Hanging in the balance

Amid a power struggle between Hamas and president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, the Palestinian people face economic ruin and starvation. Will a referendum on statehood alleviate their woes? Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  June 25, 2006

|~|50-71231597-200.jpg|~|Plight: Palestinians are reliant on international aid, but Western governments have cut financial handouts for political reasons.|~|Amid a power struggle between Hamas and president Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, the Palestinian people face economic ruin and starvation. Will a referendum on statehood alleviate their woes? Massoud A. Derhally reports. The last few weeks have seen the Palestinian territories moving inexorably closer to the edge of the abyss. The growing prospect of civil strife in the wake of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ (Abu Mazen) pledge to hold a nationwide vote over a proposal to recognise Israel, has made an already bad situation worse. Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned and charismatic Fatah leader, and icon of the second intifada, drew up the document and convinced several Hamas prisoners to sign up, prompting Abu Mazen to call a referendum for next month in the hope of cornering the Islamist-led government. But this turn of events has done little to compel Hamas to acquiesce. The Islamist group, which now controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), has continued to stick to its guns, refusing to capitulate to American, European and Israeli pressure, even as it lurches towards bankruptcy and remains unable to pay the salaries of 160,000 workers. Its leaders have returned from successful tours of oil-rich Gulf countries with suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars, to help alleviate the financial crisis. But the PA proposal to pay some salaries of lower paid employees has been met with violence on the streets of Gaza. Security forces are furious after months of non-payment, while the temporary intermediary mechanism for PA financial support is still being discussed and looks unlikely to be implemented until July at the earliest. Meanwhile, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian agency, which strives to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, says the number of Palestinians who live below the poverty level has increased by 9%. The agency has had to cancel several trips as a result of the deteriorating security situation. “Access to beneficiaries is becoming an increasing concern in light of the deteriorating security environment…There are increasing signs in the field that the situation is becoming critical; the pressure at the distribution points (the West Bank and Gaza Strip) is increasing markedly, non beneficiaries are in some cases resorting to violent means as they are so desperate for food,” the WFP says in a recent report. “The majority of poor families live mainly on bread and vegetables. The prices of vegetables have plummeted as a result of the Israeli export restrictions and the decrease in demand by customers,” the agency says in another report. Last week, the European Union, with the tacit approval of the ‘Middle East Quartet’ (the EU, United Nations, United States and Russia) said it would send approximately US$125 million in aid to the Palestinians. The aid would bypass Hamas, which the Europeans refuse to deal with because of its unwillingness to renounce violence and recognise Israel. But it will only bring temporary respite for a government that has traditionally been dependent on over US$1 billion in handouts. This already tense situation has been made all the more precarious by the recent killing of seven members of a Palestinian family picnicking on a beach in Gaza. Their deaths came after Israel shelled the area, as part of an operation it says was carried out to kill alleged terrorists. Israel has since denied responsibility for the gory outcome and blamed the deaths on a mine planted by Palestinian militants. A former Pentagon battlefield analyst, Marc Garlasco, investigating for the pressure group Human Rights Watch, promptly rejected that account. Three days later, nine people, including two militants and two children, were also killed in an air strike by the Israeli military in Gaza. The mayhem has inflamed Palestinian anger and caused Hamas to abandon a 16-month hudna, or ‘truce’. As this multi-layered crisis deteriorates, Hamas finds itself in a perilous position. To recognise Israel and renounce violence would force it to compromise the very principles on which it was able to secure votes from a disenfranchised Palestinian population, which had sought a different paradigm to the defunct and corrupt Fatah-led government of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and his successor Abu Mazen. But there is little indication that Hamas can continue to function as a government while remaining independent of Fatah, or for that matter any of the other factions in the occupied territories, and manage to bring order to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank. The document of the present referendum, which was still under discussion as Arabian Business went to press, provides a blueprint for a coalition government that could ultimately provide an exit out of this impasse. But it may not be the solution that others in Hamas want. “There is progress in terms of text,” Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator tells Arabian Business, in reference to the ironing out of a political programme that would produce a coalition government. “I can’t talk about optimism or pessimism because the question is not quantitative. It's qualitative. You can agree on 98% of everything, but the remaining 2% often contains the decisive issues,” he adds. Initially, the announcement by Abu Mazen that he was going to hold the referendum seemed inspired. It offered a chance to divide Hamas' support within the occupied territories and the region, while bringing together Fatah. The former governing organisation supports the document, which is now being discussed. Potentially, the proposal could also make it very difficult for Israel, the US and to some extent the Europeans to continue to argue that there is no basis upon which discussions can be conducted with the Palestinian government. “The problem now, though, is that [the proposal] is contributing to a degree of division, on the ground hostility and a difficulty in controlling anger, which is being expressed in violence,” Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit tells Arabian Business. “It may be that the Palestinian president decides it is just too inflammatory and it may be better to postpone the issue…In a way, that is similar to the previous postponement of elections, when there was a fear they would contribute to too much division on the ground.” Mouin Rabbani of the International Crisis Group doesn’t believe the referendum will be a panacea to the Hamas conundrum, and could actually worsen the situation. “If it is indeed held, it is going to polarise things