Back in Sharon’s court

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After weeks of “constructive dialogue” with the new Palestinian government, coupled with active but behind the scenes “encouragement” from Egypt, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) has finally voiced a willingness to observe a cease-fire with Israel.

The extraordinary move is still being deliberated among Hamas leaders but a formal announcement to that effect is expected within a week. PA Minister of Culture Ziad Abu Amr, who has led the dialogue with Hamas, declared that the two sides were close to reaching an agreement.

Hamas leaders also spoke positively of a looming agreement, suggesting that the movement would soon agree to refrain from carrying out bombings inside Israel if the Israeli army stopped killing Palestinian civilians and halted assassinations targeting political and resistance activists. Hamas is further demanding that the Israeli army stop its daily practices of house demolitions and destruction of Palestinian farms, roads and infrastructure.

One point of contention remains however. The PA wants all armed activities both inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories to be halted. While Hamas doesn’t completely reject the PA request, the movement insists that it can’t — and won’t — give up the right to resist the Israeli occupation army. PA Premier Mahmoud Abbas reportedly asked Hamas to give him a few weeks to get Israel to agree to pull its occupation forces out of Palestinian population centres, as stipulated in the roadmap steps.

For its part, Israel does not seem pleased with the impeding agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian government. Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his even more hawkish Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, continued to demand that the PA “wage a determined war against the terror groups and begin to destroy their infrastructure”.

This message was conveyed to Abbas during his Saturday meeting with Sharon in Jerusalem. Abbas, reportedly, politely but firmly rejected the demands, indicating that he prefers to employ “persuasion” rather than “force” with Hamas. During the meeting, Sharon also demanded that PA Security Chief Mohamed Dahlan arrest “the terrorists”. Dahlan reportedly angrily replied that there were no jails left in territories since the Israeli army had destroyed all prisons and police stations. Baffled by Dahlan’s response, Sharon then joked that “perhaps we could let you rent some of our jails”.

Hamas’s ostensible acceptance of a truce with Israel is seen as a shrewd feat stemming from a smart reading of the regional and international geopolitical realities. The movement had apparently calculated that it is not wise or expedient to appear as the one force that is obstructing the implementation of the roadmap, now touted as the only game in town.

Such a posture would certainly invite more American hostility and further Israeli repression. It would also place Hamas on a collision course with the PA and probably undermine its growing popularity among Palestinians.

More importantly, Hamas’s perceived or real moderation would presumably ease Israeli and American pressure on the Abbas government and enable it to more forcefully demand an end to Israel’s reoccupation of the Palestinian territories.

In the end, Hamas’s acceptance of a cease-fire with Israel would throw the ball back into Sharon’s court and probably deprive the Israeli premier of one of his chief propaganda tools, namely the Palestinian resistance.

Hamas meanwhile is not about to abandon its stance against the Israeli occupation and its determination to end it by all means necessary. The movement actually had dismissed the Sharon-Abbas meeting earlier this week as a “tempest in a tea-cup”.

Hamas also warned Abbas against “getting stung from the same snake-pit twice”.

“The important thing is not what Sharon says, but what his occupation forces do on the ground,” said leading Hamas Spokesman Ismael Haniyyeh.

What Hamas actually fears most is a replay of the “Oslo-scenario” whereby a new spate of Israeli procrastination, prevarication, equivocation and outright deception would force the new Palestinian government into another maze of endless political bargaining. This fear is actually shared by the PA itself as well as by the vast majority of Palestinians, who are eager not to repeat the fiasco of the Oslo.

And nobody helps enforce and deepen Palestinian suspicions and frustrations more than Israel itself. For soon after the Sharon-Abbas meeting, both Israeli officials and the press began disseminating reports about “easing restrictions on Palestinian movements” and lifting the 33- month-old closure of major Palestinian towns and villages.

The whole thing was nothing more than a public relations stunt intended for international consumption. The truth of the matter was that the restrictions remained intact and, in some cases, even tightened. The contradiction between what Israel was announcing and the reality on the ground frustrated the Palestinians further, prompting many if not most ordinary Palestinians to conclude that Sharon is viewing the roadmap more as a PR exercise and less as a serious peace plan.

Needless to say, this seemingly collective pessimism is being enforced by continued, even unmitigated Israeli repression, violent incursions, and terror against Palestinian civilians.

On 2 June, the Israeli army reinvaded Ramallah, declaring it a closed military zone and imposing a strict and curfew on its 120,000 inhabitants.

The humiliating repression provoked disillusioned Palestinian youngsters to hurl stones at Israeli occupation troops who responded with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and eventually real bullets.

One disgruntled youngster reflected the widespread feeling of indignation. “We are human beings, not animals, they (the Israeli army) can’t just order us to get inside the cage whenever they feel like it, we wont obey them, even if it means our death,” he said.

The fresh invasion of Ramallah also coincided with another fresh reinvasion of Tulkarm, where an earlier curfew was tightened even further. Moreover, the closure of Nablus, the largest West Bank town was also reinforced, preventing thousands of Palestinians from returning to their homes.

Meanwhile in the Gaza strip, the killing and maiming of Palestinian civilians continued unabated, although at a relatively milder pace. Palestinian sources reported that Israeli forces killed at least seven Palestinians this week, including two children and a Palestinian police officer. Several more children were seriously injured in Rafah in southern Gaza and Beit Hanoun in the north, in indiscriminate Israeli shelling and residential Palestinian areas.

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