Saturday, 21 March 2009

Palestinian prisoners; Israeli diplomats

Palestinian prisoners; Israeli diplomats

By Gideon Rachman

August 2, 2007 10:35am

Life for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank is getting steadily worse. On Wednesday, an Israeli official told me that the Gaza economy is in a “state of total collapse”. Travel for Palestinians on the West Bank is incredibly arduous because of the huge number of Israeli road-blocks.

But – right now – many Palestinians seem more pre-occupied by the internal dispute between Hamas and Fatah than by the Israelis. I got a sense of the bitterness of the dispute when I visited Issa Qaraqe, a Fatah legislator, in his offices in Bethlehem.

Qaraqe runs the Palestinian Prisoners Association, which tries to look after the interests of the 11,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. He himself was imprisoned for 10 years and then released in 1993. On his office wall is a large poster of Bobby Sands, the first IRA hunger-striker to starve himself to death in a British prison.

But Qaraqe’s take on Hamas is almost as dark as the version you will get from the Israeli foreign ministry. He is not uncritical of his own organisation – and will admit that Fatah has committed human-rights violations and made huge political errors. But Hamas, he says, are Islamist fanatics and the tools of Iran. He says that while Fatah have a secular, democratic and nationalist view of the Palestinian problem, Hamas “approach the Palestinian issue as a religious question, not a national question.” He claims that Gaza is in the early stages of “Talibanisation” – and points to the destruction of the statue of the unknown soldier in Gaza, likening it to the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist statues.

This is all contentious stuff. Hamas officials point out they won democratic elections and they are at pains to present a moderate and welcoming face to the foreigners who are trickling back into Gaza. UN people and visiting journalists say that security in Gaza is much improved, since the Hamas takeover. But Qaraqe’s hardline take on Hamas accurately reflects the views of Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president. UN people say that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is even more insistent on cutting off Gaza economically than the Israelis.

All this leaves the Israelis themselves sitting pretty – at least for now. Few Israelis I’ve met seem to have any real expectations for the latest peace initiative, which they assume will run into the sand.

Israeli officials remain obsessed by the “Iranian threat” – in particular Iran’s support for Hamas and its nuclear programme. By contrast, they seem oddly relaxed about the debacle in Iraq. If the Israelis provoked the Iraq war – as many conspiracy theorists allege – they seem curiously detached about its disastrous outcome.

One official analyst explained that they cannot start producing internal papers about what will happen when the Americans pull out – because they will inevitably leak and cause embarrassment. But, when they focus on the problem, the Israelis do see plenty of reason to worry. In particular, they are anxious that the likeliest outcome is that the US leaves behind a weak Shia-led government that is in Iran’s pocket – thus hugely expanding Iran’s regional clout. And they blame the Americans na├»ve pre-occupation with democracy for this outcome. When I asked one Israeli official what the best outcome in Iraq would be, he replied – “Find a pro-western Sunni strongman, who will reconstitute the Baath party, hold the country together and keep Iran in check.” I don’t think he was joking.

It is very striking that the Israelis – at least at the level of diplomats and analysts - do not share the Bush administration’s belief in democracy promotion. The term “neo-con” is bandied about with as much contempt as in left-wing London salon. The Israelis see their region in cold, Kissingerian balance-of-power terms. They seem frustrated that America is not doing more to woo Syria away from Iran – something they once again blame on Bush’s tiresome crusade for democracy. As far as the Israelis are concerned, elections in their region have so far brought them an Iraqi government in Iran’s pocket and Hamas. They are not keen to press on with the experiment.

August 2, 2007 10:35am in Middle East

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