Coalition and struggle

A RENOWNED expert in international law and an old friend of the Palestinian people wrote to me with utter distress a few days after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh were reported to have reached an agreement on Monday, September 11 to form a national unity government.

By Ramzy Baroud

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Published: Sat 23 Sep 2006, 9:28 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

The content of his message was alarming to say the least, especially coming from an objective American academician who was involved heavily in the drafting of past Palestinian national documents. "The Palestinian people were being set up,î was the underlying meaning of his message. To know why, here is a bit of context.

The Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988 in Algeria was structured in a way that would allow the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO's) Executive Committee to devise foreign policy, thus represent the Palestinian people in any future settlements with Israel. The signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and onward demoted the function of the Executive Committee and eventually undermined the import of the PLO altogether, concentrated the power in the hands of a few at the helm of the Palestinian Authority: late President Yasser Arafat and a clique of business contractors and ex-revolutionaries-turned wartime profiteers.

That combination destroyed the achievements of the first Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993, in ways that Israel could only dream of: it cemented a faintly existing class society, destroyed the impressive national unity achieved by the Palestine-based leadership of various parties, hijacked the people's struggle, reducing it to mere slogans, and damaged Palestinian credibility, regionally and internationally. Israel of course enjoyed the spectacle, as Palestinians bickered endlessly and as the PA's Preventative Security and its massive apparatus carried out daily onslaughts against those who opposed the autocratic methods of the government, desperately trying to demonstrate its worthiness to Israel and the United States.

The PA, itself a political construct of various Fatah blocs, had its own share of squabbling, which culminated at times in street fights and dirty assassinations. Abbas, then, was of the opinion that if Arafat refuses to share power, the Fatah dispute would exasperate and could lead to a failed government. Both the US administration and the Israeli government backed Abbas, hardly for his democratic posture, but with the hope that Abbas — described by late Professor Edward Said as a "mildly corrupt" person — would hand over the little remaining political "concessions" that Arafat wouldn’t, a sin that cost Arafat his freedom in his later years.

Of course, they were right; but events in the Middle East often yield the exact opposite of what the US and Israel push for. Though Abbas was elected President a few months after Arafat's passing in November 2004, he needed some political legitimacy to negotiate or renegotiate Palestinian rights with Israel. That hope was dashed by the Parliamentary elections of January 2006 which brought in a Hamas-led government two months later. The United States, Europe and Canada responded with a most inhumane economic siege, and a promise to punish anyone daring enough to aid the Palestinian economy in any way. Succumbing to pressure, even Arab neighbours helped ensure the tightness of the siege. Some in Fatah also seemed determined to ensure the collapse of the government, even if at the expense of ordinary Palestinians. The so-called liberated Gaza, once hoped to be the cornerstone of Palestinian independence, was deliberately turned into a hub of lawlessness and violence. Palestinian morgues mounted with bodies when Israel unleashed its tactlessly termed Summer Rain, an intensive military onslaught that killed 291 Palestinians, one-third of whom were children, in the months of July and August alone.

Palestinians, though browbeaten and fatigued - denied salaries, physically besieged, politically isolated, no electricity and plenty of contaminated water — were desperately trying to shield their democratic choice. The issue by then had transcended from that of Hamas, Fatah and their ideological differences, to that of a nation denied the right to make its own choices, to choose its representatives and hold them to account.

But Hamas too was learning the harsh reality of being in the position of leadership. Through my contacts with various Palestinian leaders from both sides of the political divide and with sources close to the government, I deduced Hamas' logic: unlike Arafat, Hamas wanted to seek support from its Arab and Muslim milieu, the devastatingly unexplored strategic alliances undermined by the PA's incessant reliance on the West. But even Hamas itself seemed unaware of the extent of the weakness and political deficiency of the Arabs and Muslims, who could barely assert their own rights, much less that of the Palestinians. Hamas learned, the hard way, that the US strong rapport with Israel would hardly weaken even if an entire nation must go hungry, and hospitals run dry of badly needed medicine. That was a hard lesson, in realpolitik, that the Palestinian government is now scrambling to learn, amid dismay and confusion.

It was within this context that Abbas and Haniyeh convened in intense discussions to form a coalition government. Abbas — and mainstream Fatah behind him — must’ve realised that the harder Hamas is hit, the stronger it’s popular support grows, thus undermining Fatah's own chances of political recovery. Although Hamas has called for a national unity government from the start, it did so from a position of strength, and a hint of arrogance. Now, a national unity government is their only outlet to the world: without it, neither their survival as a relevant political movement, nor achieving any of its declared objectives are as secured as it may have seemed in the heat of victory. Moreover, a generation of already malnourished children are facing a formidable humanitarian crisis; something must be done.

But amidst the rush to form a government, key questions will hardly be laid to rest: who will speak on behalf of the Palestinian people internationally? Who will formulate their foreign policy agenda? And who will be entrusted with the task of defending or redefining their national constants ñ the refugees' right of return, the uncompromised end to the Israeli occupation, preserving their water rights, removal of all settlements, borders, etc? Will it be Abbas, chairman of the PLO, or the elected legislative council and government?

This quandary was the cause of distraught for my friend, and should be for anyone who wishes to see a real and lasting peace. If any peace settlement fails to adhere to the democratic concept, according to which Palestinians wish to govern themselves, then Palestinians should ready themselves for another Oslo-style agreement, imposed from the top, and rubber stamped by the PLO's Executive Committee, long-devoid of its democratic principles and dominated by the elitist few. I too am engulfed with worries. Our democratic experience should not be squandered, not again.

Ramzy Baroud's latest book: The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London) is now available online and at bookshops.

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