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Hamas Ends Stalemate with Rival Fatah Party

June 27, 2006 at 12:01 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: It has been a tumultuous day on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the Gaza border. We start with some background, narrated by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News. It was prepared before the latest reports of Israeli military movements.

JONATHAN MILLER, ITV News Correspondent: Israeli Army radio reporting deployment now of two infantry regiments and two armored battalions, around 5,000 troops.

One hundred tanks and armored personnel carriers cluttering the farmland of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. A full naval and grand blockade imposed on Gaza. Palestinian civilians reportedly fleeing the frontier region in anticipation of the looming incursion.

“There’s no doubt we’ll have to carry out operations that will cost lives,” Israel’s defense minister says. Threats to cut food, water, fuel and electricity supplies to Gaza, too, if the kidnapped corporal isn’t freed by midnight tomorrow.

Nineteen-year-old conscript Gilad Shalit, the first Israeli captured in a decade, today, Hamas, one of three groups to have spirited him away down a kilometer-long tunnel after a brazen raid inside Israel on Sunday, saying he was still alive.

The spokesman for another of the armed groups responsible, the Popular Resistance Committees, says the kidnapped soldier is in a security place which, he says, the Zionists cannot reach.

SHIMON PERES, Deputy Prime Minister, Israel: It was done by a small group of people that want to destroy any chance for peace and introduce again terror and bloodshed.

JONATHAN MILLER: Bizarrely enough, Palestinian officials chose today of all days to announce a “peace in our time” document, an agreement between leaders of Fatah and Hamas Palestinian factions to form what they call a unity administration.

The document, grandly called a manifesto, was supposed to implicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist by endorsing a negotiated two-state solution, but it’s not at all clear that it does this.

It was drafted by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, but Hamas facing a deep internal split over the issue of recognizing Israel.

The 8,500 Palestinians held captive in Israel now in the spotlight, following the militants’ capture of the Israeli soldier. The Israeli prison services confirm that 113 of them are women and 313 are under 18. Their freedom the single demand so far from the corporal’s captors.

The Israeli prime minister has refused to negotiate over Corporal Shalit’s release, but Israel has struck lopsided bargains before. After what has already been the deadliest fortnight since Israel pulled out of Gaza last August. Now, with Israeli troops and tanks massing, a deepening sense of foreboding.

What is going on in Israel?

Ori Nir
Washington Bureau Chief, The Forward
My understanding is that the bombing of the bridge today was tactical and was intended only for the purpose of boxing in the kidnappers in the southern part of Gaza, where the kidnapped soldier is believed to be held.

MARGARET WARNER: And now for more on this rapidly developing story, we're joined by Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And Ori Nir, Washington bureau chief for the Forward, a weekly newspaper that covers the Jewish world, he's also a former West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

And welcome to you, both. Since that report was filed, of course, as Jim just reported, the wires are saying that the Israelis have bombed a bridge in Gaza and moved tanks at least closer to the border. You're both in touch with people over there.

Ori Nir, what are you hearing from people on the Israeli side about what's going on?

ORI NIR, Washington Bureau Chief, The Forward: Well, my understanding is that the bombing of the bridge today was tactical and was intended only for the purpose of boxing in the kidnappers in the southern part of Gaza, where the kidnapped soldier is believed to be held.

MARGARET WARNER: So this is a bridge between the southernmost part of Gaza and farther north?

ORI NIR: Exactly. And what Israel is trying to make sure is that the kidnapped soldier is not being taken either across the border to Egypt, in Sinai, or into the northern part of Gaza. So they can, supposedly, get in with commando forces and try to release him.
MARGARET WARNER: So are they telling you that this is the beginning of the all-out assault that Prime Minister Olmert had threatened, or is it sort of saber rattling and getting in position?

ORI NIR: It's getting in position. I think that there will be an attack. I think that the attack will come, hopefully, after the release of the soldier.

I think it's for the time being, for the short run, in the short run, the next few days, Israel will probably try to avoid an attack, fearing that such an attack will actually bring about a tragic outcome, rather than go in with massive forces in an attempt -- which would be, obviously, futile -- to release him.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think, in other words, what has just happened, is they're laying the stage for some kind of commando raid, some kind of rescue attempt for this young soldier?

ORI NIR: Yes, they're doing that. They're also trying to use the offices of third parties in order to try to negotiate a release, perhaps in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you've been talking to Palestinian leaders and officials in the West Bank, Rafi Dajani. What are they telling you? What do they think is going on?

