A few years ago, on a visit to the Israeli town of Sderot, I stood beside a small crater in the middle of a kindergarten playground. The school director explained that a Qassam rocket fired from nearby Gaza had landed there the previous weekend. No one was harmed because the school was empty that day. It was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
On a regular day dozens of children would have been on site. I left Sderot in March 2008 wondering what would happen if Hamas committed a mass murder of Israeli children. A combination of sheer luck, and the ability of agile youngsters to run – compelled, unfortunately, all too frequently -- to the safety of bomb shelters has so far averted such a tragedy as thousands of rockets, mortars and missiles have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel.
Then, on April 7, a Hamas missile hit a school bus at Kibbutz Saad. One teenager, the last pupil still on the bus, was critically injured and died ten days later in an Israeli hospital.
“I don’t understand why once we left Gaza, they started to shoot at us, backed by declarations calling for the destruction of the State of Israel,” Shimon Peres, Israel’s President, said at a New York press conference a few days after the Russian-made Kormet guided anti-tank missile struck the yellow bus.
“The U.N. cannot remain neutral in such a position,” declared Peres, who had delivered the same message to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that day. Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate has persistently sought with determination the path to a negotiated two-state settlement. Yet, while the Israeli leader’s request for international action against Hamas was not exactly rebuffed, it certainly has been ignored.
Residents of Sderot and other Israeli communities cannot be sanguine about the so-called unity agreement signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who, unlike the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, calls the shots for the Islamist organization from his perch in Damascus.
At a minimum, the accord is a furtive effort to paper over the deep divide between Fatah and Hamas to show unity in the Palestinian campaign for U.N. recognition, perhaps in September, of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. The fact that Gaza is ruled by an Islamist terrorist organization is barely mentioned.
But this veneer of Palestinian unity is a charade. Tony Blair, representative of the Quartet, the global coalition of the U.S., EU, Russia and U.N. that has helped to steer the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, raised concerns immediately after the Cairo signing ceremony, declaring that Hamas must have a “change of heart” for the new unity government to succeed. In other words, Hamas must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Reform is not in the Hamas vernacular. After violently seizing control of Gaza in 2007, ousting Fatah from the coastal enclave, and openly defying Abbas’ authority, Hamas secured the reconciliation agreement without executing any reform whatsoever. Abbas signed without getting, assuming he requested, from Hamas commitments to recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Thus, while the apparent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is supposed to offer hope, the agreement raises more questions than answers. What will happen, for example, to Salam Fayyad, the Abbas-appointed prime minister, who has shepherded the dramatic transformation in the West Bank, achieving economic growth, promoting cooperation with Israel, and setting up institutions for a Palestinian state?
Regarding Israel, Hamas may offer another truce, but such unilaterally declared ceasefires have proven expendable. The missile that hit the school bus came amid a sudden barrage of dozens of mortars and rockets, ending a relative lull, what Hamas might call a truce, for nearly two years.
Hamas continued to buildup its arsenal, acquiring more sophisticated and longer-range weapons, such as the rockets fired recently on the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and the attempted delivery of a massive load of Iranian arms aboard the Victoria ship seized by the Israeli navy in March.
Ideological, as well as geographical, divisions between the competing Palestinian leaderships may prove to be too great and the unity agreement could falter in the coming weeks. Ahead of the Cairo ceremony, Gaza-based Haniyeh called on the PLO, headed by Abbas, to repeal its recognition of Israel.
Nations lining up to endorse a possible U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state should reconsider, especially when there is no clarity on who would lead that entity, what will be its political orientation, and how that outcome will contribute to peace with Israel.
To achieve sustainable peace, it is essential for the Palestinians to resolve their internal challenges in a way that those committed to peaceful conflict resolution and abandoning violence can prevail and return to direct talks with Israel to complete a permanent agreement.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.