And so, for a short time, everyone was happy. Israeli PM Ariel Sharon was glad to be able to disengage without interruption by Palestinian rockets. Abu Mazen was happy because he had managed to cajole Hamas into line and demonstrate a measure of control. Finally, Hamas was happy: after five years of bombing and being bombed (losing all its top leaders), it would establish itself within a new forum, the legislature.
As usual, however, reality is more complex than the versions we make of it. The elections scheduled for 2006 do not fit in with the present political situation. For conditions are different from those of 1996, the last time parliamentary elections were held. Back then all the candidates supported the principles of the Oslo Agreement. Its opponents, with Hamas at their head, boycotted the polls. This time, however, there is no political consensus about the kind of Palestinian state that is wanted or its relations to Israel. Each of the various organizations sees the elections as a springboard for strengthening its position.
Here is another difference. In 1996, Israel viewed the Palestinian elections as a step toward legitimizing its negotiating partner. Today, on the contrary, it does not want elections. It casts doubt on Abu Mazen’s capacity as a partner. In its view, if he fails to impose his authority and Hamas is permitted to run, the PA will be undermined. As a consequence, Israel’s influence on the Territories will be weakened. We need only watch what is happening in the West Bank today. The killing of three Israelis at Etzion Junction south of Bethlehem on October 16 led the government to close the roads and step up assassinations. It focused first on the Islamic Jihad (which will not field candidates in the elections). The measures, which included assassination, were answered by a suicide attack in Hadera. This in turn provoked Israeli re-conquests in Jenin and Nablus. Here was a typical spiral of escalation, such as we have seen countless times. Israel could have absorbed the attack at Etzion Junction without retaliation, but given the fact that disengagement is done, it had no interest in preserving quiet. On the contrary, its interest is in escalation. It wants to convey the message that because Abu Mazen is doing nothing to curtail terrorism, it will have to perform the task itself.
Sharon’s threat to impede the elections places Abu Mazen in an impossible situation. On the one hand, Israel accuses him of not doing enough. On the other, Israel does not itself do the things that would gain him the credit he’d need in order to “do enough.” It refuses to release prisoners, ease restrictions on work permits or reduce the onerous checkpoints. Abu Mazen cannot present himself to his people, therefore, as a leader capable of bringing back a normal life. He has only one thing to offer them: elections. If these do not take place, there will be no political or practical justification for the PA’s existence.
If elections do not take place, Hamas too will be doomed to oblivion. With its extremist Islamic agenda, including opposition to Israel’s existence, it can only survive in the shadow of the Palestinian regime. For the latter does the “dirty work,” negotiating with Israel and navigating amid the shoals of international diplomacy. Hamas uses the PA as an umbrella. It cannot stand alone against Israel, which maintains enormous military superiority. It has not forgotten the assassination of its first-line leadership.
But suppose that in its desire to become part of the legislature, Hamas lays down its weapons? What then will be the basis for its existence? These very weapons, these ticking bombs, created the balance of terror that motivated Israel’s disengagement. They gained for Hamas its prestige and standing. Hamas wants to present itself to the Palestinian people as a militant anti-Israel force, while becoming part of the establishment. Israel won’t let it dance in both weddings.
In Haaretz on October 30, for example, Amira Hass reported on a new nine-lane checkpoint being built south of Nablus. “In the IDF it is claimed that the decision to erect it is part of the plan of the Central Command for ‘design of the area,’ which is re-organizing the patterns of traffic in the West Bank.” The PA’s governor of Nablus cautions that the checkpoint will be part of a network that “will fulfill the army’s plan for cantonizing the districts of Nablus and Jenin from the other parts of the West Bank.”
As for the newly “liberated” Gaza, here is what Sara Roy, an expert on Gaza’s economy, wrote recently in the London Review of Books (November 3, 2005):
“For the [Disengagement] Plan gives Israel ‘exclusive authority’ over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, which translates into full control over the movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip. Israel will also ‘continue, for full price, to supply electricity, water, gas and petrol to the Palestinians, in accordance with current arrangements’. Israel will also continue to collect customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli shekel will remain the local currency. Further, the Israeli government is building a new terminal at the point where Gaza, Israel and Egypt meet that would require Palestinian labour and goods to go through Israeli territory. Israel’s Interior Ministry retains full control over the issuing of Palestinian identity cards and all population data – births, deaths, marriages – and all Palestinians must continue to be registered with the ministry. There would be no point in the PA acting unilaterally and issuing Palestinian identity cards because Israel controls the international border crossings and Palestinian movements within the West Bank.”
Sharon’s Disengagement Plan has not opened the way for a new political agenda. The only alternative that Israel is building amounts to fragmentation and continuing occupation. In this situation, elections won’t provide Abu Mazen with the power or political basis to subdue the chaos.
Sharon is walking on a very thin rope. He seems to think he can manipulate the “elections card” to get what he wants from the Palestinians, just as he did with the “disengagement card.” But the rope may break. We recall the violence caused by Oslo, when the Palestinians got only disappointment after being promised a second Singapore. So now, when disengagement brings no betterment, we are likely to see a new Intifada.
Sharon today enjoys the unqualified support of the White House and the Israeli Left. But when he uses this support to bolster the Occupation, deepening Palestinian poverty, he prepares the destruction of both sides in the conflict.