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The real obstacle to Middle East peace

By Eric Ruder | September 19, 2003 | Page 7

RECENT WEEKS have proven that the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the state of Israel. Faced with the meager demands of the U.S.-backed "road map," the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not only refused to commit to dismantling Jewish-only settlements in the Occupied Territories, but it tightened its economic blockade of Palestinian areas and continued to demolish Palestinian property to build a separation wall.

When the "threat" of continued negotiations persisted, Israeli forces carried out a string of targeted assassinations of leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas, a policy that broke the ceasefire and was sure to provoke--and did provoke--a violent response.

The killings have pushed Hamas into the spotlight, with Israeli officials declaring that Hamas leaders are "marked for death." As a result, the organization's prestige has grown among Palestinians.

It isn't that people are drawn to Hamas' Islamic worldview. Rather, they respect Hamas' determination to resist Israel's occupation despite intense repression. And further contributing to its credibility is the desperate poverty of the Occupied Territories, which has forced many Palestinians to rely on Hamas' network of social service organizations.

The great irony is that Sharon's right-wing Likud Party once nurtured the growth of the Islamic Association--which launched its armed wing Hamas in 1987 during the first Intifada, or uprising. In 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved an application from Sheik Ahmed Yassin--the very man who Israel tried and failed to assassinate in early September--to register his newly formed organization, a newspaper and a fundraising operation.

Begin hoped to use the Islamic Association to undercut Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose widespread support was based on a secular and radical political appeal. With the help of Israeli funding channeled through the Village Leagues--a system of local councils headed by Palestinians handpicked by Israel--the Islamic Association built mosques, schools and medical clinics and set up other social services.

In 1987, frustration with Israel's occupation boiled over in the first Intifada. Arafat sought a compromise with Israel based on negotiations. For the first time since the founding of Israel in 1948, the leadership of the liberation struggle accepted the principle of a Palestinian state in only part of Palestine--an immense compromise.

Sensing an opportunity to seize the initiative from Arafat, the Islamic Association launched an armed wing, Hamas, to carry out military operations. This further increased Arafat's enthusiasm for what would become the Oslo "peace" process--because the negotiations assured that he would remain at the center of political influence.

This dynamic also illustrates the logic of Israel's strategy toward Palestinian politics--back the weakest camp in the hopes of finding a willing collaborator to deliver complete surrender.

Most recently, Israel supported former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, demanding that he disarm Hamas--even as Israeli forces assassinated Hamas leaders. Abbas' powerlessness--and ultimately, his resignation as prime minister after his popular support sank to nothing--underscored the reality that Israel has shown no interest in any compromise that might actually deliver even a weak and dependent Palestinian state.

The only negotiations that Israel cares about are those that lead to total capitulation--or at least play for time while Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories continue to spread. If the majority of Palestinians today support Hamas and its policy of retaliating against Israel, it is because of the barbarism of Israel's crackdown--and because the secular nationalism of Arafat has been unable to deliver anything substantial through "peace" agreements.

None of this makes it into the statements of U.S. politicians--or the reports of the American mainstream media. To the Washington establishment, all Palestinian suicide bombings are alike--even though some have been against legitimate military targets, such as the September 9 attack outside the Tzrifin military base that killed seven Israeli soldiers and wounded two dozen more.

More generally, any instance of Palestinian violence is written off as "terrorism," while Israel's state-sponsored terror--carried out with the highest-tech weapons that Washington can provide--is portrayed as the "legitimate use of force." The roots of this bloody conflict--Israel's colonial occupation of Palestine, and the incredible poverty and oppression that Palestinians suffer as a result--are hidden. There will never be peace in the Middle East without justice for Palestinians.

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