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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 21, 2012

Yossi Alpher 186x140.jpgAlpher discusses the agreement that ended the Palestinian prisoners' mass hunger strike last week, why Egyptian leaders can't do much about the lawlessness in the Sinai, and the spillover effect of the Syrian revolution.
Q. What is significant about the agreement that ended Palestinian prisoners' mass hunger strike last week?

A. Three factors stand out.

First, the concessions Israel made to end the hunger strike appear to constitute a significant Palestinian achievement. Jordanian commentator Oraib Rantawi even called them a "great day in the history of the Palestinian movement". That may be a somewhat exaggerated assessment, but the concessions nonetheless tell a story. Pointedly, most of them involve restoration of more liberal conditions for Gaza prisoners that existed in the past and were annulled by Israeli prison officials to punish Hamas for kidnapping Gilad Shalit in 2006 and for taking over Gaza in 2007.

Thus, solitary confinement has been cancelled and family visits from Gaza renewed. Israel has also agreed to review the cases of over 300 prisoners being held without trial under administration detention with an eye to releasing them once their current six-month terms expire.

Administrative detention is a controversial punishment inherited from the British mandate and used by the British against the IRA in the 1970s and, in effect, by the United States in Guantanamo more recently. It is usually invoked, bypassing due process and under a state of emergency, when incriminating evidence of terrorism is deemed too sensitive to be presented in open court.

In return for restoring privileges, the General Security Service ("Shin Bet") claims the prisoners "signed a commitment to totally cease all terrorist activity from within jail," including recruitment, coordination among recruits and the like. The primary purpose behind this Israeli demand appears to be the addition of a "stick" to the "carrot" of concessions: the latter could in future be revoked if, as is almost inevitable, prisoners revert to encouraging terrorist activity.

But this quid pro quo nonetheless begs several questions. Why, once Gilad Shalit was returned under a deal between Israel and Hamas last fall, didn't the security authorities take the opportunity to restore the privileges cancelled because of Shalit's incarceration in Gaza? Why did so many prisoners have to approach death by starvation--some 1,500 ultimately joined the hunger strike, out of about 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli incarceration--and cast Israel (again!) in a negative light internationally in order to make this happen? Can the Hamas takeover of Gaza five years ago still be considered a justification for punishing Gazan prisoners?

Couldn't a more logical approach have saved everyone the agony of this hunger strike? And isn't it time to give Palestinian prisoners--however heinous their terrorist acts--hope of eventual release by means other than an exchange for an abducted Israeli?

Further, Prime Minister Netanyahu released the bodies of 100 dead terrorists to West Bank-based PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas to maintain some sort of balance with the concessions to primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners. But why is Israel holding on to bodies of dead Palestinian terrorists and trading in corpses?

Second, Egyptian involvement. As in the countdown to negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the release of Gilad Shalit last fall, here too the Egyptian military played a key role mediating between hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, their leaders in Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel GSS head Yoram Cohen. It is impossible not to contrast this post-revolutionary Egyptian success in mediating between Israel and terrorist prisoners, many from anti-peace organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with pre-revolutionary Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel and its peace-negotiating partner, the Palestine Liberation Organization. We are looking at two very different Egyptian orientations.

Lest we forget, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still rules Egypt. This begs another question: what will happen after June, once a freely-elected president has taken over in Egypt? How, if at all, will the military's role regarding Israel and the Palestinians evolve?

Finally, the deal to end the hunger strike and SCAF involvement, both of which focused primarily on Gaza, once again highlight the virtual absence of a viable Israeli strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. Economic blockade and military punishment have largely failed. So has punishing prisoners. Reoccupation with all its ills is not an option. Waiting for the PLO to "retake" the Strip looks increasingly ridiculous. It might be worthwhile for the Israeli leadership to contemplate exploiting the SCAF's good will to seek more stable understandings with Hamas in Gaza lest, after a president is chosen, this becomes impossible.

Q. If Egypt's military leaders can register such a successful effort mediating an end to the Palestinian hunger strike, why can't they do something about violence and lawlessness in Sinai?

