Observations from a strange planet
The shape of things to comeMar 16th 2006The Economist A microcosm of the perils ahead in the West Bank and GazaIF YOU are trying to work out the rights and wrongs of Israel's murky raid on Jericho's prison this week, you have your work cut out. The rights and wrongs depend entirely on what you think the Palestinian Authority (PA), under whose control the six men Israel wanted were held, is actually for. And what you think the PA is for depends largely on what you think about the bigger rights and wrongs of the conflict in Palestine. The real significance of the Jericho episode resides not in whether it was a pre-election stunt by Israel, or whether there was collusion between the Israelis and the British, as some have speculated (see article). It is that Jericho was a perfect, worked example of the shape of things to come once a new Israeli government squares off next month against a new Palestinian Authority run by the Islamists of Hamas.The facts of the Jericho case are simply stated. Israel said it snatched the men because it had an agreement which the PA was about to break. Israel's target was Ahmad Saadat, a Palestinian the Israelis accuse of having ordered the murder of one of their cabinet ministers. Israel had cornered Mr Saadat before, when he hid in Yasser Arafat's besieged Ramallah compound in 2002. That siege ended with a compromise: the PA would lock up the wanted men in Jericho, if American and British monitors made sure the Palestinians kept their word.That the Palestinians broadly did, even though Mr Saadat was given rather more liberty during his incarceration than the monitors had stipulated. He was able, for example, to campaign for and win a seat in the Palestinian parliament in January's election. The same election brought victory for Hamas. Its leaders see Mr Saadat as a hero, not a murderer. They said they intended to let Mr Saadat and his friends go. Mahmoud Abbas, the PA's president, hinted that he would agree. From that moment, the Israelis resolved to prevent this from happening. As soon as the international monitors left, the Jericho deal was in effect dead and Israel pounced.The quarrel in Jericho sums up the lethal ambiguity that now pervades all relations between Israel, the PA and the outside world. Israel says the authority's job is not only to run the West Bank and Gaza but also to prevent violent attacks on Israel. That was the essence of the Oslo bargain Arafat agreed to in return for being allowed to bring his Palestine Liberation Organisation back from exile and set up shop in Palestine itself. When the intifada broke out six years ago, the PA's observance of the bargain became increasingly notional. Why, after all, was the supposed killer of an Israeli cabinet minister given refuge in the Arafat compound? But when it was under the control of Arafat's Fatah organisation, the PA did at least continue to pay lip service to Oslo. Mr Abbas still does.The incoming Hamas government does not. It calls “resistance” the right of any occupied people. In this it speaks for most Palestinians, whose faith in Oslo vanished with Israel's continued colonisation of the occupied territories and its violent response to the intifada. So what if Mr Saadat ordered the killing of an Israeli minister, ask Palestinians. Didn't Ariel Sharon rub out Hamas's entire leadership, from Sheikh Ahmed Yassin down? On paper, relations between the sides are still governed by rules, from the Oslo agreement to the Jericho deal to the “road map”. But the Jericho raid shows that, especially with the advent of Hamas, all these rules are on the brink of becoming null and void.This way to mayhemWith no rules at all, how will Israelis and Palestinians co-exist, armed to the teeth and crammed cheek-by-jowl in a contested patch of land? Forget peacemaking: neither the rest of the world nor Israel has worked out how or whether to deal with Hamas. Optimists had hoped at best for a period of calm as a pragmatic Hamas consolidates and a pragmatic Israel makes another unilateral withdrawal. The lesson from Jericho is bleaker. Without at least tacit co-operation between Israel and Hamas, even a temporary calm may be too much hope for.
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