Peace process needn’t be rocket science

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As well as being a Labour party activist I work as director of We Believe in Israel, a grassroots campaign group.

I therefore don’t pretend to be an unbiased observer of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. But I have studied the situation closely enough to understand that the events of the last week are of a profound significance to hopes for a lasting peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians – as opposed to just the ceasefire needed to end the current fighting.

I don’t believe that Hamas’ rocket attacks, a huge escalation of which necessitated Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence, are caused by Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The reverse is true. The blockade came in response to the rocket attacks which quadrupled in the 12 months after Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and before the blockade was imposed. The blockade was imposed to stop weaponry reaching Hamas. It will be lifted when all threat of further rockets is ended.

Nor do I think the rockets result from frustration about the stalled peace process.  Hamas cadres who fire off rockets are not ideological enthusiasts for a two-state solution; their organisation’s charter commits them to the destruction of the State of Israel. In contrast to the violence emanating from Hamas in Gaza, there has been relative peace in the PLO/Fatah-controlled West Bank where resolving settlements and the status of East Jerusalem will have a direct impact. But I do believe that the talks around a ceasefire may help trigger a real process that eventually leads to a two-state solution

Labour needs to differentiate between progressive and reactionary forces in the Middle East. As much between Palestinians – working to bolster the moderate forces in Palestinian society vis-à-vis Hamas and others who want confrontation rather than negotiation with Israel, as much as within the Syrian opposition.

With political Islamism in the ascendency in the Middle East, it is important that Britain sends clear and consistent messages that it is committed to Israel’s security and its right to defend itself. The UK should make clear to Sunni powers with influence over Hamas – Egypt, Qatar and Turkey – that they must use that influence to rein in Hamas and pressure it to keep the peace in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi is under domestic pressure to cut off relations with Israel and throw Egypt’s support behind Hamas. This would be a devastating reverse for the cause of peace and stability in the region. It must be made clear to Mursi that the western support needed if Egypt is to weather its economic crisis is dependent on its leadership playing a constructive role in the region. Mursi’s efforts to broker a ceasefire are a positive sign that he wants to act responsibly.

Hamas too must receive a clear message that it must choose between the role of a responsible government and that of a terrorist organisation.

This morning’s bomb attack on a civilian bus in Tel Aviv, which Hamas claimed credit for and celebrated, does not bode well for such a change of stance.

Israel has effectively given up on attempts to dislodge Hamas from the Gaza Strip and its goal is more modest – to secure quiet for its citizens. But Israel will be forced to launch more operations like this one in the future if Hamas continues to arm itself with missiles to hit Israel and fails to enforce a ceasefire on other groups. The most basic duty any state has, particularly a democracy, is to try to safeguard its citizens from attack.

Any relaxation Hamas demands on the border crossings must be balanced by assurances that it will be prevented from rearming, otherwise we are paving the way for the next conflict and will just repeat the cycle seen between Operation Cast Lead and now; an initial lull in rocket attacks followed by a gradual escalation to intolerable levels that make normal life impossible for Israelis within missile range.

‘Putting up with’ another gradual increase in rocket attacks is certainly not an option now that Iranian-origin longer-range missiles can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Whatever the outcome of this conflict, Hamas will claim victory and use it to bolster its credentials and paint the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as irrelevant. PA President Abbas is likely to be even more emboldened to seek observer state status at the UN. While this may score him some badly needed domestic political points, it is a move full of risk that could create a damaging confrontation between Israel and the PA in the West Bank, threatening years of fairly successful Palestinian institutional development. The Labour party’s support for this unilateral move at the UN, while motivated by good intentions about kickstarting the peace process, may have the opposite effect and kill it. As such it makes us look naive and lays us open to attack by the Tories for trying to differentiate ourselves on an issue of such importance that it should involve a bipartisan consensus. Too many of the backbench contributions to Tuesday’s Commons debate by Labour MPs went beyond naive and sounded like they had no empathy with the plight of Israel under constant rocket attack and didn’t understand the culpability of Hamas for the dreadful situation the citizens of Gaza are in.

The international community and Israel need to find ways to bolster Abbas and the PA, but at the same time to reduce provocative one-sided steps by both Israel and the PA.

The PA should be persuaded to consider accepting an interim bilateral agreement with Israel in the West Bank that would produce some real tangible benefits for the Palestinian people there, a positive step towards Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. Such a concrete advance, without the need to fire a single rocket, would help to make Hamas look like the irrelevant party.

If you share my commitment to Israel’s security and to a two-state solution, please join We Believe in Israel’s mailing list.

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Luke Akehurst is  a councillor in the London borough of Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here and blogs here. He tweets @LukeAkehurst

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Photo: kudomomo

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  • David Taggart

    I sympathise with the loss of life both in Israel and in Gaza and the actions of Hamas are provocative borderering on the idealogical rather than practical. The bus attack is dreadful. However, I think that Israel despite its military muscle.has to make concessions as regards the settlements round Jerusalem and on the West Bank in order for there to be a meaningful dialogue. Also there is the problem with the wall. Otherwise for one side its I give up and you get on with it. You must admit that Israel is almost consistently hardline, though I was hopeful when they took their settlements out of Gaza in the hope of an overall agreement. But treatment of Palestinians within Israel is well known and an international disgrace which is why sympathy is perhaps lacking. Much of the time Israel takes this line because it does not wish to appear weak before its enemies. This isn’t a new problem, its been going on for many many years. As you point out with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism perhaps now is the time to make some lasting agreements. This will make it possible for the moderate Palestinians to step forward and take over the reins which at the moment are in the hands of fundamentalists.

