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November, 2006

Jerusalem Report

The Losing Battle

by Isabel Kershner, The Jerusalem Report

With Hamas calling the shots and the Palestinians fearing the specter of a bloody civil war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas is fast losing any potency he potentially had. The Palestinians, for their part, are becoming a people without a cause.

In the picturesque West Bank village of Jifna, in the rolling countryside north of Ramallah, down a narrow, unpaved road, there is a small, walled leisure complex called “Dream.” A popular summertime destination for local Palestinian families, the Dream day resort, with a restaurant and swimming facilities, was opened three years ago by the Odeh family, natives of the village. During the swimming season, from June to October, admission is 35 shekels ($8) a day for an adult and 25 shekels ($6) for a child.

The half-Olympic-size swimming pool, the shallow children’s pool and the jacuzzi in the corner are empty of water now, because it’s winter, but the restaurant is still functioning, in theory. It is nearly lunchtime, but other than a 28-year-old employee named Muhammad, there isn’t a soul in sight. “It sometimes gets busy at night,” Muhammad mumbles, almost apologetically. To be fair, it is a weekday toward the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which might explain the lack of customers. Still, Jifna is a half-Christian, half-Muslim village that was once entirely Christian. And a publicly displayed drinks trolley replete with bottles of Smirnoff, cheap Israeli brandy and other alcoholic beverages suggests that Dream does not exactly cater to a religious Muslim crowd.

According to Muhammad, himself a Muslim, the fundamentalist Hamas has not made inroads into Jifna yet, though a large new mosque is under construction just beyond the resort, a spillover from the nearby refugee camp of Jalazoun. In last January’s elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinian Authority parliament, which Hamas won, Muhammad voted for the Badil (Alternative) list, a leftist alliance of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the communist People’s Party. Red PFLP flags flutter from rooftops across the village, and the secularist, mainstream Fatah movement is said to have some support here too. The village church bells peal at noon, and half an hour later, the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer from the unfinished minaret nearby. As the Christians sell off their houses and follow their relatives to America, says Muhammad, Muslims are moving in to replace them.

Muhammad’s own dreams are modest. He would love to visit Gaza, which he has never seen, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. The Strip is impoverished and seething with violence perpetrated by armed militias and criminal gangs, in between Israeli military operations to stop the launching of Qassams. Muhammad says it is “obvious” that civil war will break out there, where Hamas is strong. In any case, for a single man of his age, obtaining permits from the Israeli authorities to travel across Israel and enter the Strip is close to impossible nowadays, just as ordinary Gazans cannot travel to the West Bank. Muhammad applied in the past for a permit to cross through the Israeli army checkpoints that separate the cities of the West Bank from each other and from Israel, but he says he was rejected on security grounds, as he spent a week in prison for stone-throwing during the first intifada. “Most Palestinians have been in prison,” he remarks wryly, “and those who haven’t are living in prison anyway.”

Meanwhile he expects that the anarchy and lawlessness that currently prevail in Gaza will eventually come to these parts of the West Bank as well. “We are one people,” he says matter-of-factly, without specifying whether for good or bad. Muhammad would like to get married, but he can’t imagine doing that either, given his paltry income of 1,500-1,800 shekels ($350-$420) a month. He is lucky to have a salary at all: Over 160,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority, who support about one-third of the Palestinian population, have hardly been paid in seven months because of the international boycott of the Hamas government, which refuses to fulfill the three conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous signed agreements.

Of course Muhammad hopes for the day when the Palestinians will have their own state in their own borders, but that seems “remote,” he says, adding, “the Palestinian cause has been reduced to a paycheck.” For many, it’s come down to the search for the next meal.

Mounting despair is a motif that repeats itself throughout the Ramallah district, notwithstanding the fact that this is a relatively prosperous area of the Palestinian territories, rich with olive trees that are ripe for picking before the fall rains. At the Abu Dayya furniture store on the main road into Bir Zeit village, known for the eponymous university on its outskirts, Suheil Abu Dayya reports a 70-percent drop in business since Hamas came to power, because people do not have money to spend.

Even though furniture manufacturing is a traditional Palestinian stock in trade, particularly in Gaza, at least 60 percent of Abu Dayya’s living room suites, garden sets and office chairs come from China. Cheaper prices aside, he explains, an order from China takes about 22 days to get to Bir Zeit, whereas it can take two to three months to arrive from Gaza, with the constant Israeli-imposed security closures at Karni, the commercial crossing between Israel and the Strip, and all the inspections required. Even delivering goods from Bir Zeit to the northern West Bank city of Nablus, less than an hour’s drive away, can take two or three days, Abu Dayya adds, as the merchandise has to pass through a special Israeli depot, where some truck drivers sleep on line.

