Saturday, 28 August 2010

August reviewed

Hamas – a fly in the ointment

Until the 20th, August seemed, with a slight variation or two, to be "business as usual" on the Middle East scene. True, in their meeting on 29 July the Arab League had given a green light to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to enter direct peace talks with Israel–but their green light cast a flickering and uncertain beam in his direction. He could do so, the League indicated, if and when he wanted to. "Less than a full-hearted endorsement" was the general verdict.

Behind the scenes, and certainly not on public view, the fast and frenetic political, diplomatic and organisational activity can only be the subject of wild surmise. First and foremost, intensive negotiations between the US, the PA and Israel were under way to satisfy the two principals that each would be surrendering nothing of their starting positions if they were actually brought face to face under US auspices.

Abbas needed cover from Arab leaders for the action he would be taking – action vehemently opposed by a substantial proportion of Arab public opinion. So as part and parcel of the deal being assembled, Washington succeeded in persuading Egypt's President Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah to associate themselves with the initiative to restart face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Both were invited, and both agreed, to attend an opening session in Washington. Abbas would not be facing Israel alone. Two major Arab nations would be at his side, endorsing his decision to talk peace.

Abbas had selected two issues as his bottom line for entering new talks with Israel, and he had stuck with them through thick and thin, despite the blandishments and pressure from the US. He wanted Israel to undertake that the borders of a new, sovereign state of Palestine would be essentially the boundaries that Israel crossed during the Six Day War in 1967 – although he had already indicated that these were not sacrosanct, and could be subject to agreed adjustments and "land swap" arrangements. His second requirement was that Israel agree to cease all new construction both in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

For his part, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been proclaiming for several weeks, in Washington and in Israel, that he was not only willing, but eager to enter into direct peace talks with the PA – provided there were no pre-conditions.

Washington was presented with a dilemma. Keen as the Obama administration was for the major political coup that an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would provide, here they had one of the parties demanding two pre-conditions before agreeing to talk, and there they had the other demanding no pre-conditions before agreeing to do so. Diplomatic ingenuity of a high order was called for.

The solution? Two separate calls to the parties to participate in the opening events. The first would be a direct invitation by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at a press conference in Washington, during the course of which she would say that the parties would enter the talks with no pre-conditions.

The second would be a statement issued by the Quartet (the US, the EU, the UN and Russia), urging both principals to accept the US's invitation and restating the Quartet's support for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.” But the documents quoted by the Quartet indeed call for a sovereign Palestine within pre-1967 boundaries and for a complete cessation of all construction in areas beyond the "Green Line" – which includes East Jerusalem.

Thus by clever sleight-of-hand Israel was able to respond affirmatively to the US's formal invitation, while the PA's response referred specifically to the Quartet's statement as the basis for their acceptance. The circle squared!

But with this legerdemain necessary as its opening gambit, one cannot help speculating about the chances of a positive outcome to the process as a whole. And of course the usual suspects are at work intent on undermining any move towards an end to the dispute, and even to a new sovereign Palestine if it means living alongside Israel with peace and security for both.

No sooner had the Arab League nodded in the direction of peace talks than a rocket attack was launched at the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat. In the event the one or two that fell in Eilat caused little damage, but death and damage was wreaked on the neighbouring Jordanian resort of Aqaba. The most likely explanation of where responsibility lay was provided by the Egyptian news daily al-Youm al-Saba'a, which reported Cairo security officials' belief that Hamas operatives infiltrated into the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to fire the rockets, so that it would appear as if they had been fired by an Egyptian terror group.

The next day came the extraordinary attack from the Lebanon side of the border separating that country from Israel. A Lebanese army officer with Hezbollah sympathies took it upon himself to fabricate an incident – and make sure that the media were there to record the event. He took advantage of a two-hour delay to a planned Israeli tree-pruning operation, requested by the UN monitoring teams, to brief a sniper. put a unit on alert and tip off the Lebanese media. A TV crew duly arrived near the scene to film the attack. A Lebanese marksman fired two or three shots, one of them at the head of a senior IDF officer, who was killed, and the other in the chest of a junior officer, who was seriously wounded. Lebanon says that at least three of its soldiers and a journalist were killed in the resulting exchange of fire.

Before the end of August UNIFIL had completed its investigation into the incident. Its conclusion: Lebanese soldiers shot and killed an Israeli battalion commander earlier this month in an unprovoked attack.

