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Commentary Last Updated: Jun 20th, 2007 - 01:01:42

Barghouthi may be the man Palestine needs
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 20, 2007, 00:58

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It looks as though everything is going to plan for Israel and its backers within the international community. The Palestinians are divided as never before with the West Bank dominated by Fatah while Gaza is the province of Hamas. Now that Hamas has been virtually corralled in one vulnerable area it is ripe for destruction.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has dismantled his unity government and sworn in an emergency Cabinet made up of secular technocrats. Hamas refuses to recognize its legitimacy. It is a recipe for further inter-Palestinian conflict.

But Hamas leaders have a lot more to worry about. According to a report in Britain�s Sunday Times, Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister who has recently been appointed defense secretary is planning to launch a major assault on Gaza to take Hamas out of the game once and for all.

Residents of Gaza are bracing themselves for an Israeli military onslaught and a possible prolonged war of attrition. There are long queues for petrol and food is disappearing off supermarket shelves. The Israeli company responsible for supplying fuel to Gaza has already turned off the tap, which means people are literally facing a period of darkness.

The Israeli justice minister has suggested opening the doors between Gaza and the West Bank for those Palestinians wishing to flee. This could be construed as an invitation for Fatah supporters to join their brethren.

In the meantime, Israel and its friends are rallying around Abbas, which tends to diminish whatever credibility he has left among his own people, many of whom suspect him of collaborating too closely with the occupiers and of being too eager to toe the US line.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Tuesday with US President George W. Bush to discuss the situation. En route to Washington Olmert had this to say: �A government that is not a Hamas government is a partner.�

This is new. A government led by former Fatah leader Yasser Arafat wasn�t a partner. Instead it was reviled and attacked.

And a government led by Mahmoud Abbas following Arafat�s demise wasn�t a partner either. That was initially given the brush-off and was later undermined by US demands for democrat elections.

The talks between Olmert and Bush centered on how best to bolster Abbas, their new best friend. The US will relax restrictions on aid to Palestinians living on the West Bank and Olmert has indicated his willingness to release tax revenue --ithheld by Israel ever since Hamas was elected to power -- to the new government.

�To give it to a Hamas government is reckless,� said Olmert. �To give it to a Fatah government is an opportunity.� The US has been supplying Fatah with weapons to use against Hamas for some time now with the approval of the Israeli authorities. Now that Hamas has control of Gaza some of these American-supplied weapons have fallen into its hands.

For its part, Hamas insists it needed to stamp its authority on Gaza to return to the rule of law and to prevent its officials being targeted for assassination. Given that the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was attacked, there is a ring of truth to this assertion.

There is now comparative quiet on the streets but this is nothing more than a temporary calm, perhaps the calm before the storm.

Through no fault of its own, Hamas has little to offer the people of Gaza. Israel controls the borders, sea and air as well as the passage of goods. Israel can also cut off fuel supplies and electricity at any time it likes. And since Hamas� takeover of Gaza isn�t recognized by either Israel or Egypt, it will be unable to negotiate the opening up of supply routes.

Hamas has turned out to be a liability for the Palestinians and a barrier to their hopes of a state all because the US, Israel and their European allies labeled Hamas a terrorist organization from day one and treated it as a pariah that must be crushed. It was never given a chance to show what it could do and it never will be provided with that opportunity.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow for Hamas and for those Palestinians who voted for a Hamas-led government, but Hamas should relinquish Gaza and back the emergency government on condition their militants aren�t hunted down and their leadership is not targeted.

The Hamas-Fatah split is divisive and polarizing for the Palestinian people. It would be in the interests of all Palestinians for Hamas to get out of the game for now at least.

Then Fatah must appoint a new leader. Abbas did not enjoy the support of Yasser Arafat and is not supported by his people. Interestingly, Abbas appears to be aware of his own shortcomings and is apparently set to ask Israel to release Marwan Barghouthi -- arguably the one man who could reunite Palestinians of all factions. Barghouthi, currently serving time in an Israeli jail for multiple murders that he denies committing, is considered by most Palestinians as a true patriot and is a popular grassroots leader.

A member of Fatah since the age of 15, Barghouthi was prominent during both the first and second intifadahs, yet, during a stint as a member of the Palestinian Authority he veered toward peace with Israel and lent his support to a two-state solution. At the end of 2005, Barghouthi announced the formation of a new party called Al-Mustaqbal or �The Future,� which was to be committed to fighting corruption. But this idea was put on hold during Barghouthi�s incarceration when it was deemed impracticable.

The Palestinians desperately need a hero. Fatah needs someone capable of gluing their people back together and Mahmoud Abbas needs someone who can prop him up.

The Israelis say they need a peace partner -- a person able to speak for all Palestinians. Marwan Barghouthi may be the only viable candidate for the job.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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