Sami Abdel-Shafi: A referendum could heal the Palestinian rift

Let Palestinians themselves speak on the recognition of Israel's right to exist
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The Independent Online

Palestinians, who have had to endure Israel's siege on their freedom of movement and economic activity, have also been faced with sharp disagreements between Hamas and Fatah. Silence about the detailed status of talks between Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government increases the sense of neglect that many feel at a time when the need for a resolution of their disagreements is crucial. Palestinians and the watching world must be unambiguously informed of what both parties propose to end the multiplying crises in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The publicised results of the meeting in Damascus last Sunday, between the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas's politburo chief Khaled Mashal were too bland to ease the critical state of Palestinian affairs. And the blast that damaged the offices of the Arabic satellite news channel Al-Arabiya in Gaza City on Tuesday night removed what little hope there was in the assurances that they would be able to restore law and order.

Some think that a unity government between Hamas and Fatah may be rendered unnecessary by the holding of early presidential and parliamentary elections, as called for last December by President Abbas. But, if early elections were held over the objections of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, their outcome would probably be unsustainable.

As a result, violent confrontations between Fatah and Hamas could resume; and a practical split in authority could lead to a Fatah-centric, side-government sprouting in the West Bank. Hamas would continue to govern in the Gaza Strip while East Jerusalem would face an uncertain destiny.

If agreement cannot be reached between Hamas and Fatah, let Palestinians themselves speak on the recognition of Israel's right to exist, the issue that has become so divisive. Perhaps, a public referendum could be held with the sole question being whether Palestinians recognise Israel's right to exist, provided that Israel recognises theirs as well.

If nothing else, despite such recognition having been signed in an agreement between the PLO and Israel years ago, such reaffirmation would clarify to politicians of both parties as to where the Palestinian mindset lies and would ease their way forward. The Palestinian parliamentary elections, held in January 2006, were not meant to answer such questions, nor were they expected to.

Considering that Palestinians have survived more than 50 years of Israeli military occupation, the issue of the international financial boycott has been exaggerated. Although it strangled public spending, this 10-month boycott is not the culprit. Rather, it is Israel's confinement of Palestinians over several years and its withholding of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax and customs monies owed to them.

The recent disgraceful violence among Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, is entirely their responsibility. Accountability, however, substantially rests with Israel's government for setting the stage for it in this virtual prison. Israel cannot remain a spectator in the current situation, conveniently using it to justify whatever policies it embarks on, and citing Palestinian incompetence to manage or even agree on unified governance.

Still, Israel sports its "benevolence". In their summit held on 23 December, in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert promised President Abbas a reduction of Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank, and the release of about $100m of Palestinian customs and tax monies withheld by Israel. Many applauded not knowing that the $100m, which in fact was released on 18 January, amounted to less than 20 per cent of the total withheld by Israel, to date. The dozens of military checkpoints, even if all lifted, represent less than 10 per cent of reportedly more than 400 checkpoints all over the West Bank, not to mention the separation wall.

Continuing to be besieged by air, land and sea, it would be exceedingly unlikely that Palestinians would be able to be calm enough to negotiate themselves out of their fateful impasse. Israel must release its grip over Palestinian movement and hopes for economic development. This is what Israel unconditionally owes the Palestinian people and what will help them intrinsically resolve their ordeal.

Among the most deceptive scenes of unrest is that of a Palestine where endless violence and infighting captures not only negative world opinion but also paralyses the Territory's own public and officials. The deception lies in the fact that the scene has been staged by an outsider who has become a spectator. If Israel truly wants peace it must engage fully with the Palestinians.

sami.abdelshafi@emergeconsultants.com

The writer is a senior partner at a management consultancy in Gaza City

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