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History and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Update from AIJAC

May 15, 2007
Number 05/07 #06

Today's Update deals with aspects of the role of history in the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We lead off with Shlomo Avineri, the distinguished Israeli political scientist, discussing the problem of Palestinian claims about the Naqba ("catastrophe"), the Palestinian word for the creation of Israel and the refugee crisis which resulted from the 1948 war. Avineri says the absolute, ongoing Palestinian refusal to even discuss the idea that their rejection of partition might have been a mistake, which contributed to the bad outcome for the refugees, may mean that no true compromise peace is currently possible. He is also scathing about "outrageous" comparisons frequently voiced between the "Naqba" and the Holocaust. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up, distinguished Tel Aviv University expert on Palestinian affairs Prof. Asher Susser places the current struggles between Hamas and Fatah in a larger historical context of Palestinian politics. In particular, he makes it clear that much current Palestinian political controversy, including over the national unity government and the recent Arab League "peace proposal," can be understood in terms of a struggle over the power between the "insiders," residents of Gaza and the West Bank, and the Palestinian diaspora. He concludes that this tension probably makes the refugee issue insoluble for the time being, and calls for a concentration on interim agreements. For Susser's unique analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, with another paroxysm of factional violence in Gaza in recent days, a report from the Christian Science Monitor highlights the growing presence of groups claiming links to al-Qaeda in Gaza as well as al-Qaeda inspired attacks on schools, video stores and internet cafes. The article says Israel suspects some al-Qaeda operatives may have crossed the border from Sinai, while Palestinians argue that these groups are local factions latching on to al-Qaeda ideology in internal Palestinian power struggles. For more information on the apparent presence of al-Qaeda affiliates in Gaza, CLICK HERE.


Until they accept responsibility

By Shlomo Avineri

Haaretz, 10/05/2007

The Palestinians will mark the annual Nakba Day on May 15, as they have done in previous years. We must listen to their voices. As human beings and as Jews we must listen and be attentive to the other's pain, even if the other is - at the moment - our enemy. However, we must listen critically.

First and foremost we may ask, why May 15? It was on this day that the British Mandate on Palestine ended and the State of Israel was established. But the United Nations' resolution of November 29, 1947 also stipulates that an Arab state was to be established on part of Palestine this very same day. This resolution gave the seal of international approval to erecting two nation states on the controversial territory of mandatory Palestine.

Do the Palestinians mention this along with their rejection of the compromise resolution proposed by the international community, in the form of the partition plan?

With all due understanding and empathy to the Palestinians' suffering, the way the Nakba, the "catastrophe," is presented in the Palestinian and pan-Arab narrative raises several questions. It is portrayed as something terrible and evil that happened to the Palestinians. There is not even an iota of introspection, self-criticism and readiness to deal with the Palestinians' own contribution to their catastrophe.

We can understand - without justifying it - the Palestinians' rejection of the partition plan, just as we can understand - without justifying it - the Revisionist Zionist position negating the partition. But most of the Jewish community accepted the idea. And if most of the Palestinians had accepted it, then an independent Palestinian state would have risen on part of Mandatory Palestine in 1948, without war and without refugees.

The Palestinians are not prepared to deal with this complex reality. After 1948 quite a few books were written in Arabic about the Arabs' defeat in their war against Israel. To this day no book has raised the question of whether, perhaps, the Arabs erred in rejecting the compromise - painful as it may be - of the partition? Perhaps they would have done better if, like the Zionists, they had gritted their teeth and accepted the half-full glass?

A much used expression in Jewish tradition says "because of our sins we were exiled from our land." This expression is religious, but it indicates that the Jews viewed their exile in a self-critical manner. It would have been easy, of course, to blame the Romans and the other nations for their fate. But the Jewish narrative did not do so and viewed both the destruction and exile as deriving, among other things, from the Jews' own actions and shortcomings.

