Thursday, May 12, 2005

Hamas spanner, Sharon formaldeyde

May 11 2005

Hamas spanner and Sharon's formaldehyde

PV Vivekanand

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to put of the planned evacuation of the Gaza Strip by three weeks to mid-August suggests that he is keeping the door open for turning the area as a possible bargaining chip if the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) wins the July 17 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly.

A Hamas victory in the July 17 elections means a severe blow to Israel's plan to impose its own version of a peace agreement on the Palestinians since Hamas would put up stiff resistance to the plan.

The mainstream Fatah group led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seen as likely to accept some compromise with Israel, and hence the Israeli fear that a Hamas-led Palestinian legislative assembly -- meaning a Hamas-led Palestinian National Authority (PNA) or a Palestinian government with strong Hamas representation -- could wreck the Israeli plan.

Officially, Sharon's reason to put off the Gaza evacuation is that the withdrawal date will coincide with a Jewish period of mourning. But then, that is no surprise development since the Jewish calendar sets the dates for religious events decades in advance.

The evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four of 120 settlements in the West Bank had been slated to begin on July 20.

In simple terms, the result of the Palestinian elections on July 17 might not be released by July 20 and hence Sharon wants to retain room for his options by delaying the withdrawal.

Post-election watch

Sharon wants to be in a position to clearly assess the course of the Palestinian post-election developments and determine whether Hamas could prevent the imposition of his terms and conditions for peace on the Palestinians after the Gaza withdrawal.

In the event of a Hamas victory in the polls, Sharon could retain the Gaza Strip and demand that Hamas should agree to disarm itself before he goes ahead with the withdrawal as an opening gambit.

However, Sharon is determined to evacuate Gaza, not the least because the territory, a hotbed of Islamist militancy, has always been ungovernable for his occupation forces.

It is known that all Israeli governments since the 70s wanted to quit the Gaza Strip because they had no advantages in continuing to occupy it. If anything, controlling Gaza had always been a source of headaches for Israel.

Nor does Gaza have any "nationalist" or "religious" importance that prompts Israel not to let it go whereas most Israelis consider the West Bank is part of the "promised land" and would not want to return it to the Palestinians.

Even Benyamin Netanyahu, who is more hawkish than Sharon in real terms, made it clear during his premiership in the late 90s that he wanted to relinquish the Gaza Strip and to let the PNA, then led by the late Yasser Arafat to grapple with the problems there.

A majority of Israelis back Sharon's plan to leave Gaza, where 9,000 settlers live in enclaves that need protection by a large Israeli military unit costing tens of millions of dollars a year.

That Israeli approach was underlined on Tuesday by Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, who rejected a suggestion by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that the planned Gaza withdrawal could be derailed if Hamas wins the parliamentary election.

"The 'disengagement' will not be cancelled," declared Mofaz.

Sharon himself affirmed that the Gaza withdrawal would go ahead regardless of Hamas's showing in the elections.

"For Israel, this move, this disengagement, is very important," he said on Monday.

Later in the day, Shalom said Israel would have to rethink the Gaza pullout if Hamas won control of the PNA in the elections.

"Do you think there is a way to negotiate with them (Hamas) while their main aim and their main goal is to destroy the State of Israel?" he said. "Is there any way to make progress with the disengagement plan, and with the process we would like to have with the (PNA), if the Hamas would be in power?"

Shalom said that if Hamas were to win the elections, there would be "no logic" in handing over more territory to the Palestinians, and no logic in facilitating the establishment of what he called "Hamastan."

He said the PNA should do everything possible to prevent Hamas running for election unless it cancels its military wing. "We must all reject the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian political system. There is no place, nor can there ever be, in a democratic society for a political party which bears arms."

"It seems to me unreasonable to move forward with the implementation of the disengagement plan as if nothing had happened and hand over the territories only for Hamas to create there a 'Hamastan'," Shalom told a seminar in Tel Aviv.

Mofaz shot it down on Tuesday.

"It's true Hamas has been strengthened. There is the reality of the Palestinian (National) Authority and the reality of the terror groups, but I think we must make enormous efforts to implement the disengagement plan," Mofaz told army radio.

Jewish resistance

On a parallel front, Sharon faces tough resistance from some of the hardline Jewish settlers against the withdrawal and the three-week postponement gives them that much more time to organise themselves. But that is a calculated risk that Sharon is taking. It is highly improbable that Jewish blood would be spilt in confrontations between settlers and army soldiers, and the Palestinian scene remains Sharon's preoccupation.

Hamas has already put up a strong performance in elections to municipal councils. It won 30 of the 84 councils in the West Bank and Gaza while Fatah won 50.

The Fatah victory faded into the background against the Hamas triumph since Hamas won most of the (urban) areas whereas Fateh won in outlying areas. This meant that Hamas would have a better showing in the elections to the legislative elections seats are determined on the basis of nationalist party lists and not individual candidates as was the case in the municipal elections.

Israeli intelligence reports predict a Hamas victory of between one third and half of the seats in the offing.

Plan in reserve

Indeed, Sharon has a plan in reserve to meet the eventuality of having a Hamas-led PNA. Under that plan, revealed by his adviser Dev Weisglas in October, Israel will simply evacuate the Gaza Strip, effectively "annex" the West Bank and close the so-called "peace process" file, with firmed up arrangements in place to fight off Palestinian armed resistance. The "separation" wall Sharon is building along the West Bank is the central pillar of that approach -- meaning a "scorched-earth" policy which stops at nothing in the effort to eliminate any challenge to Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

In the interim, Sharon is willing to give Mahmoud Abbas a shot at working out a peace agreement on Israel's terms, but he does not want Hamas to throw a spanner in the works either.

However, Sharon continues to retain the option of freezing the peace process after quitting Gaza.

AS Weisglas put it, "The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. "It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with the Palestinians."

His reference to "formaldehyde" was deemed as very apt since it is the favourite of funeral parlours to mask death, and death indeed is what Sharon has mind for the quest for peace at any point that he feels it is going against his plans.