No end to suffering for the Palestinians

For those people who follow events in the Middle East, particularly the plight of the Palestinians, the last week or so, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, has surely served up as grim a picture of despair as has been seen in the occupied territories since the second intafada (uprising) began in September 2000.

For those people who follow events in the Middle East, particularly the plight of the Palestinians, the last week or so, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, has surely served up as grim a picture of despair as has been seen in the occupied territories since the second intafada (uprising) began in September 2000.

The cause for despair is not the Israeli air strikes against buildings in Gaza killing scores of people, grim though the scenes are, but the reports of Hamas continuing to fire Qassam rockets at the nearest available Israeli town, Sderot. In themselves the rockets are fairly innocuous compared to Israeli reprisals; with only two Israeli fatalities compared to fifty-odd deaths in Gaza.

However it is what the rockets represent: a new low in the fortunes of Palestinian politics, that is the cause for despair.

The overwhelming victory for Hamas in last year's Palestinian Authority elections was a clear signal to the international community that the Palestinian people had had enough of Western promises that their rights would finally be respected, and the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank would cease.

In the first elections of their kind, the Palestinians voted for the militant party, Hamas, which had combined grassroots social activism with suicide bombings since its emergence in 1987, in preference to the US-favoured Fatah party of Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas appears to be modeled on the successful Hezbollah, which emerged out of the 1982 war in Lebanon as the new resistance, and is credited with driving the US out of Beirut in 1983 and Israel out of Lebanon in 2000.

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What are terrorists in the eyes of the West, represent the resistance in the eyes of the people in Lebanon and the Palestinian occupied territories. Unlike the old left-wing secular resistance groups in Lebanon and Palestine, these organisations have combined Islamic asceticism, military training and social welfare activism to produce an army that has a strict moral code of conduct and a programme for establishing a wider social order. This social discipline has made them popular in areas where criminality is a serious problem, and stands them apart from their more established Fatah rivals that are perceived by many as being corrupt.

Although nominally opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, as defined by their charter, which will not recognise the right of non-Muslims to own land in Palestine, Hamas has nonetheless stated that its national goal is to establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, which is an implied recognition of Israel if not, in fact, an explicit one.

Hamas' refusal to renounce violence, it contends, is based on an inalienable right to resist an occupying force and points to the fact that Fatah had made such denunciations and yet had failed to achieve progress toward an Israeli withdrawal. Hamas has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate, and indeed had actually maintained a ceasefire with Israel from March 2005 until June 2006 before an Israeli shell killed several civilians on a Gaza beach.

As soon as Hamas had won the elections, though, in January 2006, Israel, the US and the EU were soon trying to undermine it, firstly by withdrawing funding for the Palestinian Authority, thus leaving the entire civilian administration without pay, and more recently by training and funding security forces from the opposing Fatah organisation.

Although the two rival groups did succeed in forming a unity government in March this year, the bitter in-fighting over who controls the security forces and police within the West Bank and Gaza has remained fragile. The latest outbreak of fighting between the groups points to the deep divisions between the two organisations and the fragile nature of the Palestinian Authority which many believe is close to collapse.

The great tragedy for the Palestinians in all of this is that their internal politics are in disarray, compounding ever-declining fortunes in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. The fact that Hamas has grown in popularity in proportion to Fatah's decline, indicates that Palestinian patience with negotiated settlements has virtually evaporated. This isn't to say, though, that Hamas would reject a political settlement but, judging by the reaction of Israel and the West so far, it seems unlikely that it will be given much opportunity to reach one. For the time being then, open confrontation is likely to be the order of the day, delaying yet further the likelihood of any kind of political arrangement that might bring some measure of relief to the long-suffering Palestinians.