Every nation, especially a defeated one, sees itself as a victim. But most of the nations that were defeated - Germany after World War II is the classic example - also looked at themselves, at their society, values and actions.

Far be it from me to maintain that in 1948 the Jews were "right" and the Arabs were "wrong." What troubles me and other Zionist Israelis wishing to be attentive to the Palestinians' pain and willing to help rectify injustices and accept a historic compromise, is the Palestinians' complete unwillingness to acknowledge that in 1948 they and their leaders made a terrible historic mistake - of both political and moral proportions - by rejecting the international compromise they were offered.

It is for this reason that the Palestinians' customary comparison between the Nakba and the Holocaust is so outrageous. Did the Jews of Germany and Europe declare war on Germany? Were the world's Jews offered a compromise that they rejected? Europe's Jews were murdered by the Nazis because they were Jews. What does that have to do with the Palestinians' decision to refuse the UN's compromise proposal and go to war?

It would not be exaggerated to say that there will be no true compromise between Israel and the Palestinians without a readiness on their part - however minute and partial, for the "truth" is always complex - to admit that they, too, are partly responsible for what happened to them in 1948.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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Pragmatism and Ideology: Fatah, Hamas and the Arab League

Asher Susser

Tel Aviv Notes, May 10, 2007

The Oslo accords set in motion a historical process of great promise, at least from the Israeli point of view. It quickly resulted in the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose President and Parliament were elected solely by the people of the West Bank and Gaza.  The Palestinian problem could now seemingly be resolved within the 1967 boundaries: representative institutions had been created that appeared to be shifting the center of gravity of the Palestinian national endeavor from the Diaspora to the "inside," i.e. the West Bank and Gaza.  For Israel, it was far easier to satisfy the national aspirations of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza than those of the Diaspora, whose primary focus was on the question of refugee return rather than on statehood alongside Israel.
 
For its part, the PLO underwent at least a partial transformation. Formed and based in the Diaspora, the PLO had functioned for thirty years, serving and articulating the interests of its primary constituency, the refugee communities. Now, thanks to Oslo, the leadership ensconced itself "inside," as the largely unchallenged and legitimate head of the PA.  In doing so, it appeared to be on the way to giving preference to the core concerns of the Palestinian West Bank-Gaza populace, rather than the Diaspora. Hence, this dynamic had the makings of a stable two-state settlement.
 
However, the Oslo process was never consummated. The Camp David talks of July 2000, held under the auspices of US President Clinton, ended in dismal failure, and a new, more severe and lasting cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence broke out in late September of that year.  Over the subsequent bloody years, Fatah became discredited in the eyes of the Palestinians, while Hamas' star rose. With the peace process in tatters, and Israel convinced that there was no longer a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, it chose to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and dismantle its civilian settlements there (carrying out its decision in the summer of 2005).
 
In these circumstances, Hamas decisively defeated Fatah in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), held in January 2006. Hamas had boycotted the previous elections to the PLC held ten years earlier, refusing to participate in the building of Palestinian institutions under the aegis of the objectionable Oslo accords. Such elections, its spokesmen argued then, served Israel's interests by deepening the rift between the "inside" and the Diaspora. There could be "no democracy without sovereignty and no sovereignty without independence," they contended. Hence, Hamas' participation in the 2006 elections marked a significant departure from past practice, in the direction of greater pragmatism on concrete, immediate issues.  For Hamas, the exigencies of the hour outweighed its reluctant legitimization of Palestinian institutions being constructed in accordance with the ideologically unacceptable Oslo two-state formula.
 
Victory in the elections, and the onus of government that came with it, coerced Hamas into taking further pragmatic steps.  On the morrow of its triumph, Hamas called on the defeated and dispirited Fatah to join it in a National Unity Government (NUG).  For over a year, Fatah rejected the idea, hoping that Hamas would fail in its efforts to govern. It was only in March 2007 that an NUG was finally formed, thanks primarily to intensive Saudi efforts.
 
