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A decisive mandate

Print edition : Feb 11, 2005 T+T-

By electing the moderate Mahmoud Abbas their new President, Palestinians appear to have endorsed the view that their struggle for a homeland needs a new direction.

in Manama

ON January 9, the Palestinian people voted to elect Mahmoud Abbas the new President of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). While Abbas won 62.3 per cent of the votes polled, his nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, polled around 20 per cent. The percentages of votes his remaining five rivals polled were in single digits. By electing Abbas, the Palestinians appear to have endorsed his view that the struggle for a homeland needs a fresh direction.

During the election campaign, Abbas stuck to the theme that the Al-Aqsa Intifada - the uprising that began in September 2000 following the deliberately provocative visit of Ariel Sharon, then Opposition leader in Israel, to the Haram al-Sharif - was not advancing the cause of Palestinian independence. Instead, he stressed that the struggle for ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem had to acquire a peaceful orientation. By focussing attention on a review of the Intifada and encouraging peaceful forms of protest, Abbas appeared to have made a determined effort to salvage the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle.

During the course of the second Intifada, Palestinians abandoned the earlier strategy of attacking Israeli settlers and soldiers in the occupied territories alone and began to target systematically civilians on Israeli soil. Israel took advantage of the situation. Citing the spate of suicide attacks carried out by militant groups such as Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), it began to propagate the view, with some success, that the Palestinian struggle had degenerated into a terrorist campaign. The George W. Bush-led administration in the United States, grappling with the September 11, 2001, attacks and eager to project the "global reach" of terrorism, became Israel's natural ally in describing the Palestinian uprising as yet another instance of international terrorism.

Aware that Israel would not give up a shred of land in the occupied territories without solid international pressure, Abbas has been trying to regain the moral high ground. Ahmed Soboh, a Deputy Minister and a former adviser to the late P.A. President Yasser Arafat, told Frontline that the required external intervention could only come if Palestinians demonstrated their commitment to democracy and change. Palestinians see the European Union (E.U.) well disposed towards them. Some hope, without much conviction, that Britain could persuade the U.S. to take a more objective view of the West Asian conflict.

Not surprisingly, the election of the P.A. President is part of a larger effort to reform Palestinian legislative bodies through the ballot and thus win the much-needed international support. On the eve of Abbas' election, it was announced that Palestinians would elect a new Parliament on July 17. Soboh pointed out that consultations were held with the E.U. on how to revamp the legislative bodies. The talks touched upon the possible enactment of new laws once the July elections were over. For instance, Palestinians are considering reserving a percentage of seats for women in the legislature - an unparalleled move in the largely conservative Arab world.

The long-overdue organisational elections of the Fatah, the largest political component of the Palestinian national movement, are also on the anvil. The need for elections to the Fatah has acquired urgency as its existing bodies do not adequately represent the new generation of leaders. Only one of the current 14 members of the Fatah's central committee is from Gaza. The rest were in exile with Arafat in Tunis and entered the West Bank in 1994 in the wake of the Oslo Accords. The 110-member Revolutionary Council of the Fatah also needs a revamp.

By stalling violence and encouraging democratisation, the Palestinian leadership hopes to achieve two major objectives. First, it wants to ease the hardship of the Palestinian people. The P.A. is the largest employer in Palestine, but needs international aid to pay the salaries. Recent World Bank statistics show that in 2003 the P.A. got $883 million from abroad, which means that the per capita foreign aid expenditure in the Palestinian territories is $150.

Second, it wants restrictions on the free movement on Palestinian people and goods to be relaxed. The October 2004 World Bank report on the Palestinian economic crisis points out that closures - a complex system of restrictions - have been the chief cause of the region's economic decline. After four years of conflict, average Palestinian incomes have fallen by more than one-third and 25 per cent of the working population has become unemployed. About six lakhs of the 34 lakh Palestinians cannot afford the basic necessities. Detailing the nature of the closures, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in a January 2004 study that there were 59 checkpoints, 10 partial checkpoints, 479 earth mounds, 75 trenches, 100 roadblocks and 40 road gates in the West Bank - all meant for restricting the free movement of Palestinians.

ABBAS' support for alternative forms of struggle has opened the door for advocates of "popular resistance". Terry Balata is one of the prominent leaders of the Palestinian Campaign for Freedom and Peace, a group that believes in "popular resistance" or non-violent methods of struggle. Inspired by the April 2004 visit of Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, the group hopes to train a thousand activists in the techniques of passive resistance. It is also emphasising the involvement of women in popular protests. "Violent actions do not attract women, the aged and children. With peaceful means of resistance, we can secure a guarantee of participation of large masses from all sections of society," Terry Balata told Frontline. Encouraged by the response to her movement, Terry Balata said that her group would actively participate in the July elections.

