BEIRUT — The bomb attack against civilians in Tel Aviv on 17 April was no surprise, and the Israeli response of military and political strikes, and further economic strangulation of Palestinians, is equally predictable. In both cases, heartfelt but misguided actions will only accelerate the cycle of war between the two people. The danger that looms over the situation now is not more tit-for-tat punitive military strikes. It is the rapid transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a national to a civilizational one, with potentially dangerous linkages between events in Palestine-Israel and the rest of the Middle East.
It seems that little has changed in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The Hamas-led Palestinian government and the Kadima-led Israeli government both represent new political realities, focusing largely on their citizens’ domestic concerns about security, order, and socio-economic well-being. Hovering over them, however, is the monster of their century-old national conflict, represented by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Palestinian military and political resistance.
The 17 April attack and Israel’s expected response remind us that if we play by the failed old rules we will get failed old results, with a fairly steady kill ratio of four Palestinians to one Israeli. The failed old policies of Israel and the United States believed that daily hardship, ostracism and humiliation would render the Palestinians weak, desperate and amenable to any proposed unilateral Israeli plan. The reality has proved to be the opposite.
Palestinian weakness and acquiescence to Israeli dictates rendered the Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas governments virtually irrelevant, and powerless to control their own people. Israel’s disdain towards Palestinian rights generated only a greater will to resist Israeli oppression and colonial subjugation. The elections reflected this in the Hamas victory, sending two important messages: ordinary Palestinians want a government that gives them a sense of integrity, decency, normalcy and hope; and, peace with Israel, like the ongoing war, is a two-way process that needs concessions by both sides and cannot be achieved by Israel continuously humiliating the Palestinians.
The Hamas victory is about the Palestinian people’s determination to end acquiescence and colonialism. If the Israelis and Palestinians are to re-engage one day to make peace, they can only do so on the basis of two peoples with equal national rights. Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers and Israeli army attacks on Palestinian civilians and militants perpetuate the cycle of occupation and resistance, but without offering a way out of it. If we do not acknowledge the acts of both sides in this war, we will only exacerbate it, as is happening now.
Since its electoral victory, Hamas has insisted that armed resistance and attacks against Israelis are justified self-defense against a brutal occupation, though Hamas itself adheres to the truce it initiated over a year ago. Even if others carry out these attacks, however, Hamas is now held responsible. It cannot expect to be left alone as the Palestinian governing body, and be exempted from responsibility for other Palestinian groups’ attacks against Israelis. Incumbency brings responsibility and accountability.
All concerned must now make hard choices. Hamas and the Palestinian people must decide if they wish to pursue armed resistance or a path towards peaceful negotiations. They now say they wish to do both. Israelis for their part must decide if they want to negotiate peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, or try to impose a new status quo based on unilateralism, colonial land grabs, and militarism.
Israel, with American backing, is now on a course to destroy the Hamas-led government and the Palestinian Authority, as it has been doing for the past four years. Hamas is pursuing a policy that will help this process along, based on its diehard commitment to armed resistance to occupation as a right that it will not abrogate or curtail.
This path will have enormous regional consequences. It will discredit two important dimensions of recent Palestinian political change: the integrity and legitimacy of democratic elections, and Hamas’ decision to enter into mainstream governance at the local and national levels.
If the current Israeli-American policy prevails, with increasing European support, the collapse of the democratically elected Hamas-led government will send political shockwaves throughout the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of young people who pursued peaceful democratic politics will feel duped and betrayed, and will become radically disenchanted. The wellspring of support for Hamas- and Muslim Brotherhood-style democratic engagement will slowly dry up in favor of more intense armed struggle.
We should not be surprised then to see large numbers of young men and women shift from the path of electoral democracy to that of military attacks against civilians and official targets, along with more Bin Laden-style terrorism in a wider arena. They will conclude that Israel, the United States and Europe value Israeli rights more than Palestinian rights. They will stop wasting their time trying to achieve a redress of grievance through peaceful democratic politics or diplomacy, and instead fight the larger civilizational battle they see before them.
Bringing down the Hamas-led Palestinian government will not bring quiet and more Palestinian and Arab acquiescence. It will result in further radicalization, resistance and terrorism across the region.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright ©2006 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global