No Palestinian can hide the fear and anxiety regarding future developments if events continue to unfold in the same direction that they have taken so far. This is especially true after the clear signals from Israel that it is bent on proceeding with its settlement activity in the West Bank, its military operations and its collective punishment measures against the Palestinians, taking advantage of the Hamas victory in the legislative elections in January 2006 and the subsequent Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
The Israeli incursion in 2002 into Ramallah and several other West Bank towns, within the framework of the military operation dubbed "Operation Defensive Shield," constituted a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian relations: It put an end to any opportunity for negotiations and left the door wide open for the escalation of violence between the two sides. In spite of these critical developments, the Palestinian leadership did not readily grasp the magnitude of the danger arising from the shift in Israeli policy after this military operation.
Operation Defensive Shield came in March 2002, following a suicide attack in Netanya's Park Hotel on the eve of Passover, one of the holiest feasts for the Jewish people. The result was scores of Israeli dead and injured - most of them elderly people - who were in the dining room celebrating the feast at the time. This action aroused the anger of the Israeli public and spurred its willingness to back any military operation against the Palestinians.
It is worth noting that the main aim of the suicide attacks inside Israel was to undermine the peace process and to bring about the failure of Fateh's moderate leadership in achieving any political agreement with Israel. This suicide bombing took place immediately after the declaration of the Arab Peace Initiative at the Arab League's Beirut Summit (2002), nipping the Initiative in the bud and leaving no doubt about Hamas' rejection of it. Furthermore, the timing of this suicide attack contributed to a large degree to the Israeli policy of ignoring the Initiative. It helped Israel divert attention from the Initiative and put the focus on Palestinian violence instead, in order to justify Israel's reluctance to engage in serious negotiations to achieve a political solution to the conflict. The rise in power of the right-wing among Israeli society and military became a real obstacle to a meaningful political compromise leading to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a viable independent Palestinian state.

The Dimensions of Operation Defensive Shield

Operation Defensive Shield came to underscore the fact that Israel, under pressure from the right-wing, had started to act on the assumption that it does not have a Palestinian political partner, because - as the right-wing argued - their partner, the Palestinian Authority (PA), was incapable of enforcing its control on the ground. The message was that there was only a "military partner" on the Palestinian side, whom Israel was going to fight with every means available, without exception: Hamas as well as Fateh, which was leading the PA, the side with which Israel was negotiating and dealing on the political level. As far as Israel was concerned, Fateh, too, formed part of the potential Palestinian force. Fighting and weakening it along with Hamas would help in aborting the creation of a Palestinian state by escalating the security tension and diffusing any pressure on Israel to withdraw to the June 1967 lines.
The developments on the ground did not alert the Palestinian leadership to the fundamental changes that were taking place within Israeli politics. Even after the demise of the late President Yasser Arafat, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), declared his commitment to the peace process and his determination to pursue all efforts to achieve peace through negotiations.
However, Abbas, who assumed the reins of power in a climate widely propitious for a positive change in Palestinian internal affairs, which would have enabled him to stem the deterioration of Israeli-Palestinian relations, did not seize that opportunity. Instead, he insisted on holding legislative elections before first setting out to effect the needed reforms in the PA, or to wage a serious fight against corruption, of which the PA was accused and which in turn reflected on the movement of Fateh, seeing that it formed a large part of the PA since it was established in 1994.
Abbas preferred to give due course to democracy; the result was his bringing Hamas to power. Hamas set out immediately to flout the most basic democratic rules that brought it to power from the first meeting held by the new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), when the speaker and his deputies where elected from among the Hamas members. It became apparent that Hamas, which had a majority, wanted a monopoly on power and would reject any participation by other political forces in leading the PLC. This was repeated in the formation of the first government, which consisted mainly of Hamas members. The new government's platform was inflexible to the point that other factions were denied the possibility of joining a coalition with Hamas. The price for their participation in the coalition was to accept a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian National Council, the Parliament of the PLO, as well.
What ultimately happened was that Hamas frittered away the past two years without achieving its aim. It crowned its stint in power with the Gaza takeover, which paved the way once again for Abbas to play a political role through a non-Fateh government, led by Salam Fayyad and enjoying U.S. and international backing.

The Fayyad-Led Government

Many presumed that this government would be short-lived, especially since it came in the wake of the Hamas takeover and lacked the PLC's vote of confidence, and it was assumed that the takeover of Gaza would not last. The government was basically viewed as a bridge to a renewed power-sharing arrangement through reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas.
This did not come to pass for two reasons: First, the head of the present government proved to be smart enough not to be anybody's puppet. He took the task entrusted to him seriously and began working incessantly to demonstrate the zeal and capacity of his government to serve the Palestinian people, regardless of the difficult and extraordinary situation.
Second, the Fayyad-led government enjoys the backing of Abbas. He is holding on to it, in spite of calls for a reshuffle by some Fateh members who are unhappy about being out of office after becoming accustomed to being ministers and enjoying all the privileges of functioning as such. They are pressuring Abbas for a change, and raising all kinds of false arguments to discredit the prime minister and cast doubt on his national credibility. But Abbas is not giving in to their pressure and is sticking to his conditions for dialogue with Hamas. Furthermore, this government commands international support and credibility that works favorably towards the provision of aid to the Palestinian people.
The Fayyad-led government has realized important accomplishments on at least two levels in a short period of time. First, it has succeeded in mobilizing financial backing for the PA after it had been halted by the siege and boycott which the donor countries had imposed on the Hamas government. The new government has already begun to cover the budget deficits and meet its financial obligations - especially the salaries of public sector employees, including the arrears that had not been paid by the Hamas government, and the expenses of governmental services, such as health and education. All this has led to the alleviation of hardships for large segments of the Palestinian population.
Secondly, it has started to earnestly tackle the issues of internal security and public order. This started in the troubled city of Nablus, one of the West Bank's major cities, where the government succeeded in rooting out chaos and anarchy and imposing the rule of law, internal security and public order - in spite of the Israeli military's incursions threatening to undermine the government's efforts.
A More Serious and Dangerous Issue

