WASHINGTON — Despite expressing admiration for Hezbollah’s ability to strike Israel, Palestinians are working to distance themselves from the Lebanese militia in an effort to end the six-week Israeli onslaught against Gaza.
Israeli forces have pounded Gaza with more than 200 air strikes and 12,000 artillery shells since June 25, when Palestinian militants with ties to Hamas infiltrated Israel, killed two Israeli soldiers and kidnapped a corporal, Gilad Shalit.
During that time, more than 175 Palestinians were killed, including some 40 children and eight women, and more than 620 were injured in Gaza. In addition, the local economy is ruined. More than three quarters of the population in Gaza subsists on international food aid, with an intermittent supply of electricity and water.
Now, as the international community pushes for a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, popular pressure is mounting on the Hamas-led Palestinian government to strike a deal with Israel that would put an end to the suffering in Gaza. According to some critics of Hamas, the crisis underscores the degree to which it is beholden to Syria, which currently provides refuge to leaders of the Palestinian terrorist organization.
“It will be a small yet pleasant surprise for Israelis that criticism of Hamas’s military activity and of its policies has grown now, because our casualties have increased and because Hamas is too loyal to Syria,” Hasan al-Batal, a leading Palestinian thinker and columnist, told the Forward. Al-Batal, who is a Fatah loyalist and is close to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, added, “There is criticism of Hamas’s political ignorance and mulishness as compared to the political shrewdness of Hezbollah’s political leadership.”
According to Palestinian observers, Palestinians no longer want their cause hitched to Hezbollah’s current military fight, because they realize that Hezbollah and its leadership don’t have the ability to stand up to Israel’s superior military power.
“At first, following the kidnapping of Shalit, when Hezbollah kidnapped the two Israeli soldiers and put up a fight against Israel, Palestinians talked about piggy-backing on Hezbollah’s powerful performance,” said Samar Assad, executive director of Washington’s Palestine Center. Now, however, “there is a Palestinian realization that Israel’s conflict in Lebanon will go on for some time. And this is time the Palestinians don’t have. So there is a real sense of urgency to get things done and reach an agreement with Israel [promptly].” This mood in Palestinian public opinion was mainly the result of Israel’s use of overwhelming power, according to Israeli, Palestinian and American analysts.
Right after Hezbollah dragged Israel into war in Lebanon on July 12, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Web site of the daily Yediot Aharonot: “We are acting [in Gaza] in an unprecedented manner. We are firing hundreds of artillery shells, attacking from the air, sea and land — and the world remains silent.”
In addition to its artillery and air strikes against Gaza, the Israeli military has introduced a new method for demanding that Palestinians leave their homes to avoid civilian casualties (military commanders like to call it “magical phone,” after an old children’s show on Israeli television). An Arabic-speaking Israeli officer calls the land line or the cell phone of a Palestinian who is suspected of hiding weapons in his home. Politely, the stunned Palestinian is told that inhabitants of the home must clear the weapons or clear out before the structure is targeted.
These methods, combined with the ongoing shelling and bombing, have a strong psychological impact on Gazans, said Andrew Whitley, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, speaking from the agency’s New York headquarters. Gazans are terrified, worn out and constantly concerned about providing the very basics — food, water, medicines and electricity — for their families, Whitley said.
While in Lebanon, Israel still seems far from defeating Hezbollah into submission, in Gaza, militants are “on their knees” and under severe pressure from their constituents to put an end to the suffering, a senior Israeli military officer said this week. Palestinian public pressure is mounting to release the kidnapped Israeli soldier in exchange for a fair prisoner-swap, Israeli military sources said.
Such an agreement, according to Israeli, Palestinian and American sources, is expected to determine the terms of a prisoner exchange as well as a long-term cease-fire that would stop rocket launching from Gaza into Israel and suspend Israeli retaliation.
Last week, several senior Palestinians associated with the Fatah movement said that negotiations toward such an agreement are already under way. Nabil Sha’ath, a Palestinian parliament member who in the past was one of the P.A.’s chief interlocutors with Israel, told reporters in Gaza last week that negotiations have reached an “advanced stage.” Israel, he said, will release 700 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, and agree to a cease-fire in exchange for a cessation of rocket launching into Israel.
Though Hamas officials confirmed that negotiations through a third party were in motion, they were quick to clarify that the kidnappers — members of Hamas and of two unknown Palestinian groups — still insist on the release of about 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including some 100 who are serving life sentences for murdering Israelis during the past six years. According to Palestinian press reports, negotiations picked up significantly in recent days. Israel and Hamas differ on the number and identity of the prisoners who would be released in exchange for Shalit, Hamas officials were quoted as saying.
Palestinian moderates are putting pressure on Hamas to advance the negotiations by providing Israel with proof that Shalit is alive, but the kidnappers are refusing to do so, Palestinian sources said. Some of Hamas’s local leaders are reportedly eager to make a deal, but divisions between Fatah and Hamas, as well as within Hamas, are hindering any quick action.
“Even if Fatah leaders do reach an understanding with Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza [over a deal with Israel], it is not clear whether Hamas leadership in Damascus or the militants on the ground will abide by it,” said Peter Gubser, president of American Near East Refugee Aid. Based in Washington, the group runs programs mainly in the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas keeps bumping into the limits of its ability to govern effectively while refusing to recognize Israel or to disavow terrorism, said Amjad Atallah, founder and president of the Washington-based consulting firm Strategic Assessments Initiative, which works with Abbas’s office.
“Hamas may be democratically elected, but unlike Hezbollah, Hamas doesn’t have the ability to effectively fight Israel or to address, on its own, the needs of the public,” Atallah said. “So Hamas has an incentive to do its utmost to help bring about an agreement, take credit for releasing prisoners, and then go on to enforce a cease-fire.”
An agreement may provide Hamas with a short-lived boost. It will not, however, solve the Islamic fundamentalist movement’s chief problem: As long as it maintains an adversarial relationship with Israel, it will receive little cooperation from the world’s industrialized countries.
“Hamas is isolated and therefore has hardly any cash flow. Without cash, its ability to govern is very limited,” Gubser said. “And as time goes by, Palestinians are realizing just how limited it is.”