“The West Bank is shrinking, it is closing in on us,” Abu Dayya says. “It is no longer just a West Bank-Gaza divide, but there are divisions within the West Bank as well.”

Palestinian observers assert that Israel, through its checkpoint regime, has already split the West Bank, de facto, into three cantons — the northern one of Nablus and Jenin, where armed gangs and militias have taken over much like in Gaza; the central canton of Ramallah, where the old Fatah establishment maintains a semblance of control; and the southern Hebron district, where Hamas holds sway.

Bir Zeit used to be mostly Christian, but many of the Christians have left over the years, and like in Jifna, the town’s population of around 6,000 is now roughly half and half. There are three churches and five mosques, four of which have gone up in the last three years. According to Abu Dayya, a Christian, the village used to be PFLP, then PFLP and Fatah. Now, he says, Hamas is on the rise. The largest, most prominent mosque that dominates Bir Zeit is festooned with the green flags of the Islamist movement.

Locals report that inter-communal tensions are rising. Personal disputes quickly turn into Muslim-Christian sectarian affairs. Hamas has nothing to do with it, insists another Bir Zeit Christian, Samer Tayesh, 33, a Fatah supporter who owns a café in the center of the village that seems to have nothing but beer in stock. “These people are worse than Hamas,” he declares. Recently, Tayesh’s cousin was savagely beaten by seven Muslim attackers following what he described as a minor altercation in the street.

The PA police are never around when they’re needed. “They come after it’s all over,” says Tayesh. “They are afraid.” (Abu Dayya’s brother Daoud, a curtain-maker and carpenter, says that when he had his work equipment stolen last year, the police told him to go look for it and let them know if he found anything.)

And while the armed gangs still keep a low profile in the Ramallah district, with the guns only emerging when problems arise, there is fear that the “weapons chaos” that has gripped Gaza will soon reach here, a last bastion of relative calm. In general there is a sense that everything is falling apart.

“We Palestinians are not civilized,” Tayesh laments. “That’s why we chose Hamas. Today, I’m ashamed to say I’m a Palestinian. We don’t even deserve a state. Nor do we think of how to achieve it. All we think about is how to work.”

In 2005, the prestigious, Calfornia-based RAND Corporation published a detailed study on “Building a Successful Palestinian State.” Based on research conducted by the RAND Palestinian State Study Team from 2002-2004, it makes for ironic reading today.

One of the prerequisites for success is good governance, according to the study, which recommends strengthening and empowering the parliamentary system against the PA presidency to that end, and granting the parliament real authority through genuine budgetary control. Only today, Hamas holds a majority of 74 seats in the 132-member parliament, and Israel and the West profess to be trying to bolster President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a Fatah veteran who, in the eyes of the Palestinians and the world, is looking increasingly, dangerously weak. The RAND study also proposes a realignment of the PA security services, so that it would include fewer apparatuses, a beefed-up 18,000-strong National Security Force that would maintain crossing points and borders, and a lean Presidential Guard of 500 men. However, the Presidential Guard is one of the only security apparatuses now under the direct control of Abbas, as opposed to the others, which have fallen under the aegis of the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. As such, the Americans are proposing training the Presidential Guard units and deploying them at the sensitive border crossings of Rafah and Karni to oversee traffic in and out of the Gaza Strip, amid reports that their numbers could swell to over 6,000. Meanwhile Israel says it is considering Abbas’s request for thousands more guns for Gaza, as well as the idea of allowing the “Badr Brigade,” a Palestinian, PLO-affiliated unit of the Jordanian army, into PA territory — the latter a certain recipe for igniting a civil war, some Palestinian analysts say.

The RAND study underlines the need for security and political stability between Israel and the Palestinian territory, open borders and easy access between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as conditions for economic growth. If anything, the Palestinian state-building enterprise appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

There were expectations among the Palestinians that after Id al-Fitr, the three-day holiday that concluded the fast month of Ramadan in late October, Abu Mazen would take bold steps to break the political stalemate and try to alleviate the acute economic crisis in the PA. He had earlier announced that civil war was the last Palestinian taboo, but that all other options were open. The notoriously indecisive leader also declared during the feast that “bread is more important than democracy,” suggesting that it was crunch-time for Abu Mazen, and that he was about to make his move.

But as more days have gone by without decisive action, Abu Mazen seems to be losing the little momentum and public confidence he still enjoys.

Abu Mazen has two basic options, neither of which gives much reason for optimism. The first is to form some kind of national unity government with Hamas, Fatah and the other significant Palestinian factions, or a government of technocrats that enjoys the consensus of them all. The problem is that the new government, in order to gain the approval of Hamas and a vote of confidence in the PLC, would necessarily fall short of fulfilling the international community’s conditions sufficiently to warrant a lifting of the economic embargo. “The United States and Israel won’t buy it,” states one Ramallah analyst and political insider, “though the Europeans might.” Moreover, with Hamas calling the shots, the consensus government’s program would be unlikely to place any peace process with Israel high on its agenda, if at all.

