Last week Hamas militants arrested two members of the hard-line Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group while the men were in the act of setting up mortars to fire into southern Israel.
This may not seem like big news, but it comes amid various developments in the interminable slog known that is the “peace process.”
Hamas has more or less maintained a cease-fire with Israel for the past few months. In this time Hamas has arrested other militants trying to attack from Gaza, and the group’s leaders have taken a somewhat more conciliatory tone towards Israel. For instance, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal implied in a May interview with the New York Times that Hamas would not be averse to a two-state solution along the 1967 borders or a long-term truce, a hudna, with Israel. Then again, in the same interview he categorically refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, something not entirely inconsistent with a hudna.
But behind the scenes, some gradual movement is taking place. Egypt claims to be on the verge of negotiating the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, though Egyptian President Mubarak angrily blamed Israel recently for ruining a potential deal. Israel and Syria also continue to talk to each other through intermediaries–both sides continue to proclaim that they want peace and will negotiate, even while blaming the other side for intransigence. Still, the recent announcements that America and Saudi Arabia are sending ambassadors back to Syria are steps forward, and leave open the possibility that Israel and Syria may eventually work out a deal either for outright peace or at least a reduction in Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Of course, it is also possible that these new arrests were just another example of Hamas consolidating power in Gaza. Ha’aretz speculated two weeks ago that past Hamas arrests of PIJ members were part of an effort to absorb the group into Hamas, an effort that has met resistance among PIJ leaders opposed to any negotiation with Israel or political compromise.
Furthermore, the move could have been a response to recent investments in Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank. The Washington Post reports that as part of General Dayton’s efforts to build a Palestinian security force America has provided barracks, arms and ammunition while Russia is supplying 50 armored personnel carriers.
Or it is possible that the arrests meant nothing, that they were a minor event in a mind-bogglingly complex environment. Many issues loom on the horizon: Syria is hedging its bets, moving towards negotiation while still vocally supporting Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Finally, Palestinian reconciliation remains a fantasy, and will not be helped along by bolstering security forces without building institutions. As the head of New America’s Middle East Task Force Daniel Levy has argued, this buildup forces Palestinians to police their own occupation and undercuts the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.
In the meantime Gaza remains buried in rubble, a state which will persist into the foreseeable future without a political agreement or an Israeli return to past commitments to investment in Gaza’s infrastructure and ease movement in and out of the still-blockaded strip.
— Andrew Lebovich
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