The formation of the NUG had been preceded by discussions between Fatah and Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails, which produced the so-called "prisoners' document."  In it, Hamas representatives accepted the notion of independent Palestinian statehood within the 1967 boundaries, and the point was reiterated in the NUG's founding policy statement. But while making short-term, immediate concessions, Hamas slammed the door shut on the prospects of a long-term compromise over basic principles, particularly regarding the refugee question.  The newly articulated, consensual Palestinian positions reflected in the "prisoners' document" and NUG policy statement reveal a significant hardening of the Palestinian position vis-a-vis the conflict with Israel, as Hamas seeks to reverse the Oslo dynamic by deliberately highlighting the centrality of the Palestinian Diaspora constituency.
 
Thus, the "prisonersí document" refers specifically to the endeavors of "the Palestinian people inside the homeland and in the Diaspora [author's emphasis] to liberate their land and to exercise their right to freedom, return and independence." It also calls for special efforts in support of the refugees, noting the need to reorganize them politically by convening "a popular representative conference of refugees." Reasserting Diaspora centrality, the NUG policy statement specified that any agreement reached with Israel would have to be approved not by the PA or its legislature, but by a new Palestine National Council, the legislative body of the PLO, or alternatively by a national referendum among all Palestinians, inside Palestine and in the Diaspora.
 
The emphasis on Diaspora centrality is the essential precursor for demanding refugee return. The "prisoners document" and NUG policy statement thus call for the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from December 1948, "especially its provision for the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their lands and properties that they had left, and to compensation." The Arab peace initiative reaffirmed by the Riyadh Arab Summit conference in March 2007 does not paper over this problem either. It calls for ìa just and agreed solutionî to the refugee problem, in accordance with resolution 194, while simultaneously "rejecting all forms of resettlement (tawtin)" of refugees outside of Palestine. Thus, with one hand it offers Israel an agreement on the matter, while with the other it specifically rejects the conditions that would make such an agreement possible.
 
In theory, at least, the issues of Diaspora and statehood could be merged if the matter of refugee return were to be subordinated and linked to Israelís withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. This could be achieved by specifying that refugee return would be to the state of Palestine established alongside Israel, rather than statehood in addition to refugee return to Israel proper. This option, however, is specifically ruled out by the NUG policy statement, which insists on the "return to their lands and properties that they had left."  In addition, the Arab initiative's rejection of tawtin applies just as much to refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza as it does to those in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
 
In these circumstances, when the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians on final status issues are widening rather then narrowing, it would seem far more realistic to pursue interim solutions than the ever-more elusive "end of conflict."  Seeking a solution for all time, let alone in no time, is bound to fail again.
 
Dr. Asher Susser is Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University.


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Al Qaeda tactics expand in Gaza

The emergence of several new Islamist groups has Palestinians wondering whether local militants are aligning themselves with Al Qaeda's ideologies.

By Ilene Prusher

The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 2007
 
Jerusalem - Over the past few months, a slew of Internet cafes and video stores have been attacked and forced to close.

Earlier this week, Islamists opened fire on an elementary school, killing one bodyguard and wounding seven, while the most senior United Nations official in Gaza was visiting the institution.

And now, nearly two months since the kidnapping of a British BBC journalist in Gaza, a group calling itself the Army of Islamhas released a video claiming responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of all Muslim prisoners in the United Kingdom.

The startling events point in a direction that, until recently, many Palestinians thought was far from their reality: the appearance of groups driven by a fundamentalist, anti-Western agenda aligned with that of Al Qaeda.

Most Palestinians say they don't think Al Qaeda, with its global agenda that attracts Muslim militants from around the world, has any real foothold in Gaza. Palestinian Islamists – including in the ruling Hamas – have usually distanced themselves from Al Qaeda in favor of reminding all who ask that their goal is not waging war against the West in general, but in fighting against the Israeli occupation in particular.

