By Ramzy Baroud
Attempts to coerce Palestinians into submission have not always manifested themselves in the crude form of a tank, a bullet, the withholding of aid, or the denial of freedom of movement. These efforts were at times more imaginative and shrewd, through the sponsoring and espousing of factionalism, the purchasing of the integrity of a politician, and pressing Palestinians themselves to promote foreign agendas, whether knowingly or unwittingly.
Coupled with the collective punishment endowed on Palestinians by the ever-indifferent international community - Israel's friends in the West and a few Arab and Muslim allies - such creative methods often reaped the desired results, albeit for a little while. I became familiar with one of these attempts recently in London.
It was recently revealed that a few individuals, affiliated with the Hamas government and Hamas-dominated parliament were allowed entry into Britain. News of the visit was first unveiled by the disingenuous Israeli media, which concocted a skewed version of the event, claiming that the delegation met with Israeli 'academicians' in London.
The 'leak' was unsubstantiated, but not in its entirety. The 'breakthrough' visit, as was viewed by several observers, was timed to coincide with another visit made by a Palestinian figure, who had indeed met with Israelis. The hope though, was for the government delegation to join the meetings, as a first step toward 'breaking the ice.'
Disappointingly to many, Ahmed Youssef, top advisor to the Palestinian prime minister, as well as a less known member of Parliament - vehemently refused to participate. Both meetings took place parallel to one another; the Israeli media, whether by ignorance or by design, assumed that the merger did in fact take place and reported the Hamas concession worldwide.
If such a meeting had in fact taken place, national strife and internal Palestinian infighting would have morphed into a completely new dimension: it could be argued that what took the once dominant faction, Fatah, many years to concede, took Hamas eight months.
But the rest of the meetings in London, and later in Belfast, were not entirely innocent either. Hamas, a government under siege, backed by most Palestinians, is losing its grip on power; the Palestinian economy is in complete tatters; factionalism and chaos are taking hold to the point that iniquitous civil war predictions are becoming part of mainstream life in Gaza.
Indeed, a siege from within and without, aided by occasional, but determined Israeli onslaughts - the latest in Beit Hanun in northern Gaza that has already killed scores, including peaceful women protestors - is pressuring the government to desperately seek alternatives.
Even before its advent as the major political party in the Occupied Territories in January 2006, Hamas has long wagered on the support of the Arab and Muslim world. That has proven to be a fatal mistake, since popular displays of solidarity with the Palestinian people on the streets of Karachi or Tripoli don't necessary reflect the full and unconditional backing of the Pakistani and Libyan governments. The latter is dictated by real politic, personal interests, regional checks and balances, and international obligations - particularity to the United States government.
The last eight months were indeed long enough to force Hamas to reconsider its approach to politics: breaking the siege on Gaza, it deduced, starts in Washington, with Israeli consent, of course. Washington, however, is a long way from Gaza, since the distance between the latter and Damascus and Tehran is too close for comfort from the US viewpoint and its own checks and balances; London, thus, was the most practicable destination.
The meetings in London were held under the guise of 'dialogue,' where Hamas would articulate its position to an exaggeratedly sympathetic audience; and, in turn, the latter would take their notes and lobby politicians for a change in course. The content of the meetings, despite the overt secrecy, was leaked, though not in full, all allowing for the following deductions:
First, neoconservative elements have for long, (but increasingly since Hamas' political rise) envisaged an arch of Islamic extremism that goes all the way from Tehran to Gaza, passing through Damascus and southern Lebanon. Hamas would eventually become a major component in this arch, due to the symbolic importance of the Palestinian problem to Muslims worldwide, and the direct nature of its conflict with Israel.
Second, the attempt to overthrow Hamas with the help of disgruntled elements within its rival Fatah has failed; a popular uprising, an outcome of the collective punishment and pressure on the Palestinian people through the withholding of aid is too slow and uncertain a strategy. The waiting game is backfiring as 'extremist' elements within Hamas are predictably falling prey to Iran's strategic designs, while the 'moderates' are being marginalized to the political fringes of Gaza. Thus, time was of essence.
Third, since Washington has raised its conditions for engaging Hamas much higher than the latter's ability to compromise, it was not possible for the Bush administration to talk to the Islamic movement openly; the Blair government, however, who has always left a wide margin to politically reposition itself more freely in the Middle East has a better chance to engage Hamas, even if unofficially. The engagement had to be conducted in a most careful manner, so as not to raise suspicions regarding London's pro US and Israel stances, or doubt the integrity of its so-called 'war on terror.'
Fourth, the 'discussions' in London were clearly geared toward wooing Hamas to reveal its moderate face, thus to offset and perhaps challenge the extremists in Damascus, therefore, creating yet another rift within the Palestinian camp, to be added to numerous rifts that already exist within their ranks.
This rift would be much more treacherous, because it carries all the symptoms of Oslo: good Palestinians singled out and groomed for a photo op to be scheduled later, secret 'dialogue' followed by 'memorandums of understandings,' then treaties, then VIP cards to those involved in the positive engagement and lonely prison cells to those who dare defy it. But it was this exact same plot that led to the killing of thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis, the destruction of thousands of homes, and the confiscation of more land to make way for the illegal Jewish settlements and the Separation Wall.
Finally, if history is of any relevance, Palestinian rights are not personal property with which to be haggled by one government and inherited by another. Palestinian territorial rights, especially those of occupied East Jerusalem, the removal of all Jewish settlements and the Wall, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees, among all others, are not political decisions to be made by Hamas, Fatah, or any other Palestinian faction, no matter how widely represented. Any decision concerning these inalienable rights is to be determined by national Palestinian consensus, not only of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, but Palestinians in Diaspora as well.
All Palestinians and those who genuinely support their rights must continue to call on the international community and world media to urgently rewrite their priorities, to refrain from asking concessions from a besieged, occupied, and starved nation, and to focus their collective efforts to bring an end to the Israeli occupation, for all the ills of the region begin there, and rationally, it is there that they must end.