Finally – no surprise this – the verdict of Ismail Haniyeh,the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, on the peace initiative: "Palestinians across the globe will not support any movement holding absurd talks with Israel." In those few words Haniyeh managed a strike at two of his main targets – Hamas's rival party within the Palestinian world, Fatah, and the very concept of seeking peace with Israel. It is not difficult to perceive Hamas's ultimate objectives, both internal and external. As regards their internal struggle, they seek domination of the Palestinian people by overcoming and eliminating their Fatah rivals, thus gaining control not only of Gaza but also of the West Bank. As for their main external aim, it is somehow, in the words of one of Hamas's main sponsors and patrons, Iran's President Ahmadinejad, achieving for Israel the fate of being "wiped off the map" – or, in another translation, "eliminated from the pages of history". One or the other.

It is against this sort of background that, on 2 September, the inaugural meeting of an initiative with the specific aim of reaching a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority within just twelve months, will take place.

Anyone who hopes for peace between the parties in this long-drawn-out conflict must surely wish those participating – whatever their private motives, reservations, intentions, plans – a successful outcome to a brave, perhaps foolhardy, venture.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Direct talks: a triumph of hope over optimism

I started this blog in January 2010. As 2010 dawned, it seemed to me possible that the year might prove seminal in the long-drawn-out process of finding an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians. Although many of the negative factors that had frustrated past efforts were still present, the signs that meaningful negotiations might be resumed and brought, eventually, to some sort of favourable outcome seemed more hopeful than for many years.

The new US president, Barack Obama, had charged his Middle East envoy – the formidable George Mitchell – to return to the Middle East, and to seek a "comprehensive peace". By that, Mitchell soon made clear, he meant not only a settlement of the Israel-Palestine impasse, but also peace between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon, and a normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world as a whole.

Clearly – and explicitly – the new US administration had embraced the 2002 Arab League peace plan, originally mooted by Saudi Arabia, in which the Arab world would formally recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her, in exchange for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war.

Meanwhile the PA-administered West Bank under its president Mahmoud Abbas, and its prime minister Salam Fayyad, had been enjoying unprecedented economic growth – something between 5% and 7% was the World Bank's estimate for 2009.

Hamas, controlling Gaza and virtually at war with Fatah, its rivals within the Palestinian Authority, remained opposed to any action which appeared to recognise Israel. Yet even at this extreme end of the Palestinian spectrum, there were signs of a possible softening of attitude. Hamas had agreed to Egypt acting as a mediator in talks aimed at the release of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. And some Hamas leaders were going on the record in support of the Arab League peace plan.

These straws in the wind led me to believe that it would be interesting to chart events over 2010. I decided to follow the ups and downs in the long, slow, trek towards a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the PA, and then, if this did occur, to track the discussions. How much, if anything, would be achieved during the year? Would my initial feeling that we were on the brink of a breakthrough be realised? These were the questions that my pieces would eventually reveal.

And so we come to 20 August 2010.

Will Friday 20 August 2010 go down in the history of Israel, to say nothing of a putative future Palestine, as a seminal date – the day when the objective of secure, peaceful co-existence moved from mere aspiration to the start of practical achievement?

Do any factors of significance mark 20 August out from literally scores of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, marking the inauguration of well-intentioned efforts to reach a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? To list only a few, there were the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo Accords signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993, the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, the Camp David Summit in 2000, the Taba summit in 2001, the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Road Map for Peace promulgated by the Quartet, and the Geneva Accord, both in 2003, and the Annapolis process in 2007.

What are the bare facts about this newest bid for a settlement?

At a press conference held on 20 August, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, have been invited to begin direct peace talks in Washington on 2 September. The meeting is intended to "re-launch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which," according to Clinton, "we believe we can complete in one year." Clinton said she herself would host the first direct Israel-Palestinian negotiating session on 2 September, and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan have also been invited to join that first discussion.

On the day before, namely 1 September, Netanyahu and Abbas are expected first to meet individually with US President Barack Obama, and Obama will then also hold bilateral meetings with King Abdullah and President Mubarak. That evening all four will be guests at a dinner hosted by President Obama. The guest list will include Tony Blair as representing the Middle East Quartet – comprising the US, the UN, the EU and Russia.

To return to the events of 20 August, it is significant that in addition to Clinton’s announcement, the Quartet issued a statement endorsing the direct talks and urging the two parties to accept the forthcoming US invitation. In their statement the Quartet expressed support for “the pursuit of a just, lasting and comprehensive regional peace as envisaged in the Madrid terms of reference, Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.”