RAFI DAJANI, American Task Force on Palestine: Well, obviously, there is the immediate concern for Palestinian life. I mean, an Israeli incursion into Gaza will obviously cause many more Palestinian civilian deaths and much more destruction of Palestinian property.

But there's also concern on two other levels. There's concern that the faint flicker of hope we saw for a renewal of negotiations, especially when after Olmert met with Abbas in Jordan recently, that would be dashed by an incursion, as would be the reports we're hearing about an agreement being reached between Fatah and Hamas over what's called the prisoners' document, an agreement that was reached that reflected this national unity, and that would, obviously, torpedo that agreement, too.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm just being told that, in fact, now the reports are three bridges were bombed. Are the Palestinians in Gaza in any position to resist an Israeli military assault?

RAFI DAJANI: Obviously not. Israel's the fourth most powerful military in the world, and Palestinians have neither a navy, air force, army or artillery. They are in no position to face the Israelis.

There's a certain degree of fatalism in Gaza. I mean, Gaza has been subjected to thousands of Israeli shells in the past few months, a complete siege, an economic blockade. There's a certain fatalism that, "So what if things get worse?"

And, on the other hand, there's also the feeling that this is an act of self-defense, that Israel is responding to a Palestinian act of self-defense. This is the feeling on the street.

Israel signals that it is serious

Rafi Dajani
American Task Force on Palestine
There are indications that [Palestinian Prime Minister] Haniyeh did not know about this raid. In fact, his deputy prime minister has called for the release of the Israeli prisoner. And it seems like the Damascus leadership is acting as a spoiler.

MARGARET WARNER: Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, just today called on the Israeli government to give diplomacy a chance. Those were her words. Why would Israel be moving now?

ORI NIR: Again, I don't think that Israel is moving now with the purpose of an all-out ground campaign. I think Israel is moving now in order to signal to the Palestinians that it is serious.

The attempt is to try to apply pressure militarily while giving diplomacy a chance, for the purpose of releasing the soldier.

Diplomacy at the moment is also being employed, as far as I understand, in order to let the Palestinian -- the Hamas government, to let them understand that, if they do release the soldier, there are some small carrots there that they could obtain, such as negotiations -- again, probably through third parties -- over a long-term cease-fire, and maybe other issues that Israel can work out with them.

MARGARET WARNER: That raises the question, Rafi Dajani, of course, as to whether the elected Hamas leadership, mostly in the West Bank at the moment, is in a position to control the situation in Gaza. I mean, did the Hamas leadership want to precipitate this crisis? Did they sign off on this raid, in which the militants tunneled under the border, and went to this army post, and killed two Israeli soldiers and abducted this third?

RAFI DAJANI: Well, I think it would be a mistake to regard Hamas as a monolithic entity. I think that indications are that the raid, the recent raid against the Israeli army base, was ordered from what's called the outside leadership in Damascus, and in fact wasn't even...

MARGARET WARNER: And just explain that there is a Hamas leader, Meshaal...

RAFI DAJANI: There is a political leadership in Damascus, headed by Meshaal, Khaled Meshaal, which also controls the purse strings to the organization. And then there's the leadership inside, what's called inside the occupied territories, which is now led by Ismail Haniyeh, who is the Palestinian prime minister.

There are indications that Haniyeh did not know about this raid. And, in fact, his deputy prime minister has called for the release of the Israeli prisoner. And it seems like the Damascus leadership is acting as a spoiler.

Militants not answerable to Hamas

Ori Nir
Washington Bureau Chief, The Forward
I don't think that Israel will re-occupy Gaza, certainly not all of Gaza. What it may do is it may create a certain -- what would be called a security zone in the northern part of Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that the groups, the three Palestinian militant groups who took this soldier, really are not answerable to the Hamas leadership at all?

RAFI DAJANI: They're not answerable -- it doesn't seem they're answerable to the Hamas. It seems they're more answerable...

MARGARET WARNER: The elected leadership, yes.

RAFI DAJANI: ... to the leadership in Damascus than they are to the one in the West Bank, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Which then raises the question of, to what purpose are they attempting to negotiate with the Hamas leadership in Ramallah?

ORI NIR: It's a very good question, and that's not clear. I think that the Hamas leadership in Ramallah probably does have some contacts with leaders on the street, with militia leaders or other leaders of Palestinian forces, Hamas forces, military wing on the street.

