Dramatic bursts of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have a way of escalating so quickly that it’s often difficult for Westerners to get their observational bearings.
But, of course, it's not quite that anarchic to Arab observers.
In fact, some outlets within the Israeli and Arab press can at least agree on one thing: namely, that the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, as well the Israeli invasion of Gaza that has since followed, have both had the effect of disrupting a possible agreement between Hamas and Fatah that would have tacitly recognized Israel's right to exist along 1967 borders.
Where the respective regional media differ, however, is in assigning motive for the scuttling of such an accord.
While the Israeli press highlighted Palestinian sources suggesting that it was the militant wing of Hamas itself that sought to torpedo the inter-Palestinian understanding by taking Shalit hostage, other Arab commentators blamed Israel for purposefully destroying any chance at Palestinian political cohesion.
What stake might Israelis have had in preventing an accord between Palestinians that would have merely underlined their right to exist?
Writing in the June 29 edition of Ramallah's Al Hayat al-Jadidah, a daily with ties to the Palestinian Authority, Yousef Al-Qazaz answered that question in an editorial headlined "War on Gaza."
Noting the destruction of Palestinian power and water supplies that occurred during previous clashes with Israel, the writer observed that news events are simply a pretext for Israeli oppression in the eyes of the Palestinians.
“[During] this month in 1982, there was no water and no electricity in Beirut. In the same month [this year] during the [World Cup], the situation in Gaza is the same,” al-Qazaz began. It is as if the United Nations goes on a summer vacation….
“In June 1982, on the pretext that its ambassador in London was killed, Israel invaded Lebanon to put an end to the PLO during this month of the same year. These days, Israel is taking the abduction of one of its soldiers as a pretext to start its war — [one] that has been decided before the pretext — against the Gaza Strip…
"The agenda for the war on Gaza is clear," al-Qazaz wrote. "It is the agenda of the destruction of the means of life. As if electricity, water, gas or food are responsible for the abduction of the Israeli soldier and his [captivity]. As if destroying these means of life can expedite his return, ignoring the fact that the cause of this Israeli war is inevitably happening whether this soldier [had been] kidnapped or not."
Benefit of fractured political landscape
The Al Hayat al-Jadidah writer went on to suggest why Israel might prefer a fractured Palestinian body politic.
"It is useful to recall one of the reasons for this war — and it is the same old record played that everyone has become [tired] of hearing — which is that Israel does not have a Palestinian partner [for negotiations].”
A similar tone was struck in the June 29 edition of London's independently-owned Al Hayat newspaper (not to be confused with Al Hayat al-Jadidah in Ramallah).
Writing under the headline "Incursions to Rescue Fighting," Zouheir Kseibati said: "They [the Israelis] definitely want the Strip to remain a scorched land, where they can interfere through infiltration and incursions whenever the fire of sedition among the Palestinians begins to die out. Thus, Olmert will have time for implementing 'The Withdrawal Plan.'…The goal of the incursion into Gaza is not to release an abducted soldier but to prevent the fire of sedition between Hamas and the [Palestinian] Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah from dying out."
What's more, the writer claimed that: "[N]o one in the West finds the silence about the Israeli crimes embarrassing. … Because an Israeli soldier was kidnapped, a killing machine is set in motion."
Abbas out of touch?
Still, any claim that Palestinian infighting was the sole result of Israeli masterminding was called somewhat into question by an Islamic Jihad statement that, mere days before the Israeli invasion of Gaza, seemed to take particular relish in embarrassing the Fatah-affiliated president.
A June 24 statement posted on the group's website asked: "Was it not a paradox that Palestinian Authority [PA] Chairman Mahmoud Abbas warmly embraced Zionist Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Petra, Jordan, Thursday morning, and then returned to Ramallah only to find that an incursion was under way by the occupation forces, which killed an officer from the General Intelligence Service, which is under the direct control of Abbas?"
The group went on to suggest — in the time-honored tradition of all opposition movements throughout the world — that the current president was out of touch with the electorate.
Meanwhile, in its June 27 edition, Al Hayat reported on the president's evident anger over Shalit's capture, writing: "Knowledgeable Palestinian sources revealed to Al Hayat that President Mahmoud Abbas informed his prime minister, Ismail Haniyah, in some rage, that Israel is calling for his head along with the heads of the foreign minister Doctor Mahmud Al-Zahhar and the interior minister Said Siyam in return for the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.”
For its part, the Palestinian-owned, pan-Arab daily Al Quds Al Arabi found these threats against government officials highly offensive.
In an unsigned editorial from June 28, the paper wrote: "These three were elected by the people and enjoy a diplomatic and moral immunity due to their positions, in addition to the fact that they did not know in advance about the kidnapping and to the fact that they urged the kidnappers to treat the captive soldier well, to preserve his life and to release him. Such threats with murder and kidnapping could not possibly be issued by a democratic government that respects the international law, but rather by an outlawed mafia that abides by the law of the jungle."
Kidnap victim was a soldier
One day before that editorial, the same paper's editor-in-chief sought to contextualize the nature of the conflict that took Shalit captive.
"Those demanding the release of this soldier are forgetting he was inside an Israeli tank and getting ready to invade Rafah and kill dozens of its citizens,” wrote Abdel-Bari Atwan.
"In other words, he was not on a humanitarian mission to give out candies and presents to the children of the city. The Israeli forces had invaded the city only two days ago and kidnapped two men whom she [the foreign minister presumably] claimed were from Hamas. We did not hear one protest from any Western government, vis-a-vis this official Israeli piracy that was conducted in broad daylight."
The editor went on to reject the idea that Shalit's capture was meant to derail Hamas-Fatah negotiations, saying, "The preparation of this operation, and the digging of the tunnel that was used to carry it out, had all started before the idea of the dialogue had ripened and before President Abbas threatened to resort to the referendum."
But, perhaps most strikingly, Atwan suggested that the autonomy of Hamas's "extremist wing" over and above the authority of those party members who were elected to parliament this year should prompt the West to pause and reflect over its strategy in dealingwith the group.
"The participation of the Izz-al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, in this operation, alongside the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam, is a clear indication of the victory of the extremist wing that is refusing to partake in the current political process….
"The biggest mistake that was committed by the U.S. and Europe, was to accept the Israeli point of view, which demanded [that they] stop their aid to the Hamas government, and [instead] isolate it on the Arab and international levels. Not only did they look like they were punishing the Palestinian people for their honest, free and democratic choice, but [they] have also worked on weakening the moderate wing of the [Hamas] movement, which insisted on partaking in the legislative elections, abiding by the truce, and [putting a] stop to all the commando operations — namely, the suicide operations."