Abu Mazen had hoped that a deal leading to the release of Gilad Shalit, the soldier kidnapped to Gaza by Hamas last June, could be part of a package leading to a unity government and a renewed truce with Israel. But the launching of Israel’s “Autumn Clouds” military operation against the Qassam rocket launchers in the northern Gaza Strip in early November suggests there was no sign of an imminent breakthrough on the subject of Shalit. “There may be agreement on an exchange [of prisoners],” says Ziad Abu Amr, an independent legislator in Gaza who mediates between Abbas and Hamas, “but none of the details or criteria have been agreed upon. A deal is still a long way off.”

Last-ditch efforts were under way in early November to form a unity government, and by November 6, it appeared that the sides had agreed in principle on at least some of the terms. But according to Abu Amr, if full agreement has not been reached on a consensus government by the time these pages are read, that option can be considered dead.

That would leave Abbas with Plan B, which is fraught with potential risks of its own. Abu Mazen would have to resort to exercising his mandate, stipulated in the Palestinian Basic Law, to fire the current government and announce early elections, though elections might require a referendum first, since there is no provision in the Basic Law for dissolving the PLC. Abbas would try to appease Hamas by announcing new elections for parliament and for the presidency at the same time. But the gambit could lead to a violent reaction by Hamas, which would interpret Abbas’s maneuver as a coup and, in a worst-case scenario for Abbas, could lead to an even more catastrophic defeat for Fatah than it suffered in January, involving the takeover of his office by Hamas as well. Apparently nobody has been discussing setting criteria for parties that may run in future Palestinian elections, meaning that theoretically, Hamas could run again, win again, and continue to reject the international community’s demands.

Indeed, there are serious questions over whether Fatah is any more electable than it was last time around. Since Yasser Arafat’s death, two years ago, Abu Mazen has mostly surrounded himself with the old guard of Fatah, veterans who reminisce about the past but have no constituency or tools with which to deal with the current reality. Meanwhile the restless young generation of Fatah — led by the jailed grass-roots leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life terms in Israel for involvement in terror during the second intifada, and including figures such as Kaddura Fares, Hatem Abd al-Qader, Jamal Shubaki and Nasser Qudwa — failed at a critical moment when they backed down from running on their own Al-Mustaqbal (Future) list just before the January election. “They were too loyal to the old guard and didn’t want to split Fatah,” explains Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the East Jerusalem-based Palestinian Society for the Study of International Affairs.

The United States tries to promote democracy in the PA, but when it comes to strengthening Abu Mazen and Fatah, there is a limit to what Washington can do. Abu Mazen’s media staff recently went on a trip to the United States to learn how to run an efficient press office, and a group of Palestinian politicos were brought out to observe the midterm elections. However, Abu Mazen’s personality is beyond the scope of seminars and consultants, and so are the internal rivalries riddling Fatah that, in large part, led to its defeat in the first place. There are grave concerns among Fatah reformists themselves whether the party will be ready for new elections within the next year.

“There is no Fatah,” pronounces Abdul Hadi. “It must reinvent itself or disappear.”

Hamas, for its part, lost its founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, in an Israeli missile strike in the spring of 2004, leaving doctrinal confusion in his wake. Outside players, such as Iran, are pushing Hamas, through its exiled, hardline leader Khaled Mashal, to act not as a nationalist Palestinian movement, but as a model of political Islam. Meanwhile, the more pragmatic Hamas leaders inside the territories dare not go against Mashal, a bit like when Arafat was in exile in Tunis in the 1980s, and the Fatah cadres in the territories remained loyal to him, partly for fear of falling prey to Israeli schemes of divide and rule. The party line is also largely shaped by Mahmud al-Zahar, the senior Hamas figure in Gaza and the PA foreign minister, who represents Hamas’s own reactionary old guard.

When it comes to Abbas’s efforts at national unity, Abdul Hadi contends that Zahar is never likely to give in. “His hatred of Fatah is in his heart. He was arrested by Fatah security forces, beaten and humiliated [in the late 1990s]. Now, being foreign minister is beyond revenge.”

Given the bleak prospects and limitations of Abbas, Palestinians who do not want to see the nationalist cause go down are putting what little faith they have left in the dozen or so passionate, uncorrupt members of the young guard of Fatah. For since the death of Yasser Arafat, there has been nobody to fill the gap. Arafat was a historical icon who managed to combine the revolutionary image of Gamal Abdul Nasser and the reconciliation agenda of Anwar Sadat, Abdul Hadi says. “But Abu Mazen is not a warrior hero, and isn’t interested in becoming one. He doesn’t have an olive branch or a gun. He is what he is — a member of a national political elite, obliged to fill a position he couldn’t get out of.”

