Abbas besieged


The fourth meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas ended in failure on Sunday after Sharon refused to release Palestinian prisoners and withdraw his army from Palestinian population centres.

Prior to the meeting which was held at Sharon’s residence in West Jerusalem, Abbas voiced deep frustration at Israel’s “lack of good will” and “procrastination”.

“We prepared the lists of our prisoners. We will know what is the Israeli response to that,” Abbas said. “They should give us the lists today. Any delay means procrastination and unwillingness to implement the roadmap.”

Abbas’s frustration was justified. During the meeting, Sharon not only refused to commit himself to release Palestinian prisoners, but he also refused to consider all other Palestinian demands. As a result, everything was deferred until further notice, and Sharon wouldn’t say why. He merely repeated that Abbas crack down on “terror” and dismantle the infrastructure of Palestinian resistance groups.

The Palestinian prime minister had hoped that Sharon would be forthcoming on such key issues as the redeployment of Israeli troops from Palestinian self-rule areas, ending the 18-month siege of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and lifting the restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement within the West Bank. In addition, the Palestinians want Israel to halt the construction of the “separation wall” which they rightly complain is reducing many of their towns and villages to virtual detention camps and inaccessible ghettos.

Reportedly, Sharon’s intransigence very nearly prompted Abbas to walk out of the meeting. One Palestinian official remarked that Sharon “is only making a show to give the impression that the two sides are talking and things are alright”.

PA official Sa’eb Ereikat remarked that Sharon was trying to please the Americans more than make peace with the Palestinians.

“They [the Israelis] admitted that there had been a drastic drop in violence and attacks of all kinds. But when we asked them to release the prisoners and leave our cities, they offered nothing and everything was deferred.”

Abbas’s failure to deliver achievements for his thoroughly tormented and indignant people is likely to create more problems for him in the coming weeks. The Palestinian premier had promised Hamas and other resistance groups that he would produce “results” in case they agreed to a “truce”. Although the truce has now been in effect and holding for nearly four weeks, very little tangible results are felt by the Abbas government and the Palestinian public.

Indeed, most Palestinians are still generally barred from travelling outside their immediate population centres, which continue to be encircled by Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Even Bethlehem, which the Israeli army “left” three weeks ago, now looks more a city under siege than a free town. The same holds true in the Gaza Strip where daily misery surpasses belief.

Abbas visited Cairo on 21 July and from there, from which he flew on to Amman. The aim of the visits was to brief President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan on his latest talks with Sharon. He reportedly alerted the two Arab leaders to the “grave consequences” of Sharon’s stone-walling and equivocation.

Having succeeded in convincing Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups to uphold the truce — and with his State Minister for Internal Security Mohamed Dahlan, succeeding in restoring a semblance of law and order in Bethlehem and Gaza — Abbas now feels he has done his part of the deal with Israel, at least for the time being.

Now he rightly feels it is Sharon’s turn to carry out his part. This is the message Abbas carried with him to Mubarak and King Abdullah II and will carry to President Bush when he arrives in Washington on 23 July.

It is not clear why Sharon has refused to carry out any further redeployment of Israeli troops from major Palestinian towns or even relax the crippling restrictions on Palestinian civilians. At this stage, both seem to be a prerequisite to the success, even survival, of the Abbas government.

Some observers here contend that Sharon is trying to test Bush’s resolve and personal commitment to the implementation of the roadmap before deciding to make his next move.

Some pundits believe that Sharon, who has never been enthusiastic about the roadmap, is trying to cause the collapse of the present truce with the Palestinians, and hence, the entire roadmap, but without bearing any responsibility or incurring any price for it. And he is pursuing this goal by doing what he does best, namely provoking the Palestinians.

There seems to be considerable evidence to support such a conclusion. Sharon continues to build Jewish settlements and bypass roads throughout the West Bank, notwithstanding the highly-publicised dismantling of a few settlement outposts. He goes on building what a growing number of Palestinians now describe as the “Satanic Wall” which is effectively ghettoising Palestinian towns and destroying the livelihood and future of tens of thousands of Palestinian families.

Moreover, Sharon is keeping intact the “closure” or “siege” of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps. In the process, he has suffocated what little is left of the Palestinian economy and reduced Palestinian population centres to large detention camps.

This utter misery is no where harsher than in the Gaza Strip where many ordinary Gazans have had to resort to begging.

Earlier this week, Jean Ziegler, UN special expert on the right to food, spoke of a “catastrophic humanitarian situation” in Gaza due to Israel’s repressive measures.

“There is a permanent, grave violation of the right to food by the occupying forces. There is a catastrophic humanitarian situation. Palestinian population centres are encircled by troops, preventing food being delivered and farmers threshing their fields,” he said.

Ziegler also cited the destruction and confiscation of fertile Palestinian land for military zones and Jewish settlements. “We saw thousands of olive trees destroyed by bulldozers,” he remarked.

Sharon’s reluctance to implement the roadmap, or at least relax the Israeli military grip on Palestinian civilians, suggests that Sharon will not “act” unless he is forced to do so by international, mainly American, pressure.

So the vital question now is whether President George W Bush, whose administration is facing mounting difficulties in Iraq and bracing for an election whose outcome is far from guaranteed, would be in a position to pressure Sharon into faithfully implementing the roadmap.

Indeed, Bush and his advisors might well calculate that exerting real pressure on Israel, which might alienate Jewish voters and, especially, Israel’s powerful Christian evangelical allies, would be counterproductive in the runoff to the coming presidential elections.

This is the question that might well decide the future of the present truce between Israel and the Palestinians, the roadmap and even, to a large extent, the very survival of the Abbas government.