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Tale of two elections

Sick of the West’s double standards Richard Burden sees a situation going critical for the beleaguered Palestinians

As I sat down to finish editing this piece over Easter the news broke of a suicide bomb attack outside a crowded restaurant in Tel Aviv. The pain and anguish captured by the TV pictures were as shocking as ever – and all too familiar. Over the last year, though, pictures of carnage like this have usually been broadcast from Iraq. Such scenes are rare in Israel and Palestine these days. Hamas has broadly observed a unilaterally declared ceasefire for many months now. However, this attack did not come from Hamas. Rather, the much smaller Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad, appear to have been responsible. Despite this Israel is still holding Hamas responsible for the outrage. Israeli spokespeople have said they will not respond with a military strike but is going to revoke the residency permits of three Hamas MPs who live in East Jerusalem. The fact that Hamas did not condemn the attack but described it as a natural response to Israeli occupation and violence is being seen as ‘proof’ of Hamas’s complicity. Whether Hamas’s ceasefire will itself become a casualty of this event remains to be seen.

Whilst it is of course to be welcomed that Israel has committed not to take further military action in response to the Tel Aviv atrocity, we have to be mindful of the fact that Israeli forces are already shelling Gaza on a daily basis. This had led to the deaths of three Palestinian civilians, including two children, with 47 others wounded over the days immediately before and after the suicide bombing. These are the deaths which don’t hit the headlines, and which the international news channels do not interrupt their broadcasts to show. Last week, the UN published a paper examining the humanitarian situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the coming months. The paper warns of an extremely bleak future situation for the Palestinian people. This is the context in which current events must be viewed.

In January, the parliamentary majority secured by Hamas in Palestine sent shock waves throughout the world. The international reaction was swift and the message clear. Nobody questioned that the elections had been run fairly or that the result was anything other than genuine. But Hamas was an organisation that had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people over the years. If Palestine’s new government wanted to be accepted as a legitimate player in the international community, it had to demonstrate that it had changed. It was going to have to abandon its demand for the destruction of Israel and it was going to have to renounce terrorism.

It did not matter that Hamas had maintained a ceasefire in practice, that its election platform had not included any reference to the destruction of Israel or that some Hamas spokespeople had even hinted at the possibility of negotiations. If Hamas did not say these things as explicitly as countries like the USA decreed, the implication was that the consequences would be severe.

It was no idle threat. The Bush Administration not only refused to have any contact with Palestine’s new government but immediately suspended all humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). In the week before the Easter suicide bomb, the EU followed suit by also suspending all direct aid to the PA. That accounted for nearly half of the $600m the EU sends to the territories. The cut came at a time when the Authority already had a deficit of around $900m and when poverty in Gaza has left infant mortality standing at 24%.

Just two months after the Palestinian election, Israel also went to the polls. Under the simplistic form of proportional representation used in Israel, it is well near impossible for any party to secure an overall majority. But there was no doubt about which party was the winner this time. Kadima, the new Party established by Ariel Sharon to fight the elections he called soon before he was struck down by a stroke in January, won 29 seats, eight ahead of the Labour Party who had significantly improved its own position in the Knesset.

The international community’s response to the election result in Israeli West Jerusalem was as swift as it had been to the result in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem. But it could not have been more different. Tony Blair was one of the quickest off the mark in officially sending the UK’s warm congratulations and friendship to Kadima leader Ehud Olmert as the new Israeli Prime Minister. Hadn’t Kadima comprehensively seen off the hard-line Likud party that both Olmert and Sharon had abandoned just months before? Sure, it wasn’t clear which partners would eventually join Kadima in a coalition or what price they would extract for doing so. Whatever happened, the Kadima Government must surely still mean further withdrawals from Palestinian territories. But the situation in Israel and Palestine cannot be reduced to a simplistic picture of a peace building Kadima contrasted with a terrorist Hamas in the way implied by the West’s response to the two sets of elections.

The fact that Kadima has spoken unambiguously about the need for further Israeli withdrawals from occupied Palestinian territory is of course to be welcomed. But we need to be equally clear about the not so small print of Olmert’s plan. Withdrawal would still leave a substantial proportion of the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation. Three large settlement blocks - illegal under international law - will be annexed to Israel, effectively slicing the West Bank in two. Jerusalem will be largely inaccessible to the Palestinians and Olmert has made no secret of his determination to keep control of the Jordan Valley. Without control over or apparently even a say in the determination of its own borders, and with movement of goods and people effectively remaining under the control of Israel, Olmert’s vision of a Palestinian state resembles a series of Bantustans.

And it is happening now in practice, at the same time as the West praises Israel’s leaders for their courage, 5,300 hectares of Palestinian land is being confiscated behind a separation barrier that is now being confidently talked about to form the new, expanded border of the Israeli state. Movement restrictions are already affecting the ability of 20,000 Palestinian children to get to their West Bank schools.

And Israel has imposed its own further economic sanctions on the struggling Gazan economy. Because Israel controls the borders of Gaza and the West Bank, it collects $55 million monthly VAT and custom revenues due to the Palestinian Authority, Olmert recently announced this would no longer be passed over to the Palestinian authorities since Hamas had won the election. In Gaza the main trade route in and out was closed by Israel for 60% of the time in the first three months of this year. Bread shortages have reached critical levels.

It is true that despite Hamas’s ceasefire, Israel’s southern border towns have had to contend with Palestinian splinter groups in northern Gaza firing rockets towards them. The number of these rockets increased from 64 in January to 130 in February 2006. The fact that they are so inaccurate that they rarely injure anyone does not alter the genuine fear they cause in towns like Sderot. But the level of Israel’s ‘response’ to these attacks has been significant. According to the UN, 1250 artillery tank shells and six F16 missiles were launched into the Gaza Strip in the first week of April alone. At least two Palestinian children died in such attacks just two weeks before Islamic Jihad’s attack on the Tel Aviv restaurant.

Hamas spokespeople were rightly condemned for describing the Tel Aviv attack as a natural response to continuing Israeli violence against Palestinians. There is nothing ‘natural’ about the slaughter of people going about their daily lives near a take-way. However, the fact that nothing can justify such an attack is no excuse for pretending that something like this was not predictable. Hamas won January’s election partly because they offered an alternative to the corruption that had disfigured the previous Fateh dominated PA. But the election result was also a reaction to the failure of internationally sponsored peace plans to end the occupation or change the lives of ordinary Palestinians for the better. People were sick of the chronic double standards which the international community displayed in its dealings with Israel and Palestine.

If we want to help bring peace to the Middle East rather than simply wring our hands about the latest outrage, the double standards have to end.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and chair of the All-party Parliamentary Israel/Palestine Group