Abdul Hadi and other Palestinian observers also argue that the leadership crisis and lack of strategy or vision in Israel have contributed greatly to Abu Mazen’s impotence. “His weak personality is not the point,” says one prominent analyst in Ramallah. “Abbas and his camp lost the initiative long ago, because there is no political horizon for their program. They advocate negotiations with Israel, but after 15 years, they have gotten nowhere. They do not have a convincing argument.”

Some believe that Israel’s early release of the young guard leader, Marwan Barghouti, could help provide a way out of the stalemate. “Releasing him now would provide a golden opportunity to change the dynamic,” says Abdul Hadi. In an interview with The Jerusalem Report last summer, leading Palestinian intellectual and outspoken moderate Sari Nusseibeh mourned the passing of Arafat — “I had hoped he’d continue living. I think with some prodding, he would have been able to take the last few steps [to achieve peace with Israel]” — and marked Barghouti as his possible heir. “Let’s assume that under the right conditions, Marwan is able to come out and lead,” he said. “It’s not impossible to believe he could take us in the same direction, with the same courage, as Arafat. He’s daring, and he does not bow down to existing idols. Just like Arafat, he is able to break taboos.”

Even Hamas is reportedly demanding the release of Barghouti, as well as the jailed PFLP head Ahmed Sa’adat, as part of a prisoner exchange for Shalit. Barghouti has found a common language with Hamas leaders in jail, and Hamas would have an interest in trying to secure his release, in order to score points with the supporters of Fatah.

But seeing Barghouti as a potential savior might be going too far. His release “would certainly have an impact,” one Western diplomat allows, “though how would be hard to gauge. For one thing, as long as Barghouti is in jail, he is in a different category. Once he comes out, he’s a politician like everybody else.”

The Ramallah insider adds that much would depend on the manner of his release, and how it is viewed by the Palestinians, who are always on the lookout for Israeli schemes. “Israel let him appear on the Arabic satellite channels before the last elections, from jail. People saw it as Israeli interference,” he notes.

The countryside north of Ramallah ought to be Barghouti country, if anywhere is. The Barghouti family originated in the village of Kobar, in the Ramallah district, before moving to Ramallah itself, and Barghouti was a fiery student leader at Bir Zeit University in the early 1980s. If Barghouti has a constituency, it is here, as opposed to the teeming cities and camps of the Gaza Strip. Yet even so, in Bir Zeit and the nearby villages there is some skepticism about how much a freed Barghouti could actually achieve.

“Marwan is not the solution, and nor is anybody else,” says Muhammad, the young manager of Dream, who comes from Kobar village but has moved to Jifna for work. “If the international community wants to solve this conflict, it can, on the basis of U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. Marwan can’t do anything.”

At the Abu Dayya furniture store in Bir Zeit, Suheil and his brother Daoud doubt Barghouti’s powers as well. “Everything is in Israel’s hands,” says Suheil. “The media has blown him up out of all proportion. He’s popular inside Fatah, but not on the street. He can’t solve anything. He isn’t any more powerful than Ahmed Sa’adat.”

And Fatah supporter Samer Tayesh, of the Bir Zeit cafe, warns that if Barghouti enjoys popularity, it is for his latter-day militancy, not moderation, so his release probably would not help.

Down the side street by the prominent Hamas mosque of Bir Zeit, there are a couple of faded posters pasted on a wall showing Barghouti in a victory pose, with his handcuffed hands above his head. The walls also bear graffiti of Hamas and its underground Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and of the PFLP. A Star of David is painted on a rusty trash can.

If Muhammad, Tayesh and the Abu Dayyas do share a common dream, it is to leave. “Anywhere will do, no problem,” Muhammad quips. The Abu Dayyas claim to have more relatives in the United States than in Bir Zeit. Daoud is thinking of leaving, but says he doesn’t know any English and doesn’t have the means. Much of Tayesh’s family is abroad now, most having left in the past six years. Married, with three children, he went to check out opportunities in Houston, Texas, where his sister lives, but he couldn’t find work.

Even for those in relatively privileged positions, emigration now holds an added allure. Mahdi Abdul Hadi’s own two daughters, with master’s degrees, have packed up and left relatively good jobs for better opportunities in Dubai.

“This conflict will not be solved today, tomorrow or five years from now,” Abdul Hadi explains. “We are not giving up, but we are running away from the bleeding.” And in the meantime, the struggle for independence is being put on hold, or preserved in the deep freeze. “The one ray of hope is that wherever we are, we realize that our identity as Palestinians will never melt,” he continues. “We will always be proud of belonging to a homeland.”

Palestine itself, however, appears indefinitely postponed.

Published in the November 27, 2006 Issue of The Jerusalem Report