to a breaking point,” says Rabbani. He points out there is no constitutional basis for holding a referendum. “As a rule, when you hold a referendum, that means that it's part of parliamentary legislation,meaning that there is a referendum law. In the Palestinian case, the only way they are going to get a referendum law is if the Hamas dominated parliament passes one, which they are either not going to do or they will pass it in such a way to give the parliament or the government the right to set the substance for the referendum rather than the president,” explains Rabbani. “In the end, the only way Abu Mazen can actually hold the referendum is by going over the will of the parliament and the government, which isn’t going to make things better.” An additional factor that Rabbani points out is that the referendum is very much seen as a referendum to undo a referendum. More ominous is that the Palestinians concluded their elections in January, and the referendum is being viewed as an attempt to undo the results of those elections. “There is also the question of why they are holding a referendum on an informal and internal Palestinian document. If you’re going to have a referendum there have been much more important issues in the last five to ten years which would give a reason for such an exercise,” adds Rabbani. There are many constitutional, political and practical challenges that have to be overcome if the referendum is to be held. As Rabbani suggests, these are likely to polarise the situation between the government and the presidency, or between Fatah and Hamas. There is also the question of what would happen after the referendum is held. If Abbas’ strategy is to use a victory in the vote to replace the government, he doesn’t have that authority, according to Rabbani. The Palestinian basic law makes no provisions for replacing the government. The president can dismiss it, but the Palestinian Legislative Council has to then vote confidence in its replacement and that’s unlikely to happen with a Hamas dominated parliament. There is also no Palestinian early elections law. According to a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 75% of Palestinians would support a referendum that recognises Israel, but only 47% said they would vote for the document that Abu Mazen has put forward if a referendum were to be held today. The survey said 44% would vote against it. In a way, observers say, Abu Mazen has declared war on Hamas. “I think he has certainly made it quite clear that he wants to either change or replace this government. I think Abu Mazen personally would be quite happy if things turn out to be a bluff that leads to a coalition government that is more in line with his own views,” explains Rabbani. But there are others within Fatah, people like Mohammed Dahlan (the former security chief in Gaza and security minister in the previous government) that would settle for nothing else than the full replacement of the Hamas government and the restoration of Fatah to power. Six months after Hamas came to power, there appears to be little change in sentiment towards the Islamist government. The same survey that gauged opinion on a referendum that would recognise Israel indicates support for Hamas has not eroded as badly as many think. If elections were held today, the Hamas government would still be able to muster 39% of the vote. “Since the elections, both Hamas and Fatah have lost popularity. But it’s not fair to say that the tide has been reversed against this government,” explains Rabbani, adding, “The sentiment on the whole is that these people have not been given a fair chance to fail or succeed, and that blame is largely placed on those sanctioning and opposing Hamas.” Most Palestinians who voted for Hamas didn’t expect the Islamist group to win an absolute majority in the new parliament, and conversely most people who voted for Hamas didn’t want it to obtain a majority in the new parliament. “In the run up to the election there was a clear and overwhelming preference for a coalition government in which people were less concerned about whether Hamas or Fatah would win a plurality of seats and more concerned that no one win a majority of seats,” explains Rabbani. Parallel to this internal tussle, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has managed to curry favour with Washington and Britain on his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and draw the permanent borders of Israel should there be no ‘meaningful’ peace talks. British prime minister Tony Blair tacitly endorsed Olmert’s unilateral disengagement plan and pledged as President George Bush, his support for a negotiated agreement but that in the absence of such an agreement Israel cannot be prevented from proceeding as it likes. The US and Britain have certainly had measurable success in weakening Hamas. But that success contradicts the fundamental points they were making in Arafat’s tenure, for Hamas to integrate itself into the political apparatus in the territories and participate in a democratic process. “The way that the quartet has approached the government is to simply make demands, and to judge Hamas by its words more than by its actions, without even so much as taking the trouble to send a clear message to the Palestinian government that if you meet these conditions we will respond in this and that manner,” says Rabbani. “They haven’t even done that, they have just made demands, and when you only make demands and don't make the effort to explain what the consequences of meeting those demands are, you might as well be saying that your only concern is to set the bar impossibly high: ‘This is because I don’t want you to meet these demands and because my real priority is not to see you meet our conditions, but to have an excuse to continue sanctioning you and remove you from power.” To get out of this conundrum, Rabbani says the Palestinians will need to forge a political agreement that deals with the issues at hand, as well as paving the way for a coalition government. This could mean that the interests of those who are contributing to the escalation of events will be removed, while those within Fatah or Hamas who might have an interest in continuing the escalation will be stopped from doing so by their own leaders. “The only way this violence is going to stop is if a political agreement is reached between the main protagonists on a political programme…If you have a political agreement between Fatah and Hamas, then you empower the leaders of those organisations who have no interest in escalation to confront colleagues of theirs, who may want to continue the escalation, and to have political achievement in hand to be able to confront them,” says Rabbani. There are indications that Hamas can be pragmatic about forming a coalition government, capable of conducting itself sensibly, and willing to maintain its 16 month ceasefire. Observers say the key question will be whether the quartet, the Israelis and rival Palestinians engage with Hamas in a way that makes this pragmatism a viable option.||**||

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