It’s Time for the New Palestinian Government to Demilitarize the West Bank and Gaza

This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on June 19, 2014.

By John Baird

On Friday three boys were on their way home to their families after school. They never made it, and they haven’t been seen since. This kidnapping was a particularly shocking act but it is just the latest in Hamas’s campaign of terror against the Jewish State of Israel.

The next day, two rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza—adding to the 160 mortar and rocket attacks since the launch of the peace process just last summer. Most of these have exploded in an area of southern Israel no bigger than the Greater Toronto Area. It is tragic that such acts seem to have become routine enough to not be paid much notice by the wider world. We should never allow terrorist acts to become background noise.

What should distinguish these latest attacks is that they have happened under the watch of a new Palestinian government that was announced two weeks ago. President Abbas declared that the new government, comprised of technocrats with what he described as no apparent direct links to Hamas, would be bound by the Quartet principles. That is, recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements. This is welcome.

In announcing the new government, he also reasserted his authority over Gaza, until then firmly under the boot of Hamas. This too is welcome. Hamas remains a terrorist organization with an unrepentant commitment to the destruction of Israel. But with that reassertion of authority must come a reapplication of responsibility—responsibility to uphold the Quartet principles in Gaza.

President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have made progress on improving security in the West Bank. Canadians have worked hard with them on that process by helping to improve leadership and coordination across their security apparatus, and supporting training initiatives such as the construction of a police training facility in Jericho. Now it is time to build on that progress and show the world that they can stop these attacks in Gaza and hold their perpetrators accountable. That’s what responsible governments do. And that is what is required if the notion of Palestinian sovereignty is to ever have hope.

Unfortunately, nothing we have seen from Hamas since the new government emerged gives us any hope that they will willingly, permanently cede real control, or abandon their ideological commitment to the destruction of Israel. Hamas remains the only real authority in Gaza. Their police remain on its streets, and their bureaucrats and apparatchiks continue to control people’s lives.

We would like to take President Abbas at his word when he says that things will change. But that change must begin now. The actions of his government in the coming days should match the words that he uttered so clearly when it was formed. In concrete terms, this means that he has three heady challenges.

First, complete the disarmament of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups operating in Gaza, including the Iranian proxy, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This means that he must follow through on his commitment to demilitarization, including rescuing three students, and the removal of existing stockpiles of thousands of largely Iranian-supplied missiles nestled and shielded amidst the homes, grocers and schools of Palestinians. It means that Hamas fighters put down their arms and embrace the peace process.

Second, there must be a complete cessation of the production and smuggling of weapons and materials that enable terrorist groups to both acquire and make rockets, and organize locally.

Third, the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus must assume immediate and total control of Gaza and the Rafah border crossing. There is no place for militias, private armies or alternative security forces. The principle of “one authority, one gun” must be enforced, and security coordination between the Palestinians and the Israelis should continue.

While it is early days in the life of the new Palestinian administration, it is not too early for the new government to show that they are serious about sustaining their commitment to peace. They can start with returning these boys to their families.

John Baird is Canada’s Foreign Minister.