Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped up the pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week to disarm Hamas terrorists before Palestinian elections in July, warning that failure to do so would stop the peace process. But Abbas refused.
"Israelis want Palestinian blood to be spilled, and we don‘t accept that," Abbas was quoted as saying. "This is a red line. We run our security in our own way, for our people‘s protection."
But Danny Rothschild, a reserve major general and former deputy director of military intelligence, predicted that Abbas will soon have to move to disarm Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
"He will not have a choice at the end of the day because they are threatening him as least as much as they are threatening us," he said. "Hamas has gained a lot of power and he cannot be the president of everyone."
Rothschild added that Abbas must act before the July 17 Palestinian legislative election or risk having his Fatah party lose the election. Fatah now controls two-thirds of the seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, but polls show Hamas eroding that margin or perhaps even capturing more than half of the legislative seats. "Hamas is reorganizing itself and the Fatah people are fighting each other and are going to lose the election," he said.But Leonard Weinberg, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada and a fellow at the University of Haifa, said he does not believe the Palestinian Authority "has the ability to disarm Hamas, and if it attempted to do so it would become less popular than it is now."
Observers note that Israel has rejected a U.S. proposal to arm Palestinian police and a Russian offer to provide the Palestinians with 50 armored vehicles.
Until now, Abbas has agreed to allow Hamas members to keep their weapons, provided they don‘t flaunt them in public or use them in attacks against Israelis. He vowed last week to use an "iron fist" to ensure that Palestinian terrorists abide by his pledge of quiet during the implementation of the Gaza withdrawal this summer. He told Hamas leaders last month that he sees no need for Hamas members to carry weapons once they have transformed themselves into a political party. And Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has called the goal of disarming Hamas "a process."
Israeli officials are said to privately fear that should Hamas gain legitimacy as a political party, the European Union would take it off its terrorist list just as it did after Hezbollah terrorists added a political dimension by becoming involved in Lebanese politics.
Publicly, Israeli officials are saying the disarming of Hamas is in keeping with the internationally sponsored road map to peace."It is inconceivable for an armed party to participate in the democratic process," Sharon was quoted as telling visiting U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Bill Frist on Monday. "From there it is impossible to move onto the road map."
He was also quoted as telling Egyptian officials two weeks ago: "We can‘t allow it [Hamas] to run in the elections and retain an independent military capability."
And Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said it would be "bad for everyone" were an armed Hamas to be run candidates in the election.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israel‘s objective is not to be critical of Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, but rather to see Hamas disarmed.
"In all of the agreements with Abu Mazen it says the Palestinian Authority will disarm all militias, including Hamas," he said. "These statements are to emphasize that commitment and to say that before the Palestinian elections take place this commitment has to be honored. The issue of Palestinian implementation [of its road map commitments] has become a major point of conflict."
He pointed out that although Israel agreed to withdraw troops from all major Palestinian towns in the West Bank, it stopped after withdrawing from Jericho and Tulkarem because there are still armed Palestinians roaming the streets. And the killing of an Israeli soldier Monday by an escaped Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist only served to underscore that fact.
"It was the first time in quite a while that an Israeli soldier has been killed [by Palestinians], and it puts pressure on Sharon to put the disarming of Hamas and other groups like Islamic Jihad at the top of his list," Steinberg said. He pointed out that for many months Sharon was encouraged to downplay Abbas‘ refusal to implement the conditions of the road map. But Steinberg said the killing of an Israeli soldier just as Israel is preparing to move ahead with its Gaza disengagement plan "reminds people of the worst days of the last four years."
"It’s reminiscent of the kind of behavior [Yasir] Arafat represented," he said.The Israeli news service Arutz-7 pointed out that in reporting Monday‘s shooting, the official Palestinian news agency made no mention that an Israeli soldier had been killed and another wounded by the Palestinian fugitive, only that the Palestinian had been killed by Israeli forces. They described him as a "father of four" and did not report his terrorist background and escape from a Palestinian prison.
"The image created for the readers of the English-language PA report is one of random Israeli murder," said the news service.
And Palestinian leaders were quoted as condemning Israel‘s attempt to arrest the fugitive. Shortly after the incident, Islamic Jihad announced that it had fired three homemade rockets at the southern Israeli town of Sderot. No casualties were reported.
Soon after the rocket attack, Palestinian security forces exchanged fire with three Hamas men suspected of responsibility for the attack. One of the men was arrested. Hamas denied it had anything to do with the attack and called for protests over the arrest. The man was later released because, according to the PA, of pressure from Egypt.
Observers said the incident shows the weakness of the PA in confronting the popular, well-armed Hamas movement.
Weinberg said he considers it "pretty unlikely" that Hamas would voluntarily disarm in advance of the July election. But, he said, it has been known to happen in other countries. He cited Northern Ireland as an example of a country where the IRA-Sinn Fein, a paramilitary organization and political party, entered politics after agreeing to decommission their weapons. Something similar happened in El Salvador and in Angola, he said.
"This kind of thing is not unprecedented, but it would seem unlikely to me that Hamas would agree to that given its mindset," Weinberg said. "They have refused to abandon the possibility of abandoning violence as long as Israeli troops still are in the territories. And it performs social services and is not just a murder organization."
Should the peace process take hold, however, and a Palestinian state be established along agreed upon borders, Hamas could "undergo a change and moderate its demands," Weinberg said.
"Over time, its commitment to destroying Israel would become lip service," he said. In other development, the Israeli government has offered to relocate Gaza residents to a new municipality of their own just north of the Gaza Strip in Nitzanim if they move en masse and without violence. The 1,500 families in the Gaza Strip were given until next Tuesday to accept the offer.
And the Israeli cabinet was to meet Sunday to consider reversing its earlier decision to destroy all evacuated homes and buildings in the Gaza Strip. Sharon was said to favor such a move if the evacuation could be carried out in coordination with the Palestinian Authority.