As the financial screws tighten on the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, the pace of the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah appears to be increasing. Armed intra-Palestinian clashes have become more frequent until Hamas, in the last few days, seems to have temporarily pulled its forces back.
Most dramatically, Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has given Hamas an ultimatum: endorse the "prisoners' document" for Palestinian "reconciliation" or he will ask the people to ratify that Hamas-Fatah agreement in a referendum.
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Israel, while not responding to the referendum idea directly, will reportedly allow some "light" weapons from Arab countries to be transferred to Abbas's "presidential guard," known as Force 17.
What is going on here, and what should Israel do about it?
The prisoners' document, concluded by Fatah and Hamas terrorists in an Israeli prison, actually captures well what the fight is about. Point 1 of the document is, "The Palestinian people... are seeking to liberate their lands and achieve freedom, the right of return, and independence, including
the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on all the territories occupied in 1967." [emphasis added].
Point 9 further develops the "right of return" issue, asserting the need to "emphasize" and "stick to" this "right." Elsewhere, the document explicitly encourages "resistance" against Israel in the territories, even calling for the establishment of a new body to coordinate it.
The prisoners' statement will doubtless be used by many to claim that the Palestinians are, by declaredly seeking their
statehood "on all the territories occupied in 1967," by definition simultaneously accepting Israel's right to exist within its
sovereign, pre-1967 borders. Yet one does not have to read the fine print to discern that no such assertion is made here.
The prisoners' statement does not openly call for the elimination of Israel, but neither does it explicitly recognize the Jewish state, much less explicitly seek accommodation with it. Indeed, 32 years later, it does not contradict the PLO's phased plan for Israel's elimination.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that some Hamas prisoners could endorse the document, even though Hamas is officially rejecting it. As Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman for the Hamas cabinet, has said: "We're not opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders."
Such a position, after all, does not contradict what the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said on Friday: "Even if they besiege us from every direction we will not agree to concessions, we will not recognize the legitimacy of the occupation, we will not dissolve the resistance and we will not recognize the agreements of oppression."
Even if the Palestinian public were to ratify such a document in a referendum, Hamas and like-minded others would be able to argue that the people had confirmed the principle of a Palestinian state as a basis for continuing war against Israel, rather than ending the war with Israel.
Such a referendum might be presented as a step forward for Palestinian unity, but it is hard to see how it would advance the cause of peace.
The Palestinians must choose between their desire for freedom and independence and their desire to destroy Israel. They cannot have both. The prisoners' "reconciliation" document seeks to keep all options open.
In such a climate, it is hard to understand why Israel would facilitate the transfer of more weapons to any party on the Palestinian side. Been there, done that, one might say.
The Oslo Agreement provided for a Palestinian "police force" of 18,000 and Israel allowing the "light" weapons for this force to go to Yasser Arafat's men. Israel later acceded to the expansion of this force to 26,000, then 30,000, all on the assumption that these forces would be used to fight terrorism. Eventually, these Palestinian forces expanded, without Israel's involvement, to 70,000.
The "presidential guard" - which, at least until recently, participated in terrorist attacks against Israelis - already numbers 1,500 to 2,000, and Abbas reportedly wants to expand it to 10,000.
No one can seriously suggest there is a shortage of weaponry or "security forces" in the PA. And no one, bitter experience has shown, can seriously express confidence that weapons that at one moment are pointed at Hamas may not the next be used to murder Israelis.