  • Nortal

    >>>…”though I was hopeful when they took their settlements out of Gaza in the hope of an overall agreement”.

    And therein lies the problem. For years, naive Westerners have pressured Israel to make concessions — while demanding nothing from the other side.

    “If only you would withdraw from South Lebanon — you would have peace”, these people told the Israeli leaders. Well, they withdrew — and in came Hizb’ullah and 40,000 rockets, courtesy of Iran via Syria.

    But the naives were not dissuaded: “If only you withdrew from Gaza…” they kept demanding. So the Israelis withdrew. They dismantled its settlements in the Strip (and 4 settlements in the West Bank — as a token of good intentions). So what did the Palestinians do? They said “Oh, so violence and terrorism work” — and they voted Hamas into power…

    All this, of course, does not deter some Westerners to continue to berate the “almost consistently hardline” Israelis — while giving Palestinians a blank pass and encouraging them to seek unilateral gains rather than negotiate. But rational people can understand why Israelis, having withdrawn from Lebanon and Gaza, made territorial and other concessions in the West Bank and reaped nothing but violence, terror, international condemnation and hate propaganda, are now reluctant to continue down the same road. Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  • Harry Goldstein

    ‘But treatment of Palestinians within Israel is well known’.
    That would be the treatment that leads Arab citizens of Israel (I assume that is who you’re referring to) to have full civil rights, the vote, access to jobs at the highest levels, and so on.
    Arab citizens of Israel enjoy rights (as well as living standards) that people elsewhere in the Middle East (including the Palestinian territories, and especially Gaza under the Hamas dictatorship) can only dream of. This may be why so many, given the choice, say they would opt to retain their Israeli citizenship rather than become citizens of a Palestinian state. When the Israeli government proposes land swaps as part of a deal for a two-state solution, the fiercest opposition comes from Arab citizens living in the affected areas who risk losing their Israeli citizenship.
    On the other hand, even the ‘moderate’ Palestinian Authority are clear that an independent Palestine would be ‘Jew-free’. Not only that, but they have also said that the descendents of Arab refugees from Israel, disgracefully still kept in so-called refugee camps, would be denied Palestinian citiizenship – even though generations have been born within the territory of the proposed Palestinian state. Denying citizenship to native-born people on the grounds of a supposed inherited status? Sounds like apartheid to me.

  • Haro Yousofian

    I am afraid any remarks about Israel and Palestine without a single reference to occupation is not only biased but totally misleading! Individual sentiments might be valid and sensible but to ignore colonisation of the occupied land is at the heart of the continuation of the war! Peace process as everyone keeps calling it is nothing but a pathetic carrot which is being used as an objective! Having said all this I believe that Hamas and PA are as useless as they come as national organisations and have constantly mismanaged negotiations with Israel and have let their people down!

  • Nortal

    I am afraid that any remarks about occupation without a single reference to what brought it about — military aggression from the territory later occupied — is not only biased but totally misleading.

    It is amazing how some people appear to “forget” that Israel did not wake up one sunny morning and decided to inflict “occupation” upon the hapless inhabitants of West Bank and Gaza. Israel occupied those territories (which were at the time occupied by Jordan and Egypt respectively) after being subjected to military attack originating from those territories. Since then, Israel has concluded peace treaties with both Jordan and Egypt, both of which raised no claim of sovereignty over the two territories in question. Hence, from a legal point of view both territories are under no clear national sovereignty. A body representing the Palestinian Arabs can certainly raise claims of sovereignty; but since such sovereignty has never before been exercised by Palestinian Arabs in those territories, such sovereignty can only be based on agreement with the neighboring states, including Israel. Further down the string of logic, Israel is completely within its rights in pointing out that such agreement can only be based on guarantees that the territory under future Palestinian Arab sovereignty will not be used to perpetrate attacks against Israel and its population. Such a demand is rendered even more reasonable (indeed necessary) by the fact that these territories have been repeatedly used not just as a basis for military aggression, but also for terrorism. And by ‘terrorism’ I mean attacks clearly, unequivocally and undeniably targeting civilian population with the purpose of achieving political aims. Such acts of terrorism include bombing civilian targets (such as today’s bus in Tel Aviv), as well as launching missiles indiscriminately aimed at civilian towns and cities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elaine.angell1 Elaine Angell

    A sound perspective, Luke. Thank you.

  • Jackie walker

    Extraordinary biased rubbish, I’m amazed that anyone can get away with writing this – what are your thoughts about the illegal building of 3000 homes?

  • http://twitter.com/Ianrosmarin Ianrosmarin

    I agree the problem with Labour policy seems to be they make it hard for more people to post blogs on these issues