Friday, June 19, 2009

Gilad Shalit, the Red Cross and what we can expect from the international community

Litmus test


Hamas is practically throwing itself at Barack Obama, viewing him as more "sensitive" than his predecessors. Ahmed Yussef, the movement's coquettish liaison to the West, said this week the Islamists will "do anything" for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Well, not quite anything.

Unlike the PLO, Hamas will not support a two-state solution. Apart from that, its stance is indistinguishable from Mahmoud Abbas's. Hamas and the PLO agree that Israel must withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Lines; and that Israel must grant four million or so descendants of the 650,000 Palestinian Arab refugees from Israel's War of Independence the right to "return" to Israel proper.

Where they part company is over what to offer Israel. Abbas proposes accepting Israel's existence; Hamas offers a period of extended "quiet." Neither acknowledges any Jewish civilizational connection to this land, both seeing us as temporary interlopers.

Hamas is following in the footsteps of the Palestinian National Council, the PLO's ruling body, which on June 9, 1974 adopted a plank - known as the "phased plan" - which authorized Palestinian leaders to take custody of "any territory from which the occupation withdraws."

Like the PLO, when it was shedding its image of absolute rejectionism, Hamas is making inroads toward greater international acceptability.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers, led by France, steered clear of reiterating the Quartet's principles - that Hamas forswear violence, recognize Israel and accept previous PLO agreements with Israel.

And on Tuesday, former US president Jimmy Carter was in Gaza claiming to be carrying a message from Obama. Flanked by American and Palestinian flags, he held a news conference with Ismail Haniyeh during which the Hamas premier received Carter's backing for lifting the "siege" of Gaza. Israel was treating Gazans "more like animals than human beings," the ex-president lamented. Turning the Quartet's principles on their head, Carter told The New York Times that "first of all, Hamas has to be accepted by the international community as a legitimate player... and that is what I am trying to do today." Carter said he was shattered by what Israel had done to Gaza with warplanes "made in my country."

The Obama administration is, reportedly, also leaning hard on Israel to lift the blockade, which limits the type of supplies permitted into the Strip - cement and iron, for instance, which have civilian and military uses. The US and EU are confident of international monitors effectively guaranteeing that Hamas does not use these materials for its war machine; experience suggests the confidence is sadly misplaced.

Israel routinely channels in tons of food and commodities - even cash to keep the local economy afloat. Yesterday, it allowed in 115 truckloads of aid and commercial goods.

Clearly, this kind of "siege" won't break Hamas. So the Netanyahu government needs to rethink whether the security and deterrence benefits of our limp-wristed blockade are worth the diplomatic costs.

ISRAEL has demonstrated innumerable goodwill measures in the West Bank to "help Abu Mazen." But the claim that capitulating to Hamas in Gaza, out of exasperation over their intransigence, will facilitate the prospects of genuine peace is unconvincing.

Gaza is a test case for what Israelis can expect should Hamas win next January's tentatively scheduled Palestinian elections. The lesson so far is that the Islamists are apt to choose belligerency over coexistence, even if it causes their own people to suffer; and that the international community will side with the Palestinians on the grounds that the people should not be punished for the policies of its elected leaders.

Having been clobbered during Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has for now stopped firing rockets into Israel, though it seems curiously unable to prevent infiltration attempts by other groups. Meanwhile, it continues to rearm, even if fewer weapons may be making it through the Philadelphi Corridor tunnels, thanks to enhanced Egyptian vigilance.

On Thursday, the Red Cross asked to see IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, now three years in Hamas captivity.

If the international community cannot influence Hamas to comply with so basic a humanitarian request, how can it credibly guarantee Hamas's behavior once sanctions are lifted?

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