September 24, 2007

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This week Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a former member of the Palestinian government and a respected authority on Palestinian affairs, spoke at Cornell for her third time. The premise of her speech was that the Palestinians desire peace, the Israeli “occupation” has denied them peace, and it is in everybody’s interest to see peace come to the Middle East. However, it is not in the interest of everyone to have stability in this region and while Israel certainly deserves some of the blame, an end to the “occupation” is only a part of the puzzle.
The continuous war between Israel and the Palestinians is actually a unifying force in the Middle East. Ashrawi pointed out that many nations and leaders, including the likes of Saddam Hussein, exploit this conflict. The reason for this is that the struggle between Palestine and Israel is historically one of the only things that unites both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Whenever the leader of a nation in the Middle East needs to unite and quiet his people, he refers to the Palestinian/Israeli battle. We do not need to look further than Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who used the success of Hezbollah against Israel as a way to quell anti-Iranian sentiment in the region. As much as we might not like to admit it, at this point in time it is the leaders of nations who control the Middle East, not the people. It is in these leaders’ interests to maintain a state of tension and hostility.
This brings me to Israel. Certainly Israel’s policies have been flawed. The “occupation,” although it has been scaled down recently, has done little except to inflame passions on both sides. The construction of walls to enclose Israel and isolate the surrounding Gaza Strip and West Bank is not an effective means of preventing attacks and it too has done little to put out the fire. Israel’s recent threat of cutting off electricity to the Gaza Strip does not help the situation either. Israel must be held accountable for its actions and should not get an automatic pass on everything simply because it is an ally of the United States. However, Israel is in a very tough spot and it is naïve to say that Israeli negotiations with Hamas will lead to peace.
The Palestinian people elected Hamas in a relatively free and fair election. It is true that Hamas provides many services to the poor people of Palestine, and in some ways, it has helped them. Nonetheless, in the long run it will hurt Palestinians much more than it helps them. Hamas is a terrorist organization. There is no way around it. It has imprisoned and murdered numerous innocent people, is responsible for repeated missile attacks on Israel, and does not even recognize the existence of Israel. These policies are what Ashrawi calls Hamas’ “political agenda.” Hamas has shown no sign of reform. Yet for the time being, Hamas is here to stay. The question is how Israel should deal with this. As mentioned previously, Israel needs to change some of its ways. But how can Israel participate in a serious negotiation with an organization that does not even recognize Israel’s existence? Furthermore, even assuming an agreement can be reached, how could Israel be assured that Hamas would not only abide by it, but that other nations such as Iran and other groups such as Hezbollah would allow it to happen?
In order for peace to be achieved, both Israel and the Palestinians need to change. The first step is for the Palestinian people to force Hamas to change or to vote it out of power. The existence of Israel needs to be recognized and the terrorism needs to cease. At the same time, Israel needs to tear down the walls and remove its troops from Palestinian lands. Israel is the wealthier and arguably more powerful nation and therefore needs to take the leading role. However, the ball is in the court of the Palestinian people. If Hamas continues to get elected and does not reform its “political agenda,” it is unlikely that we will see peace any time soon.