LONDON -- An expert in international law and an old friend
of the Palestinian people wrote me in utter distress a few days after
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh were
reported to have reached an agreement Sept. 11 to form a national unity
government. The content of his message was alarming, especially coming from an
objective American academic who was involved in the drafting of past
Palestinian national documents. "The Palestinian people were being set
up," was the underlying meaning of his message. To know why, here is a bit
The Palestinian declaration of independence of 1988 in
Algeria was structured in a way that would allow the Palestinian Liberation
Organization (PLO) Executive Committee to devise foreign policy, thus
representing 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 PLO 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 (PA): the 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 security carried
out daily onslaughts against those who opposed the autocratic methods of the
government, desperately trying to demonstrate its worthiness to Israel and the
The PA, itself a political construct of various Fatah blocs,
had its own share of squabbling, which culminated at times in street fights and
assassinations. Abbas, then, was of the opinion that if Arafat refused to share
power, the Fatah dispute would grow and could lead to a failed government. Both
the U.S. and Israel backed Abbas, hardly for his democratic posture, but with
the hope that Abbas would hand over the little remaining political
"concessions" that Arafat wouldn't, a sin that cost Arafat his
freedom in his later years.
But events in the Middle East often yield the exact opposite
of what the U.S. 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 U.S., 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 neighbors helped ensure the tightness of the siege. Some in
Fatah seemed also 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, where hired guns ruled the
streets, threatening the safety of an already crushed people.
Palestinian morgues mounted with bodies when Israel
unleashed its tactlessly termed Summer Rain, an intensive military onslaught
that killed 291 Palestinians in the months of July and August alone. The
atrocious one-sided war was justified to the Israeli public as a humanitarian
endeavor to save the life of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in June
by Palestinian militants wishing to exert pressure on Israel to ease its deadly
Palestinians, though browbeaten and fatigued -- denied
salaries, physically besieged, politically isolated -- were desperately trying
to shield their democratic choice. The issue by then had transcended to 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
But Hamas, too, was learning the harsh reality of being in
the position of leadership. Unlike Arafat, Hamas wanted to seek support from
its Arab and Muslim milieu, the devastatingly unexplored strategic alliances
undermined by the PA's reliance on the West. But even Hamas itself seemed
unaware of the extent of 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 U.S.' rapport with Israel
would hardly weaken even if an entire nation must go hungry and hospitals run
out of badly needed medicine. That hard lesson in real politics is what 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 have realized that the harder Hamas is hit, the
stronger its 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 with a hint of arrogance.
Now a national unity government is its only outlet to the world: without it,
neither its survival, as a relevant political movement, nor achieving any of
its declared objectives are as secure as it may have seemed in the heat of
victory. Moreover, a generation of already malnourished children are facing a
formidable humanitarian crisis; something had to be done.
But amid the rush to form a government, key questions won't
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 -- the refugees'
right of return, the 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 distress 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 worried. The Palestinian democratic experience
should not be squandered again.
-Ramzy Baroud's latest book: "The Second
Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle" (Pluto Press,
London) is now available.