Israel Removed from Recent Palestinian Strife
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Israeli government is trying to figure out how to deal with a newly divided Palestinian population. Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He joins us on the line. Good morning.
Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Senior Fellow, Shalem Center): Morning to you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: How has what happened in the Gaza Strip affected Israeli security, in a basic sense?
Mr. OREN: Well, on the immediate sense, immediate day-to-day security hasn't affected very much. There was some rocket fire before the Hamas takeover of Gaza. There was Qassam rocket fire this morning. Several Israeli civilians were wounded in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, which has been hit repeatedly by Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip.
There's been increased fighting along the border itself. Most of that fighting has originated in Hamas attempts to attack al Fatah refugees who are trying to escape through the strip into Israel to cross over to the West Bank. And my bet is it's not aimed directly at Israelis.
But we have to distinguish between the day-to-day situation and the long-term perspective, here.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's look, though, at possibly both the immediate and long term. Are we likely to see increased Israeli military moves against Hamas in Gaza?
Mr. OREN: Definitely. If the Qassam rocket fire continues, certainly, if border friction continues to escalate, we are likely to see extensive Israeli ground action into Gaza. That also is a function of changes that have incurred in the Israeli internal political situation. The newly elected head of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak, has now become the new defense minister. And Israeli papers are rife with reports that Ehud Barak is planning an extensive operation into Gaza. We've had an intimation of that already this morning. Several Israeli tanks and ground forces conducted a limited probe into the southern Gaza town of Rafiah this morning, and several Palestinians were killed. I think we can see more of this if the escalation continues along the border and if Qassam rocket fire persists.
MONTAGNE: Now there's word that the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are to meet this weekend in Egypt. Would that be the opposite of what you're talking about, a new opportunity for peace?
Mr. OREN: One could almost expect that as peace efforts increase, as they intensify - vis-a-vis the West Bank and the Palestinian authority - that Hamas opposition to that process will continue and we are likely to see a greater escalation of hostilities along the Gaza border, if not in the West Bank itself. Keep in mind that though the Palestinian authority continues to rule the West Bank, that does not mean that the West Bank is free of Hamas influence. And Fatah has said that they will not reconcile with Hamas.
In effect - in the short run, I think that as Israel and the Palestinian authority move towards some type of negotiated framework, Hamas will not sit quietly and let itself be cut out of that situation, and will react violently by trying to interrupt the peace process.
MONTAGNE: Is this a case of too little, too late? Could Israel have provided more support for the Abbas government and prevented Hamas from gaining popularity among the Palestinians?
Mr. OREN: I think Israel could have extended greater support to Mahmoud Abbas, certainly in the aftermath of a Yasser Arafat's death several years ago. But there was actually little Israel could do, for example, to remove the checkpoints that impede the communications between Palestinian cities unless Mahmoud Abbas clamped down on terror - something he didn't do until just recently, he was trying to reach an accord with Hamas.
Certainly, attempts to build up Abbas on Israel's sense will not increase Fatah's popularity, necessarily, among Palestinians. Fatah has committed a tremendous amount of corruption, has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid from its own population. There's a tremendous amount of resentment among Palestinians against al-Fatah rule. It's one of the reasons that Hamas want such an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006. Until al-Fatah reforms itself significantly, internally, structurally, financially, I don't see Fatah popularity increasing immensely among Palestinians.
MONTAGNE: So Israel and the West embracing Fatah, as they seem to be today - what?
Mr. OREN: I think that it's very important that United States, Israel and the international community, the Quartet, demands - along with seeking progress in the peace process - demands that al-Fatah does commit itself to a process of reform to end the corruption to introduce transparency into its financial affairs, and that it does its best to clamp down on terror, including some terrorist groups which are not part of Hamas, but are actually part of al-Fatah.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. OREN: My pleasure. Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
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