It is pretty clear that complex political machinations lay behind this duplication of events – the press conference invitation and the Quartet endorsement of it. The significance becomes clear when one examines the terms in which each party accepted.

The response by Netanyahu's office mentioned only the US invitation to direct talks. “The prime minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half,” his statement said. “He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.” Jerusalem has been silent in relation to the Quartet's statement.

Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders, however, gathered overnight on Friday and voted to accept the US invitation in these terms: "The PLO executive committee announces its acceptance of a resumption of direct negotiations with Israel, in accordance with the statement by the international Middle East Quartet and the invitation by the United States."

In effect the two sides have accepted different invitations to the same talks. The reason is clear. The documents explicitly mentioned in the Quartet's statement are filled with equivocal requirements, many of which are precisely the major issues needing resolution in the forthcoming talks. In particular, embedded in the Quartet's position is a call for a complete freeze on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and at least an implied assumption that the borders of a new sovereign Palestinian state would be the boundaries that Israel crossed during the Six Day War.

PA President Abbas has been under intense pressure for several weeks to resume direct talks. He has consistently stonewalled, first demanding that talks continue from where they left off with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in November 2008, then maintaining that any future agreement must be based on the 1967 borders, and throughout that Netanyahu's freeze on settlement building in the West Bank apply also to East Jerusalem. Without any of the above demands being fulfilled, he reckoned that entering into direct talks with Israel would open him up to criticism from Fatah loyalists in his own party, to say nothing of the condemnation that would be heaped on him by his Hamas rivals and their patrons, Iran and Syria.

All preconditions for starting direct talks were rejected by the Israeli government, and in recent days Abbas has been saying that he would be prepared to enter direct talks without the assurances from Israel, if instead assurances came from the Quartet. Hence their pre-press conference statement.

The resumption of direct talks is undoubtedly a victory for the US administration's diplomatic efforts. US Middle East envoy Mitchell, who has been shuttling back and forth to the region since early 2009, succeeded in brokering the proximity talks between the two sides, a valuable precursor to the current outcome.

Israel, too, will view with satisfaction the renewal of direct talks, especially since they are explicitly starting without preconditions. Netanyahu has repeatedly called for the resumption of direct negotiations in recent months, and made this a central theme during his visit to Washington in July. This new initiative is likely to mitigate the political backlash from his right-wing coalition members when he seeks to extend the settlement freeze, as he surely must. Indeed, with the construction moratorium deadline only three weeks after the first meeting on 2 September, this issue is likely to prove the first hurdle to be cleared if the whole initiative is not to fail.

Israelis and Palestinians stand shoulder to shoulder on one issue at least – cynicism about Middle East peace initiatives. The efforts to bring about a resolution of the conflict have been many and various; the obstacles formidable and indeed, to date, insurmountable. Optimistic it is impossible to be about this latest well-intentioned effort. Who – barring perhaps George Mitchell, President Obama's dogged special Middle East envoy – could put his hand on his heart and say that a peace agreement between Israel and the PA on or before 20 August 2011 is a realistic possibility?

Optimism may indeed appear unrealistic, but there is one thing that cannot be killed off so easily - hope.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Direct peace talks – edging towards the inevitable

Inch by painful inch Israel and the Palestinian Authority are being edged towards their inevitable face-to-face encounter.

Rather like the arranged wedding ceremony that is common in the non-Western world, the bridegroom stands waiting while his bashful bride, heavily veiled, is led slowly – and perhaps reluctantly – towards him. In this case Israel is the expectant bridegroom, for as Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, said last week: "The government of Israel has been calling for the immediate start of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for more than a year now." It is PA President Mahmoud Abbas who has been holding back from committing himself, even though he has been given clear authority to go ahead by the Arab League following their meeting on 29 July.

According to a report today, Saturday, in the Arabic newspaper A-Sharq al-Awsat, Abbas is expected to agree to the resumption of direct talks with Israel within as little as two days – that is, by next Monday, 16 August. But the Palestinian news agency Ma'an on Friday announced that Abbas is waiting for an anticipated statement from the Quartet to be released early next week before he will announce any decision on talks.

This seems a classic "chicken and egg" situation. For it was on Thursday (12 August) that Reuters news agency announced they had seen a letter from the EU's High Representative Catherine Ashton – addressed, it appears, to EU Foreign Ministers – in which she said that the statement from the EU that Abbas is awaiting would be issued early next week – if both parties agreed to proceed to direct talks and negotiations to be launched in August.