But amid an unprecedented deterioration of security conditions in the Gaza Strip and a slide toward lawlessness, those agendas may have merged and blurred. Israeli officials have suggested for several months that they have indications that Al Qaeda groups have infiltrated the Gaza Strip through the Egyptian border.

More likely, say many Palestinians, is that Islamic groups here have taken inspiration from Al Qaeda's ideology and are trying to impose such a vision on the conflict. Not just the Palestinian conflict with Israel, that is, but the conflict among Palestinians themselves.

A troubling case in point: a shooting attack this week on an elementary school that was in the middle of holding a performance. The school in Rafah, one of the more unstable locales of the coastal strip, is run by the United Nations Refugee Works Agency (UNRWA), one of the few arms of international aid that maintains a major presence in Gaza despite the exodus of almost all foreign nationals.

A group of Palestinian Salafis, Islamists connected to the fundamentalist Salafi school in Saudi Arabia, was angry that the show featured a "mixed event" of boys and girls – aged 6 to 12 – performing together. The Salafi group opened fire, killing one guard of a Palestinian parliament member from Fatah and wounding seven others, including three children.

A more modern-minded member of the Palestinian parliament said the protesters wanted to take Palestinians "back to the dark ages."

Since BBC journalist Alan Johnston's kidnapping in March, few foreign journalists have ventured into Gaza, with embassies and press associations sending out grave warnings that more attempts at abductions are to be expected.

Palestinian analysts doubt the indications this week that Mr. Johnston's abductors are Al Qaeda operatives with a global Jihad in mind. Gazan security officials say they know that Johnston is being held by the Dogmoush clan, which is demanding a large tract of land in Gaza – a piece of one of the evacuated settlements that Israel left to the Palestinian Authority in August 2005.

According to this analysis, the clan leaders want to extort promises for land from the Palestinian Authority, meanwhile biding time by cloaking the issue in global jihadist themes.

"There is no proof or indication that there is a relationship between the so-called Army of Islam and Al Qaeda as some people think, despite the fact that their behavior appears that way," said Rashid Abu Shabak, senior Palestinian security chief in Gaza, in an interview with the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper.

"These requests of the Army of Islam are illogical, and the aim of this latest request is just to give the kidnapping some kind of international character, while in truth it is only a process aimed at gaining money," Mr. Abu Shabak said.

Israeli observers take a different view. They say websites tied to Al Qaeda have claimed to have cells operating in both the West Bank and Gaza, says Professor Raphael Israeli, who studies Islamic fundamentalist movements at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Moreover, he says, Iran has been vocal in its assistance in helping to train militants.

"The Iranians have stated clearly that Lebanese Hizbullah advisers have infiltrated into the Gaza Strip as soon as the debacle in the Lebanese war was over, and they are teaching the Hamas to adopt the same tactics used against Israel because they see they were effective," Mr. Israel says.

"Of course, Iran is not Al Qaeda, but we also know from separate and independent statements on the internet that they have their own cells not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, in places such as Jenin and Nablus."

He says that given the lack of security exercised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas these groups can act more or less unhindered. As an example, he links the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas last June, with the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Lebanese Hizbullah only a few weeks later.

"The inevitable conclusion is that there was some coordination between these parties," he says. "Whether Al Qaeda is a partner in the execution of [the kidnapping] is hardly relevant."

What is more relevant, for Palestinians at least, is that Islamist ideology has come to play a role in the political pressures and worsening violence coursing through the Gaza Strip. In the past half year, more than 70 establishments seen as representing "infidel" culture have been attacked, including Internet cafes, video shops, an American school, and a Christian center that distributed Bibles. The list also includes pharmacies rumored to sell illicit drugs.

One of those targeted was the Internet cafe owned by Ala Alshawa. The 20-something entrepreneur woke up to an explosion several months ago. He decided to borrow $4,000 to repair his shop.

"The problem is we don't know who is who and what they want. They use Islamic names, but they are very far from Islam and the real Islamic values," says Mr. Alshawa.

• Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza contributed to this report

Copyright © 2007 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.

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