By Khaled Ali
Rafah – Palestine
The funeral of Noran Iyad Deeb, 10, in Rafah refugee camp. Noran was killed by Israeli army gunfire in a schoolyard in the southern Gaza strip Monday, January 31, 2005
How strange it is for people in the Gaza Strip to see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hailed by the international media as a man of peace! In the last two weeks, his soldiers shot and killed 10-year-old Noran Iyad Deeb as she lined up for class in the fenced schoolyard of an UNRWA school in Rafah; a few days before, an elderly man was killed by Israeli soldiers in a Rafah border neighborhood; a day earlier, Israeli snipers shot and paralyzed a young man in Gaza City. And while all this is happening in Gaza, Sharon shakes hands with visiting diplomats, smiles, and makes hopeful statements about the peace process—statements that get duly reported in the media and acclaimed by the world.
Peace process! The words are tainted with irony for the people of Rafah. How, where, and when will this elusive peace come about? Who will create it? Can we look to Ariel Sharon for peace? The same man who has been giving orders to his army to shoot at random into civilian neighborhoods; target children in their houses, classrooms, and playgrounds; demolish houses by the hundreds; block roads; and destroy fields, farms, olive and citrus groves, as well as electricity and sewer and water systems. How exactly, people ask here, can this be considered peace? The people of Rafah can perhaps be forgiven if they are less than optimistic about the landmark meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon in Egypt on Tuesday, February 8.
Can we look to Ariel Sharon for peace?
It has many echoes of Abbas’s brief, unhappy tenure as Prime Minister, when he smiled for the cameras, met Sharon and Bush, and everyone spoke of “progress,” then nothing changed.
Nonetheless, senior Palestinian and Israeli officials met last Thursday to lay the groundwork for Tuesday’s landmark Middle East summit. The summit meeting itself was largely ceremonial; the agreements had already been hammered out privately before Abbas and Sharon met at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. The Palestinian negotiating team was headed by Saeb Erekat, who met with Sharon’s top advisors. Before the actual meeting, highly-placed Israeli officials stated on condition of anonymity that the two heads of state would declare an official cease-fire, that is, cessation of both Israeli military operations and Palestinian resistance.
Actually, President Abbas, in the few weeks since his election, had already persuaded the resistance factions to observe a “cooling down” period, although there has been little reciprocity from the Israeli forces. Further, he deployed 4000 members of the Palestinian Security Forces throughout Gaza to prevent militant rocket attacks on the Gaza settlements and Israeli towns in the Negev, close to Gaza.
The summit is, so far, the clearest sign of tangible progress in the peace process, which had completely stalled since the September 2000 outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada. From his election in February 2001, Sharon completely refused contact with then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, until, under heavy international pressure, Arafat appointed Mahmoud Abbas as his Prime Minister. Despite some pleasant photo ops and a meeting with US President Bush, Abbas resigned after three months, having accomplished virtually nothing.
Matters were further inflamed when Israel started a program of “extrajudicial assassinations” of Hamas leaders, and violence continued unabated through the death of Arafat in November of 2004. Abbas, elected to the presidency last month with a large majority, reached out to the militant factions during his campaign, both in his public appearances and private meetings. Although he has declared that he believes continued violence to be counterproductive to long-term Palestinian interests, he has refused—to the consternation of hard-line factions in the Israeli government—to launch an all-out crackdown on the armed resistance, preferring, instead, to win their cooperation through negotiation.
I don't believe what’s written in the newspapers or shown on television. I only believe what I see on the ground.”
He succeeded in achieving considerable calm; yet, the lack of mass arrests and forced disarmament has left some Israeli officials dissatisfied. On their part, Palestinians hoped that their new president would succeed—at the summit—in negotiating the release of a significant number of the 8000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Another issue of immediate importance is the transfer of security control in the West Bank to Palestinian forces.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was the official host of the summit, which was also attended by Jordan’s King Abdullah II. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Sharon and Abbas separately just days before the summit, and there were rumors she would be at the Egyptian meeting as well. Secretary Rice, however, said she would not attend because the US felt it was better for the regional powers to resolve matters on their own, promising, nonetheless, that the Bush Administration would be “very involved” in implementing the peace process. The day before the Egyptian summit, she appointed Lt. General William Ward, a serving general with many foreign tours to his credit, as special “security envoy,” who will work with the Palestinian Authority in reorganizing its police and coordinating security contacts with Israeli forces. In the past, such US “special envoys” attempted a diplomatic role; this appointment seems more pragmatic, and focused on satisfying Israel’s constant demand to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure.”
Despite official pronouncements, the recent shooting of a 10-year-old schoolgirl in Rafah has only deepened the skepticism of Gaza’s citizens. Whatever the politicians say to the press, the only thing that will impress the beleaguered people of Gaza is a real improvement in everyday conditions. “I don't believe in what I hear from the summit,” said a 42-year-old Gaza City resident. “I don't believe what’s written in the newspapers or shown on television. I only believe what I see on the ground,” he added.
Hani Habib, a Palestinian political analyst who teaches at Al Azhar University and writes for Gazan and Arabic newspapers, said that this Sharm El-Sheikh summit might differ from the past meetings that accomplished little. “This one,” he said, “has taken place against a background of very different conditions in Palestine, Israel and the US. America is going through difficulties in Iraq; its image in the Arab world is at an all-time low. If the Bush administration can restart peace negotiations and play a role in bringing about a Palestinian state, that will be to its advantage in the region. As for the Palestinians, they have a new president widely perceived as a moderate. Of course, Sharon’s declared intention to evacuate the Gaza settlements is a new factor. I think he has been surprised at the strength of the hard-line settlers’ opposition. Of course, this meeting in Egypt in and of itself won’t bring peace to Palestine, but it’s a start for laying out issues to be negotiated.”
Many are questioning whether Sharon and his advisors embraced Egypt’s invitation to a summit with Abbas to further the Israeli-Egyptian relationship more than Palestinian-Israeli relations. Mubarak has reversed past statements and is now declaring Sharon to be a man with whom the Palestinians can make peace, not to mention signing trade agreements with Israel.
The militant factions seem to view the summit with caution. Damascus-based Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal said that while his group is willing to maintain temporary calm, “the ball is in the Israeli court and what we are requesting is that Israel commits to stopping the aggression and freeing the detainees.” He emphasized that resistance groups in general, not just Hamas, are ready to accept a period of calm or a temporary truce. “However,” he said at a press conference, “given our earlier experiences, we don’t believe in Israeli commitments. In 2003, Israeli aggressions led to the failure of a three-month cease-fire declared by Palestinian factions,” Meshal told IslamOnline.net.
Abbas’s efforts to protect the illegal settlements in Gaza are massively expensive to the cash-strapped Palestinian authority, and it remains to be seen what Israel will actually do in return. Abbas’s cease-fire, Mubarak’s invitation, Sharon’s acceptance, Abdullah’s blessing, and Bush’s moral and financial support—all make for impressive photo ops and feel-good sound bites, but they have left untouched the most difficult issues the Israeli government has been carefully neglecting for years: The borders of a future Palestinian state, a just solution for the Palestinian refugees, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the status of Jerusalem.Khaled Ali is a freelance writer and photographer based in Palestine..