Tue, Jan 25, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Narrow window for Mideast truceclosing quickly

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is facing an impossible balancing act between not `selling out' militants while fulfilling his people's desire for peace

By Peter Beaumont  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The attack by Palestinian gunmen on Gaza's Karni crossing on Jan. 13, in which six Israelis died, and Israel's response seem wearingly familiar. But while a year ago it would have been possible to say it was simply part of the numbing cycle of violence, inviting inevitable retaliation, this time the violence has a different and more subtle meaning.

The attack, delivered less than a week after the election of 69- year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the successor to the late president Yasser Arafat, has already been disastrous for attempts to start a fresh dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians ahead of readoption of the road map to peace and Palestinian statehood.

If there had been some faint hope only seven days ago that more than four years of the intifada were slowly coming to an end, the Karni attack has signalled deep problems ahead.

Karni is an indication of how divided Palestinian society is. The attack was a brutal message to Abbas and all those who hope to bring the intifada to a conclusion by those Palestinians who most benefit from its continuation; a message from a younger generation that has thrown itself into the violent struggle for statehood that they will not be "sold out."

Abbas has shown in his public statements how difficult is the line he must walk: between maintaining Palestinian ambitions, including at least a symbolic refugee return, and reflecting the weariness of many Palestinians with the conflict and a desire to move, however slowly, towards some kind of a settlement.

Israelis used to say of Arafat that he would say one thing in English and another in Arabic. But Abbas's position is more difficult. No matter how much Israelis hated Arafat towards the end (and how much many Palestinians distrusted him) he remained a symbol of the Palestinian struggle. Abbas, despite his long involvement in the struggle, does not yet command the same loyalties or affection.

The risk is that he cannot control the struggles in Palestinian life that have long threatened to break out into something more menacing: between the secular and the religious; between pragmatism and the glorification of a pointless violence; between its vast and youthful population who have grown up in the West Bank and Gaza, and an ageing leadership. It is these divisions that will be in Abbas's mind as he travels to Gaza for ceasefire talks with the factions to defuse the first crisis of his presidency.

Which leaves one of the most serious questions unanswered. Confronted with attacks such as that at the Karni crossing, does he have the ability to challenge those who would rather continue with the armed struggle -- Hamas included -- and reduce the level of violence against Israelis sufficiently for Israel to act?

It is a moot point. Israel has made it clear that, if the road map is to proceed, Abbas must move against militants when they launch attacks; Abbas's response to this latest attack will determine whether he is regarded as a serious partner. In the aftermath of Karni, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered a cessation of all contacts initiated with Palestinian leaders since Arafat's death.

The message to Abbas is clear. Unless he can deliver a hudna -- a unilaterally declared ceasefire by all the factions -- the troubling logic is of inter-factional violence within Palestinian society itself, an internalization of violence unlikely to trouble Israel.

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