The success of the donor conference held in Paris on November 17, 2007, the donor countries' adoption of the Palestinian National Development Plan and its allocation of $7.3 billion in funding for its implementation is a development appreciated by every Palestinian.
Yet, the more important and pressing issue remains the search for the answer to the question: Where is the Palestinian government heading on the political level?
Palestinians do not underestimate the importance of reconstruction and development. But they cannot overlook, even for a moment, the fact that they are living under Israeli occupation, and that any step they take or any benefits they receive must be enlisted towards one overriding aim: ending the Israeli occupation, and not allowing it to be consolidated under deceptive glittering names.
Clearly, there is an urgent need to bolster the steadfastness of the Palestinian people in order to confront the occupation that seeks to keep them absorbed with and exhausted by the day-to-day worries of earning a living, and to divert them from giving the slightest thought to their political future.
The current government can and has done a great deal to alleviate the sufferings of the people and to shore up their steadfastness. But the real danger that can nullify all of its accomplishments so far, and can perhaps reflect negatively on its ambitions and political aspirations, is for it to turn a blind eye to what is being conspired against it regarding the political future.
Abbas and Fayyad, as well as other Palestinian figures, have reiterated their rejection of the provisional state or the so-called provisional borders, but will this be enough?
In the international corridors of power, the talk these days revolves around a provisional Palestinian state, a state without defined borders. In other words, there will be institutions, ministries and titles, but without actual control over the land. It is incumbent upon the Palestinian leadership not to downplay the imperative to thwart any attempt aimed at turning into a fait accompli the state with provisional borders, or one without control over the land - irrespective of through what means or what justifications this is done.
A Palestinian state "in the air," without defined borders, would allow Israel to continue its policy of building and expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. This would kill any possibility of solving the conflict on the basis of two states alongside each other: Israel and Palestine - which is the basis of United States President George W. Bush's vision and the core of the Arab Peace Initiative.
The recent Annapolis meeting under the auspices of Bush failed to achieve a declaration of principles addressing the ground rules for a future settlement. Instead, it announced the beginning of intensive talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership for the conclusion of a political settlement to the conflict. The implementation of the first phase of the Quartet's Road Map of March 2003 is the first step on the path to such an agreement. This phase includes an Israeli commitment to freezing all settlement activity in the occupied territories. Israel, however, seems unwilling to comply, and its reluctance will likely undermine the whole political process.
In response to a question regarding the ongoing construction in the settlement of Jabal Abu Ghneim (Har Homa) south of Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (December 12, 2007), claimed in a press conference that it was "agreed" in Annapolis that the negotiations would proceed in isolation from what is taking place on the ground - in other words, regardless of the expansionist settlement activity. Similarly, an unnamed high official in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office stated the next morning that Israel would not embark on the construction of new settlements, but would continue building inside the borders of the settlements' master plans. And if we bear in mind that these master plans were made unilaterally by the Israeli occupation's so-called Civil Administration, and that they gobble up more than half of the West Bank, and that the surface area of the settlement Ma'aleh Adumim's master plan, for example, is twice the size of the master plan of the city of Tel Aviv, as is the case with many other settlements, then we understand the gravity of the danger facing the Palestinian cause, despite all the talk about negotiations, agreements, reconstruction and development plans.
Israel is forging ahead, with international connivance, to execute its plan and to impose on the Palestinians a reality which, in the best case scenario, would spell the end of their national rights and their genuine desire and aspiration to arrive at a just and lasting peace with the Israelis, which will enable them to live in peace, security and dignity in an independent Palestinian state.
In a climate where the consolidation of faits accomplis appears to be the objective, the Palestinian leadership has to pay extra attention to reconstruction and development, because it is an important element underpinning steadfastness. At the same time, it has to be vigilant about the machinations against the Palestinian people and to prevent the imposition of a reality that does not lead to the ultimate achievement of the Palestinian national aspirations: a real state - not a name without substance, "a provisional state."
Israel has already begun preparations for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of its creation and is looking for international participation on a grand scale, with several world leaders attending. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, under whose auspices the November 2007 donors' conference was held, was the first leader to confirm his intention to attend the celebration in May 2008, and Bush, who is to visit the region in January, did not dismiss the possibility of returning in May.
This same occasion also marks the 60th year of the Palestinian Nakba - the dispossession of the Palestinian people through the loss of their homeland, Palestine, and the turning of two-thirds of the population into refugees scattered worldwide. It is time for the redressing of the historical injustice committed against the Palestinian people and for bringing an end to their suffering.
The Arab Peace Initiative, which was reaffirmed at the Arab League summit conference in Riyadh in March, 2007, presents a rare opportunity to achieve relative justice for the Palestinian people and, at the same time, to provide Israel with an enduring peace and normal relations with the Arab and Islamic world, and to bring stability to the troubled Middle East. What more could Israel want?