Abbas must confront terror groups

Colin Rubenstein

The Age – June 25, 2007

There can be hope only if Hamas is not a player in the Middle East.

THE blood-soaked Hamas victory in Gaza and break with the Fatah-controlled West Bank profoundly divides the Palestinian political landscape and further complicates Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.

Hamas is seeking to emulate Hezbollah’s Lebanon model, creating a terror statelet that constantly attacks Israeli civilians, but deters counter-intervention through fortifications and rocket stockpiles in civilian areas.

Hamas owes its 2006 election to Fatah’s corrupt, ineffective governance, which the late Yasser Arafat bequeathed and, being more effective at terrorism, which Arafat lionised. The collapse of the larger Fatah forces is also due to Arafat’s practice of ruling through competing, personally loyal, armed gangs rather than the rule of law.

This does not mean, as some imagine, that Hamas should be seen as a more disciplined Palestinian nationalist movement with an Islamic tinge. As its 1988 charter makes clear, it is explicitly a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical movement whose goal is to transform the Middle East into an Islamist caliphate, similar to that of the 7th century. Hamas believes it is both a sin against God and a violation of Muslim rights to recognise any non-Muslim sovereignty in any part of this land, which includes Israel. Thus Hamas could not establish peace with Israel. Indeed, sacked Palestinian PM Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said in April: “The issue of recognition of Israel has been settled once and for all ˜ recognition of Israel is out of the question.”

Hamas does say it could accept a “long truce” with Israel in exchange for Palestinian demands, but is also very explicit that the only permissible justification for any truce is to strengthen Muslim forces for future battles to liberate all of Palestine.

Some are arguing that Israel and the international community should now drop the three conditions they have established before recognition and aid can be restored to the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of past Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements. But Hamas will use any concession or truce to prepare for future rounds of violence and find a pretext to renew it when ready.

One election does not a democracy make; totalitarian movements have often attained power through democratic means. The Gaza coup, with its accompanying crackdown on non-Muslims and secular Fatah supporters, shows Hamas’ true stripes and casts doubt on the future prospects of free elections for Gazans. Elections confer the right to govern, not to make policy without accepting the consequences. As long as Hamas openly says it rejects the purposes for which the Palestinian Authority was established ˜ a state alongside, not instead of, Israel ˜ and the agreements leading to its establishment, the international community has both the right and responsibility to withhold support. As long as Hamas insists on regarding itself as at war with Israel, Israel has the right to respond by acting as if it is also at war with Hamas.

There may, however, be a silver lining. Perhaps President Mahmoud Abbas and the new Palestinian Authority emergency government will reform Fatah, creating an honest movement responsive to genuine Palestinians needs. Abbas’ appointment of the respected economist Salam Fayyad as prime minister and rejection of dialogue with Hamas on the grounds they are “murderous terrorist thugs” are certainly dramatic signs.

Aid and tax receipts are now flowing to the new cabinet, which may facilitate this process. Successful reforms may eventually allow for a credible deal to disengage Israeli troops and settlers from most of the West Bank, something the current Israeli government was elected to attempt.

Today’s summit of the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leadership in Sharm el-Sheikh may see Israel bring a range of concessions in the hope of safeguarding Fatah’s rule and hoped-for reformation.

These include stopping the hunt for Fatah-affiliated terrorists in the West Bank, allowing America to supply arms to Fatah and the removal of some security checkpoints. All these measures reduce Israeli security. Israel would once again be taking risks for peace. Hopefully this time around Fatah will reciprocate by acting on its commitments.

Perhaps Egypt, which is also threatened by a Hamas terror state, will decide to strengthen its efforts to prevent smuggling of arms, money and trained terrorists across the Gaza-Sinai border. That Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said last week that “Iran’s policies encouraged Hamas to do what it has done in Gaza and this represents a threat for Egypt’s national security” reflects the alarm all Sunni Arab governments now share concerning the destabilising role played by Iran and Syria, and their allies Hamas and Hezbollah. Pointedly Abul Gheit added: “This obliges Cairo to restrict its relations with Tehran.”

The follow-up to today’s summit will be crucial. Hopefully there will be concrete efforts to isolate Hamas from Iranian support and to assist Abbas in carrying out a serious plan to confront and dismantle terrorist groups, including Hamas, in the West Bank, and to reform governance.

Western policymakers, as they contemplate this new situation, must design policies that not only aid in achieving these prerequisites for progress, but also convince the apprehensive Arab states to seriously upgrade their efforts to match their self-interest with their rhetoric.

Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.