Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2005
Issue No. 754
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mustafa Barghouti

Onus on Gaza

Factionalism equals disintegration, and internecine strife is precisely what Sharon wants, writes Mustafa Barghouti*

The Palestinian reaction to the Gaza crisis has been a panicked scramble for cosmetic solutions rather than an attempt to confront real challenges. There is no denying the gravity of the spectre of a Palestinian civil war which Sharon has vowed will erupt as soon as he redeploys his forces from Gaza. Regardless of the motives Palestinian factions might have for lashing out against each other nothing can justify a slide into internecine warfare and the catastrophe this will wreak upon the Palestinian people and their future. But nor, at this crucial moment, should we allow the spectre of civil war to blind us to the strategic choices we must make.

The foremost challenge is to determine how Palestinian national rights can best be secured given that current balances of power -- military, economic, propagandistic -- are so heavily tilted in Israel's favour. Should the PA confine itself to administering and regulating the affairs of the people whenever and wherever Israel permits and have nothing to do with the forces, mechanisms and aims of the Palestinian national liberation movement?

Sacrifice for the national cause -- demonstrating against the separating wall, resisting occupation, getting locked up in prison, defending the rights of detainees, suffering harassment at checkpoints -- cannot be the duty of some while running the economy, administering the PA budget, entering into negotiations and representing the Palestinians diplomatically remains the prerogative of others. Such separation of responsibilities makes no sense. How is it possible to wage a successful campaign against the racist wall, the occupation and the Judaisation of Jerusalem when the forces and energies of the Palestinian people are so divided?

The Oslo process triggered an almost pathological schizophrenia within the Palestinian movement. The condition prevailed until the second Intifada rendered the movement whole again, or at least promised a recovery. Sadly, the symptoms of schizophrenia have flared up once again.

The Palestinian people suffered huge losses during the Oslo period. More than 100 new settlements sprouted in less than a decade. They witnessed the de facto annexation and Judaisation of Jerusalem. The principle of equal negotiations, the legal authority of international resolutions and the moral authority of international legitimacy vanished into thin air to be supplanted by a single rule -- whatever Sharon says goes. Sharon succeeded in subverting the already flawed roadmap and replaced it with his own plan to transform Gaza into a prison camp as he continued his race with time to impose a unilateral settlement on all final status issues.

Can the PA operate independently given that all of us -- the PA, the people and the national movement -- live under occupation? Sharon's decisions to retract on every commitment he has claimed to offer, from redeploying in Tulkaram to halting targeted assassinations and blitz assaults testify to the reality of occupation. Given the conditions imposed by this continued occupation does it make any sense for Palestinian factions to plunge into a bloody power struggle, especially now that we boast we have adopted the ballot box as our ultimate arbiter?

It is clear we will not obtain our national rights solely through dialogue with Sharon. The struggle must be sustained. This national struggle is both the duty and the right of all Palestinian people. Decisions regarding this struggle cannot ignore the Palestinian diplomatic drive and the impact of this both at home and abroad.

The energies of both popular and official forces must be channelled towards the aims and aspirations of the Palestinian national struggle. This cannot occur without a mechanism being in place to ensure unified collective action and that, in turn, requires a frank and open exchange over what means may or may not be used during particular phases of the struggle. There must be a binding set of guidelines governing political decisions and negotiating stances. Above all, no party should have the power to take decisions without being accountable to the people.

It is impossible to envisage any success in the struggle against the separating wall without the backing of official positions based on the ruling of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a concerted diplomatic drive demanding sanctions against Israel for violating international resolutions and a programme to fund and support the protest movement against this wall.

On the basis of this same logic no one party, however powerful, can be allowed to take the law into its own hands and depart from the national consensus without consulting other parties, regardless of whether the issue at hand is a ceasefire, the rights of Palestinian refugees or the borders of a prospective Palestinian state.

Our crisis today, as has been the case in the past, stems directly from the absence of an agreed strategy for conducting the struggle for freedom and the construction of a modern, democratic sovereign state. This crisis has been fuelled by the political, geographical, tribal and factional fragmentation Sharon is attempting to aggravate by severing Gaza from the West Bank and Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied territories. In the face of this we must create a mechanism for collective decision-making binding on all parties. If the truce was a strategic decision adopted collectively by the factions in Cairo despite scepticism over Israel's intentions to abide by it these factions should also have agreed upon a reliable mechanism for determining what actions to take in response to Israeli breaches, exposing Israeli practices of assassination, repression and military brutality.

The decision to halt military activities afforded the opportunity to reassess the conduct of the national struggle. However, a halt in military activities does not mean a halt to peaceful mass struggle. On the contrary, this should be expanded. In this regard the PA must do more than furnish symbolic support. It must subordinate political and economic decision-making powers to the objectives of the popular struggle.

That struggle should be directed by a power structure the legitimacy of which derives from democratic elections and that accurately represents the interests of the Palestinian people. It will, however, remain impossible to conceive of such an authority should certain phenomena continue to persist. The first of these is the unjustifiable procrastination over legislative and parliamentary elections, a problem aggravated by ongoing attempts to manipulate the rules of the electoral process and by the lack of a legal framework regulating the formation, activities and financing of political parties. The second is the lack of a collective political decision-making mechanism, a shortcoming made more acute given the frailty of PLO institutions. Such frailty is exemplified by the marginalisation of the Executive Committee in the decision-making processes.

A third, and more dangerous phenomenon, is the factional politicisation of the security services and the failure to institute reforms necessary to ensure these agencies remain subordinate to the rule of law, serving all the Palestinian people without discrimination. The effects of this phenomenon are compounded by the continued practice of favouritism in political appointments, promotions and other decisions.

It is imperative that the Palestinians rise to these challenges during and after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza when Israel will attempt, by provocation, to promote the view that the Palestinians are incapable of governing themselves properly on a small patch of land the size of Gaza let alone run a modern democratic state.

A unified national leadership must, therefore, be created to serve on an interim basis. This leadership would act as the joint national authority over all occupied territories, without exception, so as to avert the danger of fragmentation which could arise from the emergence of political bodies in Gaza different to, and separate from, those in the West Bank. The unified leadership should assume responsibility for all decisions affecting the course of the liberation struggle, including the ceasefire. Its immediate task will be to prepare, and set a date, for legislative and municipal elections.

Membership of the Central Electoral Committee must be modified so it becomes representative of all the political forces that intend to participate in the elections. Alternatively, these forces might be allowed to attend this committee's meetings, which must be open to the public.

There is no justification for a dual electoral regulatory authority. The Municipal Electoral Committee should be dissolved and its powers transferