The real importance of Rantisi’s assassination to Palestinian self-governance

Reading the newspapers, from the New York Times to Haaretz, you’d get the impression that the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi was a simple exercise in Israeli hardline security. No mention is made, in any of the 10 articles I scanned, of the recent moves by Rantisi to discuss how Hamas could work with the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) to build a partnership for the governance of Gaza once the Israelis pull out.

Fortunately, however, the Economist (Apr. 10, 2004) had an article on the subject, which leads one to ask what the real motivation behind the assassination was. Certainly, Rantisi has a reputation of being even more hard-line than Sheikh Yassin. The Economist, however, had this to say:

…Hamas under its new leader is staking out three positions. First, unlike the P.A., which views Mr. Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan with trepidation, Hamas extols it as a victory for armed struggle. So, according to pollsters, do Palestinians of all political stripes. Second, Hamas says it will hold its fire in Gaza, though not necessarily in the West Bank (the bigger part of a Palestinian state) or in Israel proper, once the Israeli withdrawal begins. Third, Hamas says it wants a new “partnership” with its rivals who run the P.A., particularly Mr. Arafat’s Fatah, enabling them to run Gaza together once the Israelis go.

Clearly, this is new and marks a major change (if it is sustained). And there are signs that Fatah is welcoming the transformation — Arafat has said he would welcome Hamas in the P.A., for example. Should this occur, Hamas-as-political-party would dramatically revitalize the P.A. and strengthen its ability to control violence in the occupied territories.

Which may, in fact, be the reason by Rantisi was assassinated. Israeli sources claim the hit was planned for a long time, but it also seems likely that Sharon is deeply threatened by a transformation of Hamas into a political power. His strategy in giving up Gaza settlements is predicated on demonstrating that Israeli power is responsible for a victory over Hamas, and he would lose considerable credibility if formerly militant Palestinians were seen as forming a peaceful civil government.

One hopes that Hamas continues the course that Rantisi was apparently starting — a gradual transition from guerilla force to political party. Why do I hope this? First, while nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians, history demonstrates the enormous validity of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli determination to ignore UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 (which call for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories seized in the June 1967 war). Second, it seems clear that Sharon is using the Gaza plan to shore up domestic support, which the media recognizes to be very thin. Bush is assisting Sharon with his domestic political problem by offering support, even though this action effectively destroys even the illusion that the U.S. could act as a fair broker for a peaceful solution. And both leaders are claiming this as a major step forward towards Middle East peace, despite blatant non-compliance with every U.N. Security Council resolution on the subject.

What is really happening is that Sharon and Bush have set a trap. They’ve called this a “unilateral withdrawal” plan, as if the Israelis have been held back from a peaceful solution by the refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate. In reality, both the Israelis and the U.S. have refused to negotitate with the Palestinian Authority despite international recognition of their democratic election by the Palestinian populace. Two outcomes seem possible. If the Palestinians continue to fight, then Sharon can claim that his peace offer has been rejected and claim that further retaliation is required, while keeping West Bank settlements intact. If the Palestinians decide to reduce the level of violence themselves and create an effective political system for ruling a post-withdrawal Gaza, Sharon will have a harder time repeating the “Gaza Plan” in the West Bank without removing settlements per Security Council resolutions 455, 465, and 471.

Sadly, the first course of action will give Sharon and his fellow hardliners the ability to claim legitmacy in continuing their military activity against Palestinians, and will likely keep Sharon and Likud in power. Only the second course of action will result in the practical reality of Palestinian independence at this point. Sharon has demonstrated that violence will strengthen his perceived legitimacy, while at the same time revealed his greatest fear: effective peaceful political organization and governance among Palestinians. Evidence of the latter would swing “legitimacy” in the other direction — back towards Arafat and a newly effective P.A., along with world opinion. That’s why I hope that Rantisi’s anomymous replacement follows the nascent course of becoming a key part of the Palestinian Authority’s Gaza government. It may represent the best chance available for a peaceful solution which addresses both Palestinian needs, and compliance with U.N. resolutions.