Why has Israel decided to release 250 Fatah members, but refuses to release 400 women and children? Especially when the release of the innocent civilians would lead to the release of its own soldier held captive by Hamas? Israel makes contradictory statements about this strange decision. In one sentence Israeli Prime Minister Olmert says the prisoners to be released are innocent of bloodshed, yet must promise to abandon violence: “As a gesture of goodwill toward the Palestinians, I will bring before the Israeli cabinet at its next meeting a proposal to free 250 Fatah prisoners who do not have blood on their hands, after they sign a commitment not to return to violence.” (What were they doing? Blowing up empty buildings?)
Is Israel asking them not commit violence against Hamas? Then instead of asking potential militants that Fatah can turn loose against Hamas, it should release noncombatants who would be of no help to Fatah in a war against Hamas. The answer seems obvious. Israel only considers violence to be violence when it is directed against Israel. Against Hamas, or Lebanon, or noncombatant Palestinians, (or against Fatah, for that matter—it wasn’t that long ago), it’s not violence.
Divide and conquer is a strategy as old as warfare itself, so one cannot fault the Israelis for employing it. (Look how easily and effectively it is being used against the Sunnis and Shi`a in Iraq!) However, one can, and should, fault the Palestinians for not seeing through it.
I have met Mahmoud Abbas, and he seemed to be reasonably intelligent. Thus, we must ascribe the ease with which he has been manipulated into permitting the internecine warfare among the Palestinians that has taken place on his watch to a lack of leadership on his part. Either he lacks the ability to enable the two main factions of Palestinian political society to work together for their people or has for whatever reason chosen to allow Israel and the Bush administration to take the lead in turning Palestinian violence inward.
The root of the problem is that neither Hamas nor Fatah has taken the democratic process seriously enough. When Fatah and Hamas each had been given control over one of the two branches of Palestinian government, both should have worked to protect the turf each had won fair and square. Instead Fatah sent in its security forces to marginalize Hamas and Hamas responded in full force to whup them at their own game. Now the embargo against the West Bank is being lifted while relief to much harder hit Gaza will be limited.
Now, 250 men in fighting condition will be freed to help further fuel the intra-Palestinian dispute, while 400 women and minors continue to languish in prison. We understand why this pleases the Israelis.
To give Hamas its due, they have tried to minimize the consequences of their own actions by insisting that they do not wish a rupture in the Palestinian government, that they hold power in Gaza on behalf of the PA, not in rebellion against it. They have offered a general amnesty to those who attacked them. Does Abbas reject this because he fears his religious co-nationals more than those who occupy his country? If he thinks of Hamas as religious fanatics, then why not call their bluff? You don’t have to be a genius to understand that your best chance of dealing with religious fanatics is to invite them to follow their profession. Or has he been bought off with the promise that he can spend all the tax money the Israelis have taken from all the people of Palestine (plus the promised foreign aid) and spend it on his political base in the West Bank without sharing any with the domestic opposition in Gaza? Or, does he understand the situation, but is simply too weak to do anything about it?
Whether the explanation lies in fear, greed, or weakness, the Palestinians and the Israelis will not be the only ones to suffer from these latest setbacks on the road to peace and justice. Al-Qaida and other extremists in the Muslim world will gleefully point to yet another failure of democracy in their recruitment campaign. The Neocons and other Islamophobes will gleefully remonstrate that force is the only language that these sub-human Muslims understand, and they will prescribe as medicine more of the poison that brought us to this point: more military intervention in the Muslim world and fewer civil liberties at home.
Minaret of Freedom Institute