In the parlance of our times, “chatter is how we would describe the debate about a possible international force in occupied Palestine. As in all chatter, the one most important objective is to sort the wheat from the chaff and attempt to determine if, when, and what impact the result of such intense banter might be. First, a quick look at the facts.
Israel has consistently rejected any and all calls for an international presence in the Occupied Territories for the past 40 years, with the exception of the very significantly insignificant TIPH, or Temporary International Presence in Hebron, “deployed in that city following the massacre of Palestinian worshipers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 by a Jewish American settler. As for TIPH’s impact, suffice it to say that this contingent of well-intentioned, unarmed Scandinavians, mostly, cannot even make public statements or reports about what it sees, let alone intervene to protect the local Palestinian population of Hebron.
So why is Israel all of a sudden willing to put a group of European soldiers in Gaza? Because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to get ahead of the debate and make sure that any international force that may be deployed will do Israel’s bidding and nothing else. If this still-phantom force can isolate Gaza even more, if it can drive an even greater wedge into crumbling Palestinian national aspirations, then Israel will throw its significant weight behind it to the detriment of all.
From a Palestinian perspective, the Palestine Liberation Organization has called for “international protection ever since the late Chairman Yasser Arafat first discovered a microphone and just about every Palestinian backed him up. The big difference this time is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is calling for the deployment of an international force only in Hamas-run Gaza to ensure “free and fair elections. Hamas has roundly rejected any international deployment plans, going so far as to threaten to treat them as an “additional occupation force and to “receive them with rockets and missiles. Typical Hamas hyperbole aside, that position appears to have merit and is more than a knee-jerk reaction, even though it is clear that Hamas is playing party politics to the hilt. On the other side, Fatah has given the call a less then resounding endorsement, coming across as a group of jilted lovers, only happy when it can hit back at Hamas in any way available.
So is there any use for this international force in Palestine? Yes, but with a few, very major conditions attached.
First, any force must be deployed to protect the Palestinian people from the Israeli occupation. In order to develop, reform and grow, Palestine and its people must be safe from the iron fist of the Israeli military that sweeps in death and destruction on a regular basis. Israel is the real threat here and this must be recognized before anything substantial can be done.
Second, elections do not make a democracy and can even be counterproductive. Hamas, for all its faults, won the last parliamentary elections fair and square and the entire “international community greeted them with boycotts and a siege. With their actions, Europe and the United States pushed the cause of “democracy back an entire generation in this region. To hold another round of useless elections at this time would be hollow at best and calamitous at worst. If, and only if, Abbas can get ironclad guarantees from the US and Europe that the outcome of any future elections will be fully respected should they be held. We do not need another exercise in futility.
At the same time, Hamas must also immediately step back from its ill-begotten takeover of Gaza, humbly ask Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to resume control over the strip and apologize to the Palestinian people for its despicable and unacceptable actions last month. Hamas must realize by now that civil war is not tolerated in Palestinian society.
For his part, Abbas needs to clean the Fatah house in a big way (which he should have done a long time ago), dismiss the many corrupt and incompetent officials within both the leadership and the rank and file, and bring legal action in the most egregious cases. If these conditions are met even to some extent, then bringing in an international force to ensure safe and fair elections would make sense.
Finally, the force must be deployed throughout the Occupied Territories and not only in Gaza. It in no way can contribute to the division of Palestine, lest it rightly be seen as playing an active part in the occupation. If the international community wishes to protect Palestine and provide it with a haven safe from Israeli punitive actions in order to give the Palestinian leadership a fighting chance at reforming itself, then an international force should be welcomed with open arms. If it is planning to take sides in an internal Palestinian struggle, or just to enjoy the weather, then it is better off staying at home.
All efforts from Fatah, Hamas, the Quartet and even Israel should be focused on achieving one goal: freeing both Palestinians and Israelis from the yoke of the Israeli occupation. All steps should be taken in this direction or not taken at all. The only international force that makes sense is one with a meaning. Akram Bakeris an independent political analyst based in Ramallah. He is also co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons.org, an online newsletter.