Saturday, February 04, 2006

Could he be a secret free-trader?

In response to political pressure exerted not only by the United States, the European countries (mildly) and, even the UN (even more mildly), as well as Egypt and Jordan, Hamas has said yah-boo. In an interview with the Washington Times a leading Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said that the West could take its aid and “get lost”.

Hamas, he and his colleagues have been proclaiming, will not abandon its struggle against that “illegitimate entity”, Israel.

There would be low-level discussions on technical matters with Israel (presumably ways and means of getting the money that Israel has put into an escrow account) but nothing else.

Previous discussions had led to nowhere (mostly because they were broken off at a to him convenient moment by Chairman Yasser Arafat) and they “had only enmeshed the Palestinian Authority (PA) in "corrupt relationships" with the Jewish state”.

We are talking here of a territory, for the people there have hardly shown themselves to be ready to create a state, in which there is 70 per cent unemployment. Well over half the people live on less than $2 a day, which is the official international poverty line, and the others on not much more.

This, despite the fact that more aid has been pumped into the Palestinian territory per man, woman and child than to any other part of the world. Where the money is nobody knows for sure though informed guesses have been made.

Curiously enough, there has never been any shortage of funds for guns, ammunition, explosives and, most recently, foreign flags to burn.

So what is Hamas going to do after it had formed the government, which, according to Mr Zahar, might take several months?

“Mr. Zahar contends that the Palestinian economy could be sustained by trade and investment with other Arab nations. He said development projects since the 1993 Oslo peace deal had only benefited Israel, while accepting Western aid "with any strings attached" would only harm Palestinian interests.”

Well, goodness me, could the man be a secret free-trader? Of course, it is a little difficult to work out what Palestine will trade at this point but I am sure Mr Zahar has thought of an answer to that. He is simply not telling.

There is also the problem that the nearest two countries, Egypt and Jordan are among those putting pressure on the organization to abandon its terroristic practices, not least because they are a little worried that those practices might spread to their own countries. (Mind you, historical experience tells one that the Palestinians are better off annoying the Israelis than the Jordanians.)

Other Arab countries do not seem to be rushing in with offers but something might come from Syria, though, again, historical experience tells one that Syrian help always comes with strings attached very firmly to it.

Could Hamas have already received money from Iran? Or at least secure promise of funds? It is possible, but as we have written before, there is a limit to what Iran can afford. Apart from anything else, that nuclear programme will be expensive. Buying arms from the Russians and the Chinese is expensive. Keeping Hizbollah going is expensive. (Incidentally, I have seen no reports of demonstrations against the Danish cartoons in Teheran or any other Iranian city. I wonder why not.)

Another possibility was aired by yet another spokesman for Hamas, Abu Kuhri. (I would dearly love to know what position in the organization all these spokesmen occupy.)

“Emissaries from the group, which recently won control of the Palestinian parliament, plan to visit Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela, according to Abu Kuhri, a Hamas spokesman.

Mr. Kuhri was quoted Thursday in the Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo, as saying the head of Hamas' parliamentary faction, Ismail Haniyeh, might head the delegation. He said the mission's purpose was to change the view that Hamas is a terrorist group "and to demonstrate that the problem is the Israeli occupation."”

While the first summit of Arab and South American leaders last May had issued a declaration, as all these summits do, which “called on Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and criticized U.S. sanctions on Syria, saying they violated international law”, it is not at all clear that anything will come from that.

For one thing, most of those countries are having economic problems of their own. Not even Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has yet made a statement in support of Hamas or offered them any free oil.

Brazil, having hosted the summit, has now sided with the United States and others in trying to put pressure on Hamas. Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said:

“Brazil is ready to cooperate with any Palestinian government which seeks, among other things, the formation and consolidation of an economically viable Palestinian state, which at the same time wants to contribute to peace and recognizes the existence of Israel.”

There are significant Arab communities in South America (10 million in Brazil alone) but these have not been making any demands on Hamas’s behalf so far (or demonstrated about those cartoons). There have been accusations of money laundering for terrorist groups and denials of same by the local communities.

So it may be back to the World Bank after all that brave talk. Its President, Paul Wolfowitz, said in an interview that his organization should go on distributing funds in the territory no matter what. Then again, those funds have to come from somewhere.

For the moment the Palestinian Authority appears to be effectively bankrupt, its employees have not been paid and the money is due on Monday and the customs dues collected by Israel have been placed into an escrow fund with decision to be taken next week on whether to hand the money over and to whom.

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