Well, who is waiting for whom – Ashton for Abbas, or Abbas for Ashton? Time will no doubt tell, but Ashton's letter said "Abbas is very close" to accepting direct talks. "In principle, President Abbas should be in a position to give a definitive answer by Sunday or early next week," it added. But in the same letter Ashton said that major world powers are working on a Quartet statement to set the basis for the direct peace talks, and that the "Quartet initiative should help President Abbas rally enough support, both at home and abroad, to engage in direct talks."

Reuters also reported Mahmoud Abbas as indicating that he would be prepared to go to direct talks, provided they were based on the 19 March statement by the Quartet, issued after their meeting in Moscow. This, the news agency took to mean, was that his precondition for doing so was that the future Palestinian sovereign state should be established within the pre-1967 borders. But the Quartet's statement is far from explicit about this.

The Quartet's Moscow statement was issued before the so-called "proximity talks" had yet got under way, and its first aim was to induce the parties to agree to these arms-length negotiations in the first place. The statement continues: "The Quartet believes these negotiations should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors."

That is the only reference to 1967 in the document.

The Quartet proceeded to discuss the other major issues outstanding between the two sides, and makes a specific reference to the Roadmap: "The Quartet reiterates its call on Israel and the Palestinians to act on the basis of international law and on their previous agreements and obligations — in particular adherence to the Roadmap, irrespective of reciprocity."

But the Roadmap, accepted by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in June 2009, is not specific in its proposals. The principles of the plan were first outlined by US President George W. Bush in a speech on 24 June 2002, in which he called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace: "The Roadmap represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states, a secure State of Israel and a viable, peaceful, democratic Palestine. It is the framework for progress towards lasting peace and security in the Middle East."

It envisaged achievement of this objective in three distinct phases, to which it allocated absurdly unrealistic timescales.

Phase I, which was to be achieved by May 2003, required an end to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, a freeze on settlement expansion, and Palestinian elections.

Phase II, for implementation within a further six months, called for an international conference to support Palestinian economic recovery and launch a process, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders; revival of multilateral engagement on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms control issues; and other Arab states restoring pre-intifada links to Israel (trade offices, etc.).

Phase III required, about a year or 18 months later, a second international conference; the achievement of a permanent status agreement and an end of the conflict; agreement on final borders, clarification of the highly controversial question of the fate of Jerusalem, refugees and settlements – and other Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel.

It is not the objectives, all worthy in themselves, which can be seen in hindsight to have been wildly optimistic, but the timetable for their achievement. In effect, little by little, and by circuitous, tortuous, meandering routes, most have actually been, or are in process of being, accomplished - with the possible exception of the international conferences, now replaced by direct talks.

A major obstacle, of course, is the end-result of those Palestinian elections in January 2006. Even though the extreme Islamist group, Hamas, trounced the rival Fatah party, they were not content to share power, but immediately inaugurated a struggle for ascendancy. In June 2007, in a bloody coup, they ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip altogether, and seized control. For the next twelve months Hamas pursued its struggle against Israel by firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into towns adjoining the border, until the six-month truce brokered by Egypt broke down and Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead. But Hamas and Fatah remain at daggers drawn, and this internecine struggle in itself represents a formidable obstacle to a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the major precondition that Abbas is reportedly insisting on before coming to the table, it is pretty obviously window-dressing rather than a stumbling block. Abbas has his street-cred among the broader Palestinian –not to say Arab – public to worry about. He has to be seen to be standing up to both Israel and the USA in the first instance. For the reality of the situation is that the pre-Six Day War boundaries are pretty well accepted on all sides as the basis for the new sovereign Palestine; the bargaining will come over the land swaps and adjustments that, once again, both sides have accepted as an essential element in any final agreement.

On the other hand, Abbas does have a point when demanding a clear agenda for direct talks. Without one, say the Palestinians, Netanyahu may propose terms for a peace treaty that are completely unacceptable, leaving Abbas tarred as a rejectionist when he refuses to accept them. His credibility could be irreparably damaged if he becomes embroiled in lengthy direct talks which get bogged down in irreconcilable differences.

The same argument does not quite apply to Netanyahu. His street-cred is not at stake. Except for a minority of hardliners, Israelis are not generally opposed to their prime minister sitting down with Palestinians to talk peace. Equally, if the talks fail, Netanyahu is unlikely to feel he has lost face – or, indeed, votes in a forthcoming election. Nevertheless he, like Mahmoud Abbas, has more to gain than to lose from a successful outcome.

