The month since the election of Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority has been one of ups and downs as far as Israeli-Palestinian relations are concerned. The accession of Abbas to power in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s death is the best chance for Middle East peace in years. The passing from the scene of the grizzled old man of Palestinian politics even raised the hopes for an end to the armed intifada.
But then came the Palestinian attacks on the Karni crossing, which left six Israelis dead and many more wounded, and on the Gush Katif junction. Together with escalating Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, the Karni crossing incident dampened hopes and demonstrated to the people of both sides just how much work Abbas has cut out for him.
The responsibility for the Karni attack was claimed as a joint operation of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Brigades – part of Abbas’ own Fatah. Intelligence officials believe that Iran played a supporting role in the Gaza attacks, which provides proof positive of the destructive role played by Teheran in its quest to extinguish all hope for peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Israelis.
And the Islamic theocrats who sit at the helm of the Iranian government are utterly indifferent to the suffering they might cause to ordinary Palestinians. The Karni crossing point is the primary artery through which commerce is conducted between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In the wake of the bombing the commercial terminal was closed, generating significant anger from local Palestinians whose income was directly affected. But the injury caused to the Palestinian economy was of little consequence to the terrorist puppet-masters in Damascus and Teheran. According to statistics released by the IDF, the Iranian-dominated Hezbollah has been responsible for about 20 percent of the operations against Israeli civilians and soldiers this year, and had invested at least US$9 million in 2004 to carry out attacks against targets in Israel.
The Karni attack and a subsequent Hamas suicide bomb killing a Shin Bet officer at the Katif Junction caused the Israelis to suspend all contacts with Abbas until tangible measures were taken against Palestinian terrorist groups. As a result of this pressure, Abbas has directed his security forces to prevent attacks on Israel by force if necessary.
Thus, more than a thousand Palestinian Security personnel have been stationed in the northern Gaza Strip and ordered by Abbas to shoot anyone who tries to carry out attacks or launch rockets towards Israel. Abbas’ action has not only brought about a dramatic reduction in the level of violence emanating from Gaza, but it provides a backhanded proof of the extent to which Palestinian terrorism was reliant on Yasser Arafat: Abbas is now demonstrating how Arafat could have reduced the amount of violence from the Palestinians at any time.
Adding to the sense of progress were the announcements by Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that they will obey Abbas’ orders and cease all attacks on Israelis. There are signs that Abbas is close to reaching a ceasefire agreement with Hamas and Islamic Jihad who are demanding political concessions including the release of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners and an Israeli halt to all military operations in Palestinian areas.
Israeli security officials have responded to the latest developments with cautious optimism, acknowledging that Abbas is making a real effort to halt attacks in Gaza. Yet while so far his efforts have been positive they also warn that the current calm is very fragile and could be shattered in an instant. Another source of worry is that while security forces have seen a substantial reduction in attacks carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, there is no doubt that they are continuing their efforts in manufacturing rockets and other devices for future use.
Abbas’ greatest virtue is that he is not Yasser Arafat. Hopes for peace and a better future for Palestinians will rest on his ability to overcome his predecessor’s legacy of corruption, mismanagement, terrorism, incitement and a philosophical incapacity to compromise for peace. Yet, Abbas’ narrow political base and the opposition he faces from both internal and external extremists determined to scuttle any peace prospects, makes his future uncertain.
Abbas faces a formidable agenda to lead his people away from Arafat’s destructive policies, which have only brought both the Palestinians and the Israelis four years of misery and turmoil. He must amass enough political power to create real governance in a society afflicted by armed gangs terrorising Palestinians as well as Israelis, warlordism, widespread corruption and minimal rule of law. He must quash the terrorist groups that are bent on scuttling the peace process and end the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement that has come to pervade the official Palestinian media, education system and mosques. He must also dismantle Arafat’s ideological legacy and convince his people that Israel has the right to exist, and that compromise and negotiations rather than terror are necessary for the peace that most Palestinians now crave.
If Abbas takes these steps, he will find an Israeli government eager to work with him to achieve a peace based on compromises acceptable to both peoples. Sharon has already shown his peaceful intentions by staking his political career on his plan to withdraw from Gaza and part of the West Bank, and has repeatedly stated that his goal is Palestinian statehood. Israeli opinion polls consistently show a comfortable majority of Israelis favour both the Gaza withdrawal plan and a peaceful two state resolution to the conflict Ð entailing painful compromises, once they are convinced they have a Palestinian partner genuinely committed to a negotiated settlement.