4 August 2006

The Peace Process: so close and now so far...

Increasing corroboration of the story of how Shin Bet scuppered unprecedented peace negotiations that made the current war in Lebanon inevitable, from a mainstream daily newspaper in New Zealand (of all places -- why aren't newspapers in London, Washington and Tel Aviv covering this?). The author of the piece, Chris Trotter, is a well-known political commentator in that country. Here, he draws on the reporting by myself (which was based on that of my colleague Graham Ennis from the Omega Institute) and Israeli journalist Arthur Neslan, as well as it seems his own sources to show how the entire narrative of the Middle East crisis has been subverted in favour of Israeli aggression.

"So close and now so far"
New Zealand
04 August 2006



With horror upon horror piling up in Lebanon, war has once again laid waste the hopes of peace-loving people all over the Middle East. And now it is revealed that, instead of recoiling from another Arab-Israeli bloodbath, the world could just as easily have been celebrating the outbreak of peace.

At least that is the claim that has been made by Nafeez Mossaddeq Ahmed, of the Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex, and journalist Arthur Neslen on the English-language website of the Arab TV network, al Jazeera.

Apparently, negotiations between Hamas and Israeli religious leaders had advanced to the point where both sides were ready to kick-start a bold new peace initiative by jointly demanding the freeing of the captured Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Almost forgotten in the maelstrom of violence engulfing Lebanon, Corporal Shalit remains a captive of the Hamas militia in Gaza. He has been in their custody since late June, when he was taken prisoner during a gun battle between Hamas militants and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

Desperate to preserve the informal truce between the Israeli Government and the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Parliament, religious leaders on both sides moved swiftly to secure his freedom.

Time, they knew, was of the essence. So often, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, tentative movements toward peace and reconciliation have been brought to a sudden halt by the provocations of extremist elements on both sides of the conflict.

Sensing, perhaps, that the abduction of Corporal Shalit was one of these, the peacemakers spent the first week of July in frantic efforts to secure the Israeli soldier's freedom and extend the truce.

Though neither the Palestinian Authority nor the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were officially involved in these discussions, both governments were kept fully informed of developments.

By the second week in July, the religious leaders were ready to hold a press conference at which a joint appeal would be made for Corporal Shalit's freeing. Of equal importance to this show of Palestinian-Israeli unity was the planned announcement of proposals for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners. It was hoped that this confidence-building exercise would act as the catalyst for a whole new framework for official peace negotiations.

But, according to Nafeez and Neslen, that was not the way events unfolded. On the eve of the press conference, Israel's internal security service the Shin Bet is alleged to have arrested Abu Arafa, the Palestinian cabinet minister for Jerusalem, and Abu Tir, a senior Hamas member of the Palestinian Parliament, and threatened them with detention if they attended the meeting. Not surprisingly, the plans of the peacemakers were thrown into disarray.

At the downsized press conference, Yitzhak Frankenthal of the Arik Institute for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace, whose son was killed by Hamas in 1994, became the target of sustained media abuse.

According to Neslen, one of the outraged press pack demanded to know: "Should someone who murdered your son be freed?"

Frankenthal replied: "It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to say that they are terrorists and we must fight them.

"But in the eyes of the Palestinians, they are liberators. We need to understand that it is the obligation of the Palestinians, as it is the obligation of every other nation, to fight for their liberation.

"The time has come for reconciliation, and the only way to achieve that is to talk."

The following day, IDF tanks and troops poured across the Gaza border. Twenty-four hours later Abu Tir and Abu Arafa, along with a third of the Palestinian cabinet, were taken into custody by Israeli forces.

Hopes for a lasting peace were dashed. And not just with Hamas.

It has been reported that covert operations inside Lebanese territory by elements of the IDF were timed to coincide with the assault on Gaza and that on July 12, the Israelis were saying that Hizbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers during clashes across the border in southern Lebanon, prompting swift Israeli retaliation.

By the following day, the story had changed. Now it was Hizbollah which had crossed the border.
I argued last week that Israel was acting according to Hizbollah's script. Seven days later, I'm left wondering if it's the other way around.

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