Whether or not this current momentum will indeed carry the parties to the negotiating table, it has become increasing clear that to that table they will, sooner or later, inevitably come.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Lebanon incident – an opportunistic confrontation

Enemies of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority abound.

In the Middle East the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah axis also embraces extreme Islamist organisations world-wide to form what is coming to be known as "global jihad" – a combination of groups and bodies intent on waging war against non-Muslims in general, but directing their terrorist activities especially against Christians, Jews and western-style democracies.

These organisations, and the individuals who are sympathetic to their aims, have a long list of reasons for confronting Israel at any time – and have no hesitation in inventing more as opportunity presents itself. At the moment Israelis and Palestinians seem to be edging towards direct peace negotiations. This would certainly not suit the agenda of global jihad, and the traditional way of undermining such moves is to mount some sort of terror attack calculated to result in retaliation. The rocket attack on Israel's southern city of Eilat last week was just such a move – a move that went disastrously wrong when it resulted in death and damage in the adjacent Jordanian city of Aqaba.

At the moment a new confrontation with Israel might divert attention from the fourth set of United Nations sanctions about to be imposed on Iran; or it could serve to turn the world's gaze away from International Court of Justice indictments that seem about to be issued against senior Hezbollah figures over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Iran's President Ahmadinejad has even chosen this moment to repeat his denial of the Holocaust and his claim that the events of 9/11 were a conspiracy engineered by the United States. Yesterday – Saturday 7 August – according to a report by the official Iranian news agency IRNA, he again asserted, as he has in the past, that the attack on the Twin Towers was a “big fabrication” used to justify the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speaking at a Tehran conference, Ahmadinejad said there was no evidence that the death toll at New York's World Trade Center, destroyed in the attacks, was as high as reported and said "Zionists" had been tipped off in advance. No "Zionists" were killed in the World Trade Center, according to Ahmadinejad, because "one day earlier they were told not go to their workplace".

"They announced that 3,000 people were killed in this incident," he told a gathering of the Iranian news media, "but there were no reports that reveal their names. Maybe you saw that, but I did not."

In point of fact there is available online a published list of all those killed on 11 September 2001. According to official US figures, 2,995 people from more than 90 countries were killed in the attacks, including 19 hijackers and all passengers and crew aboard four commandeered airliners.

In this febrile atmosphere, the incident on the Lebanese-Israel border last week assumes some sort of context.

What are the facts?

At 9 am last Tuesday (3 August) following standard procedure, the officer commanding a unit of the Israel Defense Forces on the Lebanese border, not far from the Israeli kibbutz of Misgav Am, informed the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that the army planned to prune several trees within Israeli territory in order to remove branches that were interfering with electronic detection devices.

Where were the trees?

Next day (Wednesday) a UNIFIL spokesman said that the organization had established that "the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side."

And what is this "Blue Line"?

The blue line is a UN-drawn recognised international border between Lebanon and Israel, established in 2000 following the cessation of hostilities. To be crystal clear, stretching behind the blue line towards Israel there is an enclave, the edge of which is marked by a security fence. Both enclave and fence are in Israel proper. Since the Second Lebanon War four years ago, Israel has frequently operated inside the enclave. In some places the "blue line" is very close to the fence, while in others the enclave is as much as 800 metres wide.

To return to Tuesday morning. The pruning work on the trees was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m., but Israel accepted UNIFIL’s request to delay the action for two hours. In the meantime, in accordance with standard operating procedure, UNIFIL informed the Lebanese army of what was planned.

What happened in those two hours?

That is a matter of some speculation. There is some evidence that a Lebanese army officer with Hezbollah sympathies decided to exploit the situation. A sniper was briefed and a unit put on alert. The Lebanese media were tipped off, and a TV crew arrived near the scene to film the attack. A Lebanese marksman fired two or three shots, one of them at the head of a senior IDF officer, who was killed, and the other in the chest of a junior officer, who currently remains in a serious but stable condition. Lebanon says that at least three of its soldiers and a journalist were killed in the resulting exchange of fire.

What else has emerged about this incident?

Well, a Lebanese military spokesman told the Lebanese newspaper A-Nahar on Wednesday that the Lebanese Army was first to open fire – adding, however, that it was their right "to defend Lebanon's sovereignty." Subsequently the UN peacekeeping force has confirmed that the tree whose branches were being cut back was indeed in Israeli territory. Finally a chief UNIFIL official confirmed on Wednesday that Israeli soldiers did not cross the border with Lebanon before the clash.

