The end of blackmail negotiations?

By: Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo.

The years from the end of the second intifada in 2004, until the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah ended with Hamas driving Fatah out of Gaza in 2007, were marked by what was referred to as fawda al silah, the chaos of the weapons, as the locals used to say. Hamas fought Fatah, and various armed groups, some acting as mercenaries of the Palestinian authority, each controlled their own turf in Gaza. As the rule of law broke down, traditional law came to replace it. When someone had been killed, or a violent conflict had taken place, this meant that the traditional reconciliation institution of negotiating sulha (reconciliation) between families started working, where collective responsibilities and blood money payment were crucial elements. This traditional law institution has a downside: It rarely provides justice to the weakest part. If a member of a weak family killed someone from a strong family, the strong family would not accept the sulha. They would kill someone from the weaker family as revenge, if not they would lose face and be perceived as weak and thus get a weakened local power position. However, in the opposite situation, the weak family has no choice. They can not take revenge without paying a terrible price. The matter is rather about how large compensation they would get for their victim. I do not know if it was true or not, but it was said that one of the strong families in Gaza, Abu Sasanain – involved in some of the vendettas going on at the time – had somehow captured a lion from the Gaza zoo during the tumults of fawda al silah. Subsequently, when Abu Sasanain was involved in blood money negotiations, they used to bring this lion with them, in a cage. It did have an effect on the negotiations. They used to get the result they wanted.

Not that Israel brought a lion with them to the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians. But the principle of blackmail, the weak being forced to submit to the will of the strong, if not they would be punished, was nevertheless the same. The main source of income for the PLO before the Oslo-accords was taxes gathered from Palestinians working in the Gulf-countries. After Oslo the main source of income became the international donor community. Western countries rewarded the PLO for negotiating by financing the Palestinian Authority that today administers around 3 % of the West Bank (the A areas). If the donations stopped, the Palestinian Authority would collapse.

An idea behind the Oslo-channel was that negotiations would enhance confidence between the parties. But the more the Israelis exposed their political positions, the less the Palestinians believed that the talks could work. One could hear the Israeli bulldozers working outside the negotiation room in the West Bank, a Palestinian negotiator once said. After 20 years of negotiations the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank more than tripled. But if the Palestinians refused to talk, the Palestinian Authority would be strangled. Negotiations became acts of public humiliation for the PLO leadership, trapped in a situation where they were forced to continue negotiations they knew did not work while the land they negotiated over was continuously decimated.

A sign of the growing contempt for negotiations among the Palestinian public is the increasing number of Palestinians who say they prefer the armed struggle rather than to continue negotiations. For the first time in several years, jihadist Islamist Palestinian groups are stronger than Fatah. This is not because Hamas are so popular, but because the Islamic Jihad, that have repeatedly sent rockets into Israel from Gaza, have reached an unprecedented popularity over the last couple of months. Hardly getting 1 % earlier years, a recent poll revealed that they would have taken close to 20 % of the seats if elections were held for the PLO.

Before the negotiations that ended on 29th of April, the Americans presented a start package where Palestinians had to shut up about Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank, while Palestinian long time prisoners, all having served more than 20 years in Israeli prisons, should be released, if the Palestinians continued the negotiations. However, when 24 prisoners were to be released in April 2014, Israel backtracked. The prisoners would not be released after all. If the Americans had wanted to show the Palestinian people that continued negotiations benefited them, the fact that the prisoners were not released probably had the opposite result. In October 2011 the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had been abducted and kept in captivity by Hamas in Gaza since 2006, was released in exchange for1000 Palestinian prisoners. It is not unperceivable that Palestinians would think that as long as the PLO neither had an Israeli prisoner nor a lion they would continue to get nothing out of negotiations. The lesson would be that the only time the Palestinians got something was when they, like Hamas in 2011, were the ones who did the blackmailing.