January 5, 2009

Palestinian President 'Abbas Calls for Ceasefire

Mahmud 'Abbas (Photo-AFP/Omar Al-Rashidi)In an interesting turn of events, Palestinian President Mahmud 'Abbas will travel to New York to press the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for an immediate end to Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip and a permanent ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. That ceasefire will include an international observer force to monitor the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

'Abbas's proposed ceasefire raises a whole host of issues, not the least of which is his standing among the people of Gaza and Hamas, the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian people. 'Abbas was elected to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in 2005; his current term ends on January 8, 2009. Hamas has said they will not recognize his authority after that date.

'Abbas may hold the title of President, but in reality, he exercises power only in the West Bank since his Fatah party was forcibly ousted from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants in June 2007. That move in effect created two Palestinian states: a quasi-Islamic fundamentalist state in Gaza run by Hamas, and a secular state run by Fatah in the West Bank. Given that split and the animosity of Hamas towards 'Abbas and Fatah, why is 'Abbas pushing for a cease-fire that allows Hamas to continue its rule in the Gaza Strip?

Perhaps 'Abbas realizes that unless Israeli troops completely annihilate Hamas - which is extremely unlikely - the Islamic group will emerge with much more domestic political capital than before the Israel military operation began. Conversely, Fatah has almost no chance of regaining a foothold in Gaza. If 'Abbas wants to retain any influence in the Palestinian leadership, he must have a political victory that benefits Hamas. Arranging a ceasefire that stops the killing in Gaza might do the trick.

Some background is in order. Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, was able to win the parliamentary elections in January 2006 not because people were enamored with Hamas, but because a majority of people were no longer willing to tolerate the corruption of the Fatah-dominated government.

Under Hamas, however, things continued to deteriorate. Unemployment soared as the United States, Canada and the European Union stopped providing funds to the Palestine National Authority. Israel clamped down on the Gaza Strip, causing shortages and economic hardships. Hamas was able to claim that all the area's economic problems were caused by the Americans, Europeans and Israelis, deflecting scrutiny from their inability to govern and efforts to introduce more Islamic jurisprudence into the legal system.

'Abbas has his work cut out for him. He has to carefully craft a ceasefire resolution that is acceptable to the Security Council, a difficult task. Any condemnation of Israel in the resolution will surely be vetoed by the United States. If he is successful in New York, he will then have to sell it to Hamas who is on record as opposing any arrangement forced on them that includes international monitors.

'Abbas's proposed resolution just might be the answer, and will likely be acceptable to the Israelis. The question is - will it be acceptable to Hamas?