Opportunity for progress in Middle East

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Recent reports by The Associated Press that Hamas leaders seek a ceasefire agreement with Israel should be wholeheartedly embraced as they offer hope of halting the vicious cycle of violence that has plagued both Israelis and Palestinians.

According to Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu, Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, has reached out to Israel through a reporter from Israel’s Channel 2 TV. Haniyeh reportedly stated that continuous Israeli attacks against Palestinian militants have made it impossible for him to stop the Islamic Jihad group from launching attacks against Israel, and signaled his intention to reach a compromise with Israel.

Although Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office wouldn’t confirm the messages, Olmert’s spokesman indicated there would be no negotiations until Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts pre-existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli intransigence matches that on the Palestinian side. Both Israelis and Palestinians have violated agreements, both have committed egregious acts of violence against each other, both peoples are desperate for peace, yet peace continues to be as elusive as ever.

Abba Eban’s dictum about the Arabs after the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973 — “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” — could easily apply to both sides. Will Israelis and Palestinians ever rise above these words and start, once and for all, on the road to peace?

Eban, one of the most distinguished Israeli diplomats, is also quoted as saying, “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Other alternatives, indeed, have been exhausted in this conflict. Violence from both sides has steadily worsened the situation and led to the ugliest manifestations of intolerance and inhumanity.

Forty-two Palestinians have died after the Israeli government prevented their leaving the Strip for medical treatment; the youngest, Ibraheem Abu Nahal, was only 1 1/2 years old. The organization Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHR-Israel) has denounced the policy allowing, in some cases, people out of Gaza only if they submit to interrogation by the Shabak, Israel’s general security service. Did that rule apply to Ibraheem?

At the same time, rockets from Gaza into Israeli border towns sow terror in the population. How much longer will it take leaders on both sides to react and reach some basic agreements?

Uri Avnery, an Israeli human rights activist, has warned of a possible Palestinian Masada (named after the fortress where heroic Jewish defenders committed suicide after holding off Roman soldiers during a prolonged siege in A.D. 72-73) if there is a massive Israeli invasion into the Gaza Strip. Do we have to go that far?

This is the moment to change the situation, particularly after the recent European pledge of $7.4 billion to the Palestinian government headed my Mahmoud Abbas. To be truly effective, that aid should follow a reconstituted Palestinian government that includes Hamas, respect for basic security concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians, immediate attention to the Palestinians’ basic food and health needs, and the opening of crossings between the two territories to allow for the movement of goods.

People’s destructive actions should be analyzed not only from the political but also from the psychological point of view. Both Israelis and Palestinians will cease their destructive actions against each other when they are convinced that peace is no longer elusive, that there is basic respect for their humanity and needs, and that violence from both sides will only beget more violence from both sides.

The road to peace in the region is one of serious, incremental steps. Peace is only a prelude to development.

Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).