The Palestinians’ Defining Moment
Throughout their century-long struggle, the Palestinians have had many defining moments. Yet they were mostly squandered for a variety of reasons; the most pervasive of these has been a lack visionary leadership that could seize the moment. As the Palestinians prepare to go the ballot box next January to elect new leaders and as Israel gears itself for general elections sometime within one year from now, the Palestinians, once again, face a defining moment: Will they rein in Hamas and in so doing change the dynamic and the outcome of both elections, or will they leave their fate in the hands of a ruthless terrorist group bent on destroying the peace process; and with it, the possibility of statehood anytime soon?
Recent negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to reach an agreement on ending the suicide bombings have failed. Hamas insists that violent resistence to Israel's very existence (not simply to the Israeli occupation) must continue until the enemy state is destroyed. But for mainstream Palestinians, this position represents nothing less than the kiss of death to their dreams of ending the Israeli occupation and gaining statehood. Fully aware of the direct correlation between the level of violence and its political fallout, both in Israel and among the Palestinian people, Hamas's leadership is determined to keep up the heat. The pursuit of this strategy, which provokes Israeli retaliation, nurtures anti-Israeli sentiments, thereby bringing Hamas more supporters and active recruits. In Israel, this strategy of continuous terrorism, especially the suicide bombings, further strengthens Israel's right-wing parties and will probably lead to the reelection of Prime Minister Sharon or the return of Natanyahu to power. Either outcome will effectively end any prospect for a peaceful solution which of necessity requires Israeli withdrawal from nearly all of occupied territories, to which right-wing parties ideologically object. This end is precisely what Hamas hopes to achieve and will most likely happen if the Palestinian Authority does not immediately rein in Hamas in one form or another.
The recent killing of a security officer of Arafat's PA by a Hamas member avenging the death of his brother–allegedly slain a year ago by the officer–has brought the conflict between Hamas and the PA to a boil. While searching for the murderer, who was being sheltered by Hamas, four more Palestinians were killed in clashes between Hamas and the PA. How this conflict will eventually end is hard to tell, but one thing has been made painfully clear: The real struggle is for the Palestinian national identity, and the real battle is for the allegiance of the Palestinians in the streets.
Once again the PA finds itself at a fateful crossroads. Its leaders must choose between the continuation of the status quo, and so play into the hands of Hamas and destroy any chance for a durable peace, or stop Hamas by whatever means available-co-opting its supporters politically or subduing them through the use of force. Needless to say, civil strife and bloodshed among Palestinians needs to be avoided as long as violence against Israel is also brought to an end. But the Palestinian security forces cannot sacrifice the prospects for peace with Israel in order to avoid clashes with Hamas, regardless of the costs. Cessation of the violence and calmer streets will undoubtedly boost the prestige of those leaders representing mainstream Palestinians, but more importantly, it will send a clear message to Israel about the Palestinian intent.
Israeli elections have traditionally been affected by the behavior of the Palestinians, particularly the current level of violence directed against Israel. Mainstream Palestinian leaders must remember that they need to focus on swaying a majority of Israelis to elect a leader who will resume the peace process, end the occupation, and support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Violent hostilities against Israel must, therefore, end immediately to give the Israeli electorate time to digest the new situation and be persuaded to elect a leader from the Labor camp with such a political orientation who also has the support of the left-of-center and left. In words and deeds, the Palestinians must demonstrate that they have given up the idea of destroying Israel in stages and have finally accepted the reality of the Israeli state. Although regrettably at a terrible cost to the Palestinians, Mr. Sharon has made significant contribution by forcing most of them to finally admit to themselves that Israel is here to stay and that no amount of force can alter this reality. Even though the Israeli election may occur in a few months or at the most a year from now, after more than two years of heinous violence that have shattered the last vestige of trust between the two peoples, the Palestinians now have to begin a major public relations campaign to change the Israelis' hearts and minds; time is of the essence here.
Whereas most of the responsibility to end the violence falls on the Palestinian leadership and their security apparatus, the Sharon government must for its part avoid any provocation and so make it possible for Palestinian security forces to do their job. Sharon cannot have it both ways. He cannot expect complete cessation of hostilities while Israeli targeted killing continues, with scores of innocent civilians paying with their lives. Inflaming the Palestinian streets with daily funerals runs contrary to Israel's strategic thinking on how to end the violence.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians, on their side, must realize that no Israeli government will sit at the negotiating table and discuss an end to the occupation when Israelis too have to bury their dead daily. Thus, the Palestinian people and their leadership have to realize that hiding behind the cover of martyrdom is a self-fulfilling false prophecy because it defeats their aspirations. The so-called martyrs have all died in vain and did not salvage or redeem a single living soul from sub-human conditions and despair. An overwhelming majority of Israelis still want to make peace; it is now up to the Palestinians to convince them that they share the same desire. This is another defining moment for the Palestinian leaders: Will they miss this chance too?