A. Just as the prisoner mediation effort apparently reflected nuanced calculations concerning the relationship between the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of Hamas), so does the Sinai situation--but negatively. The difference seemingly points to the political risk of bloody fighting among Egyptians if and when the military "retakes" Sinai.

The message heard lately by the beleaguered Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai is that the Egyptian military cannot or will not intervene until a new Egyptian president is elected and takes office, meaning July. Meanwhile the SCAF is trying to institute social and economic programs among the Sinai Bedouin in the hope of alleviating some of their complaints. And it is talking to Hamas about Gaza-Sinai weapons transfers and cross-border movement of militants. The results are not impressive.

The MFO is in some places literally under siege, its bases surrounded by jihadist Bedouin and its armored patrol vehicles fired upon to deter it from doing its job of monitoring Israeli-Egyptian peace provisions on the ground. Whether the SCAF, or what remains of it once the instruments of electoral democracy are fully installed in Egypt, will indeed be freer to deal with Sinai in July is a problematic question.

The senior officers who deposed Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago in the name of democracy appear to believe they will be able to coexist with and manipulate the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood, particularly when it comes to guaranteeing Egypt's essential security interests and the army's extensive economic empire. But there is growing evidence that, unlike the ruling generals, the lower officer ranks are already more closely in tune with the Islamists.

All Israel can do for now is wait, build the Negev-Sinai fence, use its lingering contacts with the SCAF, and pressure the United States to pressure Egypt. More violent incidents on or near the Negev-Sinai border seem inevitable.

Q. Apropos violence, last week the internecine fighting in Syria spread to northern Lebanon, and on Sunday to Beirut. What does this tell us about the spillover effect of the Syrian revolution?

A. Given Syria's ethnically fragmented composition (unique among the revolutionary Arab states, with the exception of Bahrain), there was concern from the outset that the unrest and violence there could overflow into neighboring countries. Syria's minority ruling Alawites (adhering to a sect that is an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam) have millions of Alawi "cousins" in Turkey while Syria's majority Sunnis have the open support of predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey. Shiites and Sunnis are at odds in Iraq. Syria's two-million strong Kurdish population spills over into Iraq, where Kurds are autonomous, and into Iran and Turkey, where they are not but would like to be. The tribes in Deraa in southern Syria that ignited the revolution are represented in neighboring northern Jordan.

But it is in Lebanon that the Syrian ethno-religious mosaic is most faithfully replicated. Lebanon and Syria, lest we forget, were a single entity under the Ottoman Empire and were only split apart by the French after WWI. Lebanon's Sunnis are helping their fellow Sunnis in Syria; its Druze and Christians are, like their brethren in Syria, either sitting on the fence or aiding the Assad regime. And its large Shiite population and tiny Alawite representation are solidly behind Assad. Since the Syrian revolution began, the two countries' close economic ties have expanded into extensive arms smuggling, refugee migration and abductions of dissidents. As Salafi extremist elements emerge among the rebelling Sunni majority in Syria, they are beginning to appear too among Lebanon's Sunni minority.

Thus, the recent casualties in fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, and in Beirut, may have been inevitable. Assuming Turkey does not yield to temptation or to Syrian provocations and invade Syria, Lebanon is almost certainly the first candidate for unmanaged expansion of the Syrian revolution.

The comments of two prominent Lebanese in the media last week were telling. Writing in pan-Arab and prestigious al-Hayat, its editor-in-chief Ghassan Charbel lamented that, "[T]here is no state--not even the whiff of a state--in Lebanon. What remains of the state is evaporating . . . and fading away." Sati'e Noureddin was more specific in as-Safir, a Lebanese daily that often takes a pro-Syrian stance: "[The Syrian-Lebanese] border areas have been transformed from a safe haven into a firm depth for the Syrian opposition and dissident forces. And this has driven the Syrian regime to move its Lebanese and Palestinian allies and supporters to shut down these border areas . . . . the Syrian civil war has now been extended to Lebanon."

Israel may soon have to manage yet another border overflowing with Arab revolution.