Peace Hostage to Terrorists


Yet another cycle of terror, repression and collective punishment is being played out between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of a series of terror attacks against Israelis by Hamas (the Islamic resistance movement).

The escalation of this conflict risks overwhelming the process of reconciliation for which Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat will soon claim the Nobel Peace Prize.

The suicide bombing last week of a bus in Tel Aviv by a 27-year-old member of Hamas is the latest -- but not the last -- reminder of the enduring enmity between Palestinians and Israelis.

But like the massacre of more than a score of Palestinians by an Israeli settler last February at the Tomb of Patriarchs in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron, the terror perpetrated by Hamas is intimately related to the peace process.

Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C. Indeed the terror is energized by Hamas' opposition to this process -- an opposition rooted in ideology but galvanized by genuine shortcomings in the agreement itself.

To confront these determined opponents, Mr. Rabin has chosen to implement measures that not only target Hamas activists but also threaten the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who work or trade with Israel. Mr. Rabin has closed Israel "indefinitely" to their commerce.

Mr. Rabin's crackdown on the Palestinians, however, is more a response to the pressure of domestic politics than an effort to improve Israel's security. Israeli public opinion has been battered by the recent stream of attacks, which have increased the popular feeling of insecurity and thus undermined a key rationale for talks with the PLO. By forcing Mr. Rabin to bow before domestic pressures to act against the Palestinian community as a whole, Hamas has won a small victory.

Mr. Rabin has sold Israelis on negotiations with the PLO as the best means of assuring their personal security. A deal with the PLO is judged by Mr. Rabin, as well as by the Israeli in the street, on its ability to stem Palestinian attacks upon Israelis. By attacking targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas has demonstrated its ability to wreak havoc in Israel's heartland and to provide nervous Israelis with gruesome evidence that Mr. Rabin's fundamental rationale for pursuing negotiations with the PLO is not paying off.

In closing Israel's borders to Palestinians and promising a

crushing blow to Hamas, Mr. Rabin is treading a well-traveled and demonstrably unsuccessful road. Years of military occupation, the deportation of 400 Hamas activists in December 1992, and the subsequent closures of the territories for varying lengths of time have failed to end Hamas' war against Israel, or to reduce popular Palestinian support for the group.

Mr. Rabin's closure of the territories also risks undermining the basic message that Yasser Arafat has used to mobilize support for his deal with Israel. If Mr. Rabin has counted upon the promise of greater personal security to win popular backing, Mr. Arafat has championed the economic benefits that will result to Palestinians from the accord on self-rule. But the key factor in determining the economic viability of Palestinian self-rule is maintaining Israel as a market for surplus Palestinian labor.

Without it, Gaza for the foreseeable future becomes a prison with no prospect for economic rehabilitation.

In negotiations in Cairo, Israel is demanding that the group be excluded from elections for a Palestinian National Authority that will probably occur next spring. Such a policy risks undermining not only Yasser Arafat but also one of the other key "fruits of peace" -- a democratic, inclusive Palestinian polity.

Hamas is a fierce enemy, ideologically opposed to the existence of a Jewish state anywhere in Palestine. A statement issued last April declared that the organization's political program does not include "forfeiting a single inch of Palestine" nor any "recognition of the Zionist entity's right to exist on our territory."

Hamas' ability to command the support of a significant minority of Palestinians is a tribute to the organization's ability to speak to their concerns and an indication of the shortcomings of Mr. Arafat's ruling Palestinian authority.

Hamas has formulated a political critique of the agreement on Palestinian self-rule. The agreement in its view "totally ignores Jerusalem"; it enables the continuation of Jewish settlement in occupied territories; it neglects 4 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, and it does not guarantee full Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Sheik Ahmad Yassin, imprisoned leader of Hamas, has written from his Israeli jail cell that, "We could sign a truce for 10 or 20 years if Israel withdraws unconditionally [including all settlers] from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem to the 1967 borders and gives the Palestinian people absolute freedom to determine their fate and future."

Such statements suggest a willingness to enter into a political dialogue -- not only with the PLO but also with Israel.

The PLO fears Hamas' power and its critique of the agreement with Israel.

Yet Mr. Arafat is not without sympathy for the view that diplomacy alone will not force Israel to end its presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where even today 6,000 settlers and the Israeli army still control 30 percent of the land.

The PLO finds itself wedged uncomfortably between Israeli expectations that Mr. Arafat mount an armed assault on the movement and its own sense of what is politically possible among its own people. While he does not relish the challenge posed by Hamas, Mr. Arafat has concluded that it is better to reach a modus vivendi with the organization in an attempt to wean it away from an outright challenge to his authority.

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