Thursday, July 05, 2007

Rejoice, rejoice but ask a few questions

Accusations have been flying around on the forum that all we ever do is ask questions. Our accusers have never quite explained what it is we ought to be doing instead and until they do so, we cannot take them seriously. Furthermore, asking questions is a legitimate and immensely important political activity. It is what the House of Commons should be doing to the government and it is what the House of Lords is doing.

The alternative to asking questions is accepting without any doubt everything that is doshed out by the political establishment, which includes politicians, civil servants, eurocrats and, above all, the main stream media. Do we really want to do that? Ooops, asking a question again.

What I want to question in the mildest possible terms is the Alan Johnston saga or, at least, some aspects of it. I don’t want to go into the very odd aspects of his kidnapping and of him being imprisoned for much longer than almost any other Western hostage (Israeli soldiers excepted) or the fact that the organization that held him, the Army of Islam, which is connected with the Dughmush clan made no serious demands or got anything in return for releasing the man.

Let us simply have a look at his release and ask a question or two. Johnston himself “praised” Hamas for the pressure they put on his captors, which resulted in his liberation. According to Al-Jazeera, which also quotes Agencies, this is what happened:

Hamas fighters surrounded the area of Gaza City that is the base of the Dughmush clan, one of whose leaders, officials say, is also a leading figure in the Army of Islam.

It also exchanged prisoners with the group in recent days during negotiations to free Johnston.
In other words, Hamas, in charge of Gaza City since the bloody battles with Fatah, has known for some time where Johnston was and was in a position to put that “pressure” on his captors. Having done so successfully (amazing what surrounding an area with fighters ready to kill anyone who comes their way will do), they are now reaping the rewards with the British media showing itself to be rather more friendly and benign towards them. They are also seen as the people who can do things (not very nice ones, but they can do them) whereas the image of Fatah remains as somewhat incompetent as well as unpleasant.

The immediate question one has to ask is why now? Why did Hamas decide to put that pressure on the Dughmush clan as well as, if the story is accurate, exchange a few prisoners in order to get Alan Johnston out? The campaigns in the West? Doubtful. These have been going on for some time with no noticeable results.

Could it be part of its struggle with Fatah and, in particular, competition for western funds? Several things have happened in the weeks since Hamas has taken full control in Gaza.

There was Tony Blair’s appointment to be the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, greeted with anger (or should that be rage?) by Hamas, Hezbollah and their sponsors Iran and Syria. In fact, his role will have little to do with the peace negotiations (that’s between Israel and whoever agrees to negotiate, not between Hamas and Fatah) but to “channel aid towards the construction of a Palestinian state”, as Javier Solana explained.

There was some talk of him introducing fiscal and political reforms and greater accountability in the Palestinian budget, should one appear any time soon, but the chances are that his role will be running around and sharing out aid money between various organizations. It will, therefore, do Hamas no harm to present itself in a very strong and positive light after Alan Johnston.

There have been other developments, all unfavourable to Hamas and favourable to Fatah or, at least, its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. In between being attacked by just about everybody in Israel for his ineptitude last summer and reshuffling his Cabinet, Ehud Olmert found time to try to save Abbas’s position.

He has decided to take a few calculated risks to strengthen Abbas, the newly promoted good guy against the Hamas leaders, who remain the bad guys, or did before the release of Alan Johnston. These risks included a promise to release Palestinian prisoners, as long as they are Fatah and the transfer of hundreds of millions in Palestinian tax money to the government in the West Bank.

Other countries have rushed in there as well. France is promising to provide direct financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (that’s Abbas’s lot) and discussing ways of getting direct humanitarian aid to residents of Gaza. Well, hey, Hamas cannot go around running hospitals and cleaning streets. It is too busy surrounding clan bases with its fighters to rescue BBC journalists.

In the wake of the Hamas victory in Gaza there has been a flurry of Western initiatives despite some misgivings, to provide Fatah in the West Bank with as much aid as could be mustered, as long as Abbas keeps to his policy of not having Hamas in his government.

Has the situation changed at all after Alan Johnston’s release? Are we not about to see a concerted media campaign, as one of their own has been rescued, for the West to relent on the subject of aid, that is vast amounts of taxpayers’ money, none of which is likely to be accounted for, to Hamas? While we are all rejoicing in Mr Johnston’s freedom, will anyone remember that Hamas still has not agreed to recognize Israel’s right to existence or to relinquish terrorist activity, against Israel and, come to think of it, against the Palestinians as well? Just asking.

UPDATE

In his Mideast Dispatches Tom Gross quotes Ha'aretz to provide a slightly different view of the generosity of Hamas, which does not exactly negate the reservations expressed in this posting.

There is, as one would expect a disagreement between Hamas and Fatah about the former's role in the Johnston saga. While Khaled Meshal, Hamas's Damascus-based leader swanked about his group's achievement and the proof this gave of order being brought to Gaza, Fatah took a different line.
But a senior aide to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas played down Hamas' role in the release, saying that it was "a movie" set up by Hamas, who then took credit for securing his freedom.

Yasser Abed Rabbo said that Hamas' release of the Briton, held in Gaza for nearly four months in the custody of militant group Army of Islam, had been staged, as the two groups were in league with each other.

He said Hamas staged the rescue in order to "appear as if [Hamas] respects international law.""We're watching a movie, where the thieves in Gaza fall out and one of them claims to be honest and brave, and the other is the bad guy. This Hamas game fools no one," Rabbo said.
That's where he is wrong. It fools the British media.

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