Extremists in Gaza (those more violent and nihilist than Hamas) will do everything in their power to scuttle any hope for peace talks. Peace is the enemy to them. Negotiations that provide tangible benefits to the Palestinian people are the greatest threat to them, more even than Israeli tanks and gunships. Small Islamist extremist groups such as Ansar Al-Sunna, responsible yesterday for the killing of a Thai farm worker in Southern Israel with a homemade rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, have been popping up around the besieged strip since Hamas signed a short-lived ceasefire with Israel in the summer of 2008. These groups provide nothing to Palestinians, seek to build nothing, and live off the hopelessness and desolation of a repressed population cynical of the peace process. Even Hamas has cracked down on these kinds of groups and has attempted to impose a ceasefire on Palestinian groups attacking Israel from the Gaza Strip, believing that a fragile ceasefire, not endless, indiscriminate violence, is what Palestinians in the Strip most need to rebuild their homes, businesses, and lives. Continuous peace failures, greater closure on the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip unite and empower these groups, when Palestinians lose all hope in diplomacy and civil disobedience as means to achieve freedom. When peace talks fail these groups (and of course Hamas) win.
The existence of such groups should be an impetus for Israel, the U.S., and the Palestinian authority to work tirelessly to achieve peace through negotiation. Ansar Al-Sunna are the consequences rather than the cause of the current lack of a negotiated solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had built his post-Arafat career on the grounds that he can achieve through negotiations what Hamas and other militant groups cannot through violence. After Hamas called for a "Day of Rage" in Jerusalem, and with tensions high across the Palestinian territories following a five day total closure of the West Bank and the announcement of the further expansion of Israeli settlements, Abbas doubled-down yesterday on the peace through negotiations rhetoric, telling visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, "There is no other way to achieve peace than through negotiations." The Israelis have the opportunity to pick their partner in this struggle, and the choice is between men like Abbas and groups like Hamas and Ansar Al-Sunna. Peace will come at a price to the Israelis but the price of failure is far higher. If negotiations continue to fail as spectacularly as they have in the past, there is a very real risk that the Palestinian public will lose their faith in the negotiations strategy and move to support Hamas and even more violent groups. Saeb Erekat, the lead negotiator of the PLO has been ominously warning for many years that if the Israelis are unable to negotiate with him, soon their only option will be to negotiate with Hamas. The Israelis for their part, must stop arresting, assaulting, and treating non-violent peace activists as enemies and militants and prepare to acknowledge that the settlement enterprise must one day be curtailed.
The choice is Israel's alone. Pick your partner: Abbas or Ansar.