economic blockade they have been under since the election of the Hamas government.
In the short term, this agreement is not going to change the stances of the main actors in that blockade, the US and Israel. In fact, it may well harden their stances. Israel has already made some allusions to this agreement “tainting” Mahmoud Abbas. In their view, the unity arrangement is to be seen as bringing Abbas under Hamas’ umbrella rather than modifying any of Hamas’ stances. That they’re well aware this is not the case is not likely to change the political posturing.
In the long term, however, there could be some impact. Saudi Arabia has obviously given the agreement its blessing. That will mean some Arab money coming into the Occupied Territories. Saudi Arabia also enjoys the added benefit of largely blocking increased Iranian influence among the Palestinians. Neither Fatah nor Hamas is particularly interested in Iranian help if they have any choice in the matter. Up until now, they didn’t.
Russia has clearly opened a door with this agreement, suggesting that it should be sufficient to lift the siege on the Palestinians. The UN and EU have been silent, while the US, the last member of the Quartet which set the three conditions on the Hamas government, will surely reject the agreement as the basis to end the economic blockade.
But we can be sure that significant forces in both the EU and the UN will push for the end of this siege. How hard they will push remains to be seen. But this is an opening that the Palestinians should do their utmost to exploit.
The Israeli and American rejection of this agreement as the basis for lifting the blockade is based on the three conditions that the Quartet set for that lifting. We should examine these three conditions.
One condition is that Hamas abide by all past agreements entered into by the Palestinian government. This is a very reasonable condition. It is expected of any governmental or representative body (and we should be careful not to overstate the resemblance of the Palestinian Authority to an actual government) that it abides by the agreements its predecessors entered into. This is a basic principle of diplomacy.
Hamas has recognized the necessity of agreeing to this and has worked to find a way to do so without overly compromising their principles and undermining their support. They’ve agreed to “respect” the previous agreements. In the past, they have also agreed to allow Mahmoud Abbas handle negotiations with Israel. The PLO remains the recognized international representative of the Palestinian people. This all should be sufficient to satisfy this condition. There is an aspect of this that has to do with another condition, that of recognizing Israel. We’ll deal with that below.
A second condition is that Hamas must “renounce violence.” Everyone seems to have this requirement except Israel. As much as I might push Israel to end its occupation, I certainly don’t expect it to renounce violence while the conflict continues. Nor is it reasonable to demand this of the Palestinians. International law allows for resistance, including violent resistance, to occupation.
It is, on the other hand, reasonable to hold both sides accountable for both attacks on civilians and wanton disregard for the safety of civilians. The Prisoners’ Agreement held that Palestinian resistance should be confined to the Occupied Territories. But there was never official acceptance of this document by any party. It should be. Yet Israel has only increased its own disregard for civilian casualties. The destruction of the civilian infrastructure in gaza, much of which remains in ruins, causes severe health problems which are exacerbated by food and water shortages in the Strip. Meanwhile, the recent suicide bombing in Eilat and ongoing Qassam missile fire are clear examples of targeting civilians. Both sides need to stop their various methods of harming civilians.
This condition is simply foolish. It cannot be met as long as it applies only to one side. But a public acceptance by Hamas of the Prisoners’ Agreement’s formulation of restricting resistance to the Occupied Territories (and for those who might believe that the reference is to all of historic Palestine, the document specifies those areas occupied in 1967) would still be wise. It would help them gain support diplomatically, and frankly they lose nothing. It’s not like an attack behind the Green Line gains them anything. Targeting civilians is always wrong even if the other side does it. Both Israel and the Palestinians are guilty of this and arguments that “they did it first” are meaningless.
Finally the last condition to discuss is “recognition of Israel.” This is a deal-breaker for Hamas, as it runs explicitly counter to their ideology. Yet, the PLO and the PA have both recognized Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state in secure borders. They have not, nor could they possibly, recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state. In essence, that would mean accepting that the Zionist movement had the right to establish a Jewish state in their homeland, a state which would privilege Jews over the Arab natives of the land. No Palestinian would ever accept that statement.
But many Palestinians recognize the reality that Israel exists and will continue to exist and that the Palestinian future is dependent on finding a way to live with that reality. That should be enough. That Hamas as a party does not make this statement is irrelevant. The PA has, and with a unity government in place, a particular party not doing so carries no weight. The PA has a method of working with Israel, and it has the mechanism to execute and honor agreements with Israel. That should be all that matters.
But if the recognition issue is the stumbling block, then the only response is “a pox on both their houses.” Israel gains nothing but humiliating Hamas by insisting on a declaration of recognition. Israel is a fact. Hamas’ recognition or lack of it does not change that one iota. Abba Eban once said that Israel’s legitimacy does not depend on the approval of others. Fine. Then who cares if Hamas recognizes its right to exist?
What state exists by right? Governments, borders, all the trappings of state exist by a combination of might and the will of the governed (in different measures depending on the level of democracy vs. dictatorship and other circumstances unique to every country). The Saudi Plan of 2002 offers full normal relations with Israel. The very offer implies recognition of Israeli sovereignty behind the Green Line. The entire issue is much ado about nothing for Israel.
For Hamas’ part, I understand how they are trapped between necessity and their ideology. But they have navigated this issue very poorly. One of their first responses to this question was “which Israel are we expected to recognize?” The meaning was that Israel’s borders are not defined. OK, then recognize Israel only behind the Green Line. Just the same as the case made above, Israel is a fact. There is no realistic scenario in the foreseeable future where there is no Israel, where Israel is not a state based on the tenets of Zionism. Hamas knows this very well; their election platform and many of their public statements show this to be true.
If, as can reasonably be assumed, Israel and the US would lift the blockade in exchange for Hamas’ recognition of Israeli sovereignty behind the Green Line, it is unconscionable for them to continue to refuse to recognize. People are starving to death and dying for lack of health care because of this blockade. Recognition is a formality. It will change nothing as far as Israel’s existence, the Palestinians’ position nor even Hamas’ place. they can work it out in such a way as to continue to condemn the occupation and to uphold the Palestinian right of return. Fatah walked the same line. True, recognition never gained much for Fatah. But if it will help end the siege, then it will gain far more Hamas.
In all, the whole issue of the Three Conditions is smoke covering the Israeli and American intention to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas in the first place. But the response from the Palestinians has not been clever and has, in fact, been quite futile. With the unity agreement, there will be at least some diplomatic push to end the siege. If there is to be any hope for peace, Americans, Britons and Israelis of conscience must scream out loud that the siege must end.