Immediately following the incident urgent messages flew from western capitals to Jerusalem and Beirut urging de-escalation and restraint, while the UN Security Council held a closed-door session which resulted in nothing more incisive than a short statement reiterating the call on both sides to show restraint.

Restraint is indeed the only response likely to spike the guns of those who are intent on stirring up the maximum trouble in the region. For the moment Israel has contented itself with official letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Vitaly Churkin, President of the United Nations Security Council, explaining that the attacks by the Lebanon army threaten stability, peace, and security in the region, and that "in response to this grave incident Israel exercised its right of self-defense, responding with the appropriate measures on LAF positions in the area."

What moral can be drawn from this incident? That the war waged by the enemies of peace is opportunistic and relentless, and that only steadfastness of purpose will overcome them.

On Wednesday morning, Israel Defense forces returned to the site and uprooted the trees without interference.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Eilat rocket attack – too clever by half?

The pattern is so unvarying that it has become predictable. Every so often the Israeli-Palestinian kaleidoscope gets a good shake, and the pieces assemble themselves into a design suggesting the possibility of an accord. No sooner does this happen than forces opposed to compromise unleash some act of violence calculated to inflame public opinion and frustrate such an outcome.

Last Thursday (29 July) Arab League foreign ministers gave PA President Mahmoud Abbas the green light to proceed to direct face-to-face peace talks with Israel as soon as he deems it appropriate to do so. After months of indirect talks and relative lack of progress, there is now a broad international coalition backing the US call for the resumption of direct talks. Britain, France, Italy and Germany have been working actively behind the scenes to push the Palestinians back to direct negotiations. In addition it was only a few weeks ago that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres met with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, and received their support for direct talks.

With the Israeli settlement moratorium set to expire in late September, and demands from hard-liners growing on Netanyahu not to renew it, there is an increasing desire on all sides to avoid a new crisis and ensure that progress is made ahead of the critical moment. The next possible step is a trilateral meeting in Washington next week between Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators. This is a Palestinian initiative to which the Obama administration is attempting to win Israel's agreement – its aim: to set the terms of reference, agenda and timetable for direct negotiations. If Israel agrees to the meeting, it will be the first significant direct talks with the Palestinian Authority since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister last year.

This positive and gathering momentum towards peace has proved too much for the visceral Islamist rejectionists that abound in Hamas-dominated Gaza. The result: a barrage of rockets fired pretty indiscriminately towards Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat, but in the event wreaking death, casualties and damage in the adjacent Jordanian resort of Aqaba.

"Preliminary information," reported Egypt's official news agency, "indicates that Palestinian factions from the Gaza Strip are behind that operation." A number of terrorist groups with links to Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and other global Jihadi bodies, are known to be operating in the Sinai peninsula, engaged in smuggling arms into the Gaza Strip and attempting to penetrate into Israel – which is why Israel's Counter Terrorism Unit recently issued a serious travel warning to tourists contemplating travelling to Sinai and Egypt.

But today (Wednesday, 4 August) Cairo security officials told the Egyptian news daily al-Youm al-Saba'a that Hamas was responsible for the rocket attack. According to the report, Hamas operatives infiltrated into the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza to fire the rockets, so that it would appear as if they had been fired by an Egyptian terror group.

Hamas have denied responsibility. Their spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri criticized Egyptian security sources' allegations, calling them "politically motivated".

People who launch rockets randomly into civilian areas simply in order to create terror and stir up conflict are not usually very sophisticated in their thinking. They cannot be expected to consider carefully the possibly unanticipated results of their actions. This latest rocket attack may prove to be a case in point. For one outcome appears to be a closing of ranks between Israel and Jordan in opposing the extremists.

On Monday, shortly after the rocket attack, Israel's President, Shimon Peres, said that Israel and Jordan were now working together in the fight against terror. Fears in Amman about the increasing influence of the Iranian-led axis, with its connections to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, had already led to stronger defence ties between the Israeli and the Jordanian armed forces. The Katyusha rockets that struck in Aqaba were most likely meant to hit Eilat, but they did make clear that the terrorists who are moving freely throughout the Sinai Peninsula threaten not only Israel, but also neighbouring Jordan.

The end result – a more concentrated and concerted move against them – may be far from what the terrorists intended.