"We cannot control the firing of these rockets from Gaza," explained Maen Areikat, the deputy head of the negotiations department for the Palestinian Authority.
Speaking at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem last week, Areikat, a relative moderate among Palestinian officials, made the offhand remark in the midst of a discussion about peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
According to Areikat, the PA desires a "lasting peace" with Israel, which would require Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders (with some modifications), to create a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and offer a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee issue.
The problem is that even if one assumes the best intentions from PA representatives such as Areikat, there can be no "lasting peace" for Israel as long as Hamas maintains control of Gaza, and continues to launch rockets into southern Israel.
Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, thousands of rockets have landed in and around the Israeli town of Sderot, just a few miles east of the Gaza border. While the missiles are generally inaccurate and don't cause massive casualties, the constant threat of attack has taken a psychological toll on the local population and plays a dominant role in the daily life of the town.
The Israeli government sends a siren to residents warning them of an incoming missile, but they only get 15 seconds to seek cover, for instance, at bomb shelters situated by bus stops. As a result, some mothers have stopped wearing seat belts when driving so they'll have additional time to protect their children, while other residents are afraid of taking showers.
Terrorists have also been firing rockets into Ashkelon, a few miles to the north, even though it houses the Rotenberg Power Station, which supplies electricity to Gaza, and Barzilai Hospital, which treats Gaza patients. Earlier this year, a rocket landed in the hospital's parking lot.
Starting with last year's conference in Annapolis, the Bush administration has made a late push for Middle East peace. But these efforts, which, depending on what happens in Israeli elections in February, could accelerate under Barack Obama, are futile as long as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement cannot stop Hamas.
Areikat argued that the factional split among Palestinians should be of no concern to peacemakers.
"Of course, we would love to have an agreement with all the factions, where we could offer a united Palestinian position on Israel, but if that is not going to be obtainable, then we will continue and we will reach an agreement with Israel," he said.
Any agreement would then trigger a public referendum, requiring the approval of a majority of Palestinians.
"If majority of people support it, and we cannot implement it in Gaza, then we will have to wait until the conditions are different there so we can implement it," Areikat said. "I hope we can end that before, but if this situation persists, then unfortunately, we have to deal with it, but we are not going to allow it to be an obstacle in the way of pursuing peace."
Areikat insisted that Hamas's victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections had nothing to do with the group's founding goal of destroying Israel, and he claimed that like most Palestinians, he had never read the Hamas charter. (His associate, Rami Tahboub, went a step further, declaring, "There is no Hamas charter.")
But regardless of Areikat's interpretation of the events, the facts on the ground are that since expelling Fatah forces in June 2007, Hamas has had control of Gaza, using a complex network of hundreds of tunnels to smuggle in weapons and explosives.
Earlier this month, Hamas pulled out of talks with Fatah that were to be brokered by Egypt. Further complicating matters, there is a looming power struggle set for January, with both factions disputing when Abbas's term is supposed to end.
Hamas has said that Abbas's term expires in January 2009, and has vowed to appoint a replacement at that time. But Fatah has argued that his term actually extends until January 2010, thus coinciding with parliamentary elections. Either way, it's not an issue that is likely to be resolved quietly, and Hamas is going to remain a major player.
While Hamas officials have made various head-fakes about offering a ceasefire with Israel in exchange for a return to the 1967 borders, Areikat explained that Hamas was merely playing "good cop, bad cop" in an attempt to "open channels of communication" with Europe. Given that Hamas is part of the Islamic Brotherhood, he said, the group could never truly recognize Israel.
"Hamas is offering a Hudna, a truce," Areikat said. "A longterm truce, but then maybe in 10 or 15 years they'll say it no longer applies. But we [the PLO] are offering a long-term peace."
In other words, Israel is expected to sit down at the bargaining table and offer concessions to the Palestinians even though the Palestinians cannot make peace among themselves, even though the Palestinian president has a tenuous grip on power, and even though there's no reason to believe that such concessions would mollify a terrorist group that is dedicated to Israel's destruction.
One can only wonder how the international community would react if Israel declared that it was offering a long-term peace, but that it had no control over the actions of the Israel Defense Forces.
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