Self-inflicted deadly wounds

by James Zogby
31 May 2007
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WASHINGTON - Circumstances beyond one's control may shape life options and limit possibilities, but one need never be a helpless victim of fate.

I make this observation, in part, in reaction to the horrific scenes of violence playing out in Lebanon and Gaza. Both can be seen as a consequence of the lack of peace and realisation of justice, and the failure to resolve the region's long-festering problems. But while some injuries are inflicted, others are self-inflicted. And so, while fingers of blame can be pointed in many directions, for Lebanese and Palestinians, some should point close to home.

There can be no doubt, for example, that Israel bears significant responsibility for Gaza's long-standing crisis. As senior research scholar at the Harvard University Centre for Middle Eastern Studies Sara Roy has noted, during the first 25 years of the occupation, Israel deliberately de-developed the densely populated Gaza Strip, leaving it an impoverished dependency. At that point, Gaza's major source of income was day-labour employment at the lowest rungs of the Israeli economy. During most of the 1990s, even that was eliminated. And then came Israel's unilateral withdrawal.

Because Israel refused to negotiate its departure with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (which would have helped increase Abbas' authority in Gaza), because it refused to honour even the agreement negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that would have allowed post-withdrawal Gaza to import and export, and because it maintained a choke hold on all access and egress from Gaza - it "left" Gaza a reservation of poverty and anger, with Hamas in ascendance.

This much is true. But Hamas had choices - and it chose badly. After winning legislative elections in January 2006, it had the duty to behave responsibly. It did not. Instead of reining in violence, it allowed it to continue. Instead of assessing the balance of power, calculating the needs of its people and embarking on a political path towards empowerment, it stubbornly maintained a rejectionist resistance posture perhaps fitting an opposition party but not a government.

As a result, it forfeited needed international aid and support, squandering the fruits of its victory.

Despite history's lesson to "never pick a fight you can't win", Hamas persisted along a path of provocation, adding to the already unbearable hardships endured by the Palestinian people and felt most acutely in Gaza.

None of these blunders absolve Israel's inexcusable brutality, but nor can Hamas' failure be pardoned.

No good will come of this internecine war or the firing of "absurd" Qassams to provoke Israeli retaliation. Just as violence sabotaged the Oslo accords and the 2002 Beirut Declaration, it once again threatens to give Israel the upper hand in diplomatic circles and an excuse not to make peace.

The only effective options now are to return to the Mecca agreement, retire the suicidal weapons of "resistance" and empower the Palestinian presidency to regain lost ground on behalf of the entire nation.

In Lebanon, the situation is no better and no less deadly. The paralysis that cripples the country's political process has taken an enormous toll.

Hizbullah is still claiming that it won last year's costly war. Israel certainly did not win. Its stupidly brutal destruction of Lebanon's civilian infrastructure gained it nothing. But where is Hizbullah's "victory" with more than a thousand dead and billions of dollars in damage and losses? Can it be so down that this looks like up?

Add to this the political impasse which now threatens to deepen the divide in an already fractured society.

Peace, security and national reconciliation in Lebanon will require a new political formula that provides greater opportunity to the Shiite plurality. But should this come at the expense of failing to punish the assassins of Rafiq Hariri and so many others?

Shutting down the heart of the capital, frustrating reconstruction efforts and deepening the political divide are neither appropriate nor proportionate responses to what is essentially a political issue, with the very future of the nation's democratic institutions at stake. Responsible behaviour dictates a different course - one of dialogue and compromise leading to national reconciliation.

As to the horrific scenes unfolding in the Nahr Bared camp, much more must be said. Surely, no society can tolerate the criminal behaviour and threat posed by "Fatah Al Islam", and here this is plenty of blame to share. The situation in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon is truly deplorable. Four generations after coming to Lebanon, Palestinians still find themselves unwelcome and living in despair and abject poverty.

Lebanon's refusal to provide even the most basic rights and services to these Palestinians remains a black spot on the nation.

Cut off, as they have been, the camps have become breeding grounds for violent extremist movements who have preyed on anger, despair and vulnerability.

While the Lebanese army has the right to defend itself and the security of the nation, its assault on the camps in the last several days has been inexcusably heavy-handed and indiscriminate. What good can come of this?

External players certainly bear some responsibility. The U.S., Israel, Syria and Iran must be held to account for seeing in vulnerable situations of Lebanon and the Palestinians the opportunity to play out regional ambitions. But responsible players in the Palestinian society must exert greater control and the Lebanese army must behave with greater care.

In the short term, it is imperative that a more disciplined and humane approach be found to root out extremist groups. And in the long-term, Lebanon must re-examine its treatment of the Palestinians within its borders. Such self-examination will not solve the refugee issue or end the occupation and restore usurped rights. But it can help put Lebanon's house back in order and avert calamities in the future.

The Lebanese, and Palestinians, in Gaza and Lebanon, may be trapped in a war beyond their control. But even with that, they need not victimise each other and lead themselves on a path of self-destruction.

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* James J. Zogby is founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Jordan Times, 29 May 2007, www.jordantimes.com
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