The real negotiations, apparently, if you really want to reach the people who are in charge here, should be through Damascus.

It's interesting that you have now a situation where a Palestinian Hamas leader sits in Syria, directs what is going on, on the ground, and has, therefore, the ability to turn all this into more of a regional conflict than a small one across the border from Gaza and Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain one thing: Why would Prime Minister Olmert not have agreed to, say, release the women and children prisoners? I mean, Israel has done prisoner exchanges before.

ORI NIR: I think that there's -- it's probably tactical. They want to give it time. They want to see if they can just get an unconditional release of the prisoner. It doesn't look good domestically. It is, in a way, negotiating with terrorists, so you don't do it right away.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that, if an assault does take place, that Olmert's intention would be to go in, inflict damage on the terrorist infrastructure, as they say, and then get out, or do you think that Israel would just re-occupy part of Gaza or all of Gaza?

ORI NIR: I don't think that Israel will re-occupy Gaza, certainly not all of Gaza. What it may do is it may create a certain -- what would be called a security zone in the northern part of Gaza, just as Israel did years ago in the southern part of Lebanon, in order to prevent the shooting of Kassam rockets across the fence into Israel.

We've seen a lot of that. We've seen approximately -- if I'm not mistaken -- between 600 to 800 such Kassam rockets shot in the last few months since Israel withdrew from Gaza.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Rafi Dajani, do you think that the militants who are holding this soldier, who said today he's in a secure place, are so militant that they would kill him before surrendering him?

RAFI DAJANI: I don't think that they would kill him. I think the only danger to the soldier's life is if there is an actual incursion by Israel into the Gaza Strip.

But I think it's also worth noting that there is absolutely no military solution to this whole crisis. This crisis is a result of the absence of political negotiation, and neither Israeli security nor Palestinian statehood is served through military means.

Hamas and Fatah do have a deal

Rafi Dajani
American Task Force on Palestine
I think it absolutely does amount to implicit recognition, but each party, again, is going to spin it differently. Hamas will say that they in no way recognize Israel, that the importance of this agreement is because it emphasizes national unity.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, speaking of political negotiation, we haven't got much time for this, but, meanwhile, today, as the piece said, Fatah and Hamas leaders first said, well, they had reached a deal to settle some of their differences, and then they canceled the press conference that had been scheduled to really make the official announcement. Do they have a deal?

RAFI DAJANI: I think they do have a deal, but I think each side is taking a little time to figure out exactly how they're going to spin it to their constituency.

I think that the major tenets of the deal have been agreed to, that there would be a Palestinian state in its territories occupied since 1967, that there will be an acceptance of Arab summit proposals, including the one in Beirut in 2002, and that the resistance would be limited to occupied territories. I think there's agreement on that.

MARGARET WARNER: So does that amount to an implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist?

RAFI DAJANI: I think it absolutely does amount to implicit recognition, but each party, again, is going to spin it differently. Hamas will say that they in no way recognize Israel, that the importance of this agreement is because it emphasizes national unity. And the Abbas people will say, no, this is important, because it does recognize Israel, and we should negotiate.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you think Israel will see it?

ORI NIR: Israel will see it as something that is -- officially will see it as something irrelevant to Israel. Israel will insist on the Palestinian leadership fulfilling the three conditions of the quartet. As you know, full recognition of Israel...

MARGARET WARNER: Renounce terror.

ORI NIR: ... renouncing terrorism, recognition of past agreements. That will be the criterion for Israel.

However, unofficially, what I do hear from Israeli sources is that they do view such an agreement as a step forward. They do view it as a positive development.

We will have to see if such an agreement will come to being. My sources tell me that it is Khaled Meshaal in Damascus who actually failed the reaching of that agreement between the factions.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, briefly to you both, can this agreement go forward or have any meaning if military action is going on between Israel and the Palestinian militants?

RAFI DAJANI: I think, if we have an incursion, it will be put on the back burner for a while. But I think eventually there is no alternative to this agreement. And mainly it's because a vast majority of the Palestinian people want a two-state solution based on political negotiations, and Hamas agreeing to sign onto this agreement is a sign of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Ori?

ORI NIR: I definitely agree. If you look at the graph historically, the two sides are going toward a two-state solution, in terms of the public opinion in both sides. In the short run, however, always, violence takes over.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. On that agreement, we'll leave it. Thank you very much.

RAFI DAJANI: Thank you.

ORI NIR: Thank you.