The embers smoulder

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The latest crisis between PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his Premier Mahmoud Abbas had just been resolved when Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman arrived in Ramallah on Tuesday. Which is not to say that Suleiman’s mission is now redundant. On the contrary Suleiman found many smouldering embers which, left unattended, could easily burst into flames capable of consuming the fragile truce between Palestinian resistance groups and Israel.

Before Suleiman’s arrival Hamas had warned that it would resume the armed struggle if Israel continued its attempts to subjugate the Palestinian people rather than negotiating with them in good faith.

While it is not certain if the warning is serious it is amply clear that Hamas — and especially its more radical leaders — feel increasingly deceived, not to say threatened, by Israel’s stalling and equivocation on such key issues as the release of Palestinian POWs and withdrawal from Palestinian population centres.

“We will not allow ourselves to be deceived again. We learned many lessons from the bitter experience of the Oslo years. We shall not fall in the same trap twice,” said Hamas leader Abdul-Aziz Al- Rantisi.

Rantisi, who on 10 June narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt, was referring to Israel’s refusal to address, much less meet, Palestinian grievances. These include Israel’s refusal to release Palestinian prisoners, the daily arrest by Israeli forces of Palestinian activists, draconian restrictions on Palestinian movement and Tel Aviv’s insistence on completing the separation wall being built inside the West Bank which is effectively reducing many Palestinian population centres to detention camps and inaccessible ghettos.

Israel has said repeatedly said it will not free the vast bulk of Palestinian prisoners because they have “Jewish blood on their hands”, claiming many of them are affiliated with organisations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Needless to say, Israel’s provocative stance has infuriated the Palestinian public forcing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and even Fatah to warn that “our patience has limits”.

Realising the sensitive nature of the prisoners’ plight and its potential ramifications on the peace process — and on the survival of the Abbas’ government — the PA has appealed to Washington to pressure Israel into reconsidering its position.

Abbas reportedly conveyed the same message to Omar Suleiman, warning that Israel’s failure to release Palestinian prisoners could spell the end of the truce and, consequently, of the peace process.

“It is the Israelis, not us, who are violating the truce. This situation cannot continue. We are carrying out our part of the deal, they must carry out theirs,” said Abbas prior to his meeting with Suleiman.

The bad news is that Israel is showing no signs of changing its mind, not on the prisoners, not on the wall, and not on its overall treatment of the Palestinians.

This week the Israeli army once more sealed off Ramallah, ostensibly to demonstrate to the “free” Palestinians that their situation is not that much better than that faced by those incarcerated in Israeli jails.

The pretext for the curfew was the disappearance of an Israeli taxi driver several days ago. Israel accused “Palestinian elements” of kidnapping the 52-year-old with the intention of using him as a bargaining chip over the release of Palestinian POWs.

The main Palestinian resistance groups have all denied involvement in the affair while Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have appealed for the immediate release of the Israeli man. In a further display of good will Abbas telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, offering to help the Israeli army locate the missing driver.

The curfew was also aimed at locating a “dangerous Irish terrorist” and “bomb- maker” the Israel media claims is hiding somewhere in the West Bank.

The “dangerous terrorist and bomb- maker” turned out to be a reporter and peace activist and the fabricated story, several observers have suggested, was a PR spin timed to coincide with Sharon’s visit to London.

Meanwhile, an Israeli court in Tel Aviv condemned moderate Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to another six months of solitary confinement.

Barghouti, scheduled to testify on Monday, 14 July, refused to do so, arguing that his trial had been staged from A-to-Z and that the outcome was predetermined. There was no point in his testifying, he argued, because there was no possibility he would receive a fair trial.

The imprisoned Palestinian leader, who supports a peace settlement based on a two-state solution and the land-for-peace formula, supported his argument by quoting Israel’s fundamentalist Attorney- General Elyakim Rubenstein, who had referred to Barghouti two weeks earlier as an “architect of mass-murdering terrorism” and “a terrorist”.

Barghouti reiterated his longheld position that Israeli courts have no jurisdiction over the Palestinian people: “You are an occupying power and we are resisting your illegal occupation. This doesn’t make us criminals,” he reportedly told the Israeli judge.

Barghouti, who played a key role in getting the Palestinian resistance groups to agree to the truce with Israel, has also protested his “squalid” detention conditions.

He has complained that he is detained in a tiny, solitary cell, infested with cockroaches, has been denied medication and prevented from seeing his wife and children.

To which an Israeli prison warden retorted: “This is nothing. You are receiving royal treatment.”

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