Meanwhile, disregarding Israeli exhortations, Abbas made it clear that he would not order a crackdown on Hamas. Neither has he given any indications that he would want the group to disarm. Instead, the Palestinian President stressed that he would try to persuade the organisation from continuing its armed confrontation. He made this clear during his election campaign and at a recent meeting with a group of Arab lawmakers. For Abbas, it is vital that the Hamas and other militant groups such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Islamic Jihad stop attacks on Israeli civilians outside the occupied territories. His inability to do so would mean that the international support, which he is banking upon to advance the Palestinian cause, will not come.

During its recent negotiations with the Fatah, the Hamas leadership sought accommodation within the mainstream decision-making structures. The demand has triggered a heated internal debate. Soboh points out that the Fatah is not averse to accommodating Hamas in the process provided the latter abandons its methods of struggle and shifts its ideological position. "Hamas would have to choose whether it wishes to peter out into an Al Qaeda type of organisation or base itself on the moderate Turkish model," he said.

As it begins to emerge as a formidable political force, Hamas has to find answers to tough questions. Given Abbas' popularity, the group might find it difficult to defy him and continue with suicide bombings inside Israel. But it might wish to explore the option of attacking Israeli soldiers and settlers inside the occupied territories, and test whether that will damage its own popularity.

Not unexpectedly, Hamas, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees launched a joint attack on the eve of Abbas' swearing-in ceremony, killing six Israeli soldiers at the Kerni border crossing between Gaza and Israel. Asked to comment on the attack, the Hamas leader in the West Bank, Hassan Yousef, said the group was ready to suspend attacks as part of a deal with Abbas. But it had the freedom of action before such an agreement was concluded, he said. After cautiously participating in the on-going municipal elections inside the occupied territories, where it did well, Hamas is now preparing to participate in the July parliamentary polls and enhance its political profile.

Notwithstanding Abbas' moderate approach, Israel has not abandoned its hawkish stance. With the Kerni attack in the backdrop, Israel decided to snap all communication with the new dispensation a day before Abbas was sworn in. On January 15, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the Israeli Cabinet that "the Israeli military and security apparatus have been instructed to take any action needed without restriction. These instructions will remain valid as long as the Palestinians fail to lift even a single finger [against militants]".

Abbas, on his part, has expressed unhappiness with the Israeli approach. Talab al-Sana, who was part of a group of Arab lawmakers in the Israeli Parliament, told Israel Army Radio that Abbas was upset about Israel holding him responsible for the attacks even before he had been sworn in President. Addressing members of the Palestinian Parliament after being sworn in, Abbas made it clear that he was averse to making unilateral concessions. "Partnership cannot be achieved by dictation, and peace cannot be reached by partial or interim solutions," he said.

IN dealing with Israel, Abbas' main challenge will be the Israeli mindset that refuses to accommodate legitimate Palestinian aspirations. A study done by the Ramallah-based Palestine Land Development System (PALDIS) points out that Arnon Soffer, one of Sharon's prominent advisers and a professor at Haifa University, has been consistently arguing that the assumed high Palestinian birth rate poses a "demographic" threat to Israel. Soffer wrote a couple of years ago: "The only possibility is absolute separation from the Palestinian Authority... a border system should be erected between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, constructed of electrified walls and fences... it must enable through corridors, the territorial contiguity of the three parts of the Palestinian Authority."

An influential "Third Way Plan" was also drawn up in the mid-1990s that advocated that Palestinians should not be settled in "strategic areas", which included Greater Jerusalem and the Jordan valley. Besides, it stressed that the control over water resources "should not be compromised". The study concluded that over the years, a consensus has been achieved in Israel over the need for a "Palestinian State" which absorbs the demographic increase and excludes occupied East Jerusalem as well as major Israeli settlement blocks in the "strategic areas".

Consequently, Israel has undertaken construction of the 622-km-long "security barrier" in the West Bank. The wall deprives Palestinians of access to the greater part of their water resources. In its northern segment, it runs along a path, beneath which lie the waters of the western aquifer, the second largest source of water in the area after the Jordan river. For all practical purposes, Palestinians have been permanently denied access to the aquifer. By barricading the water resources of the western aquifer behind the wall, the barrier has seriously restricted the scope to revive agriculture in the West Bank, on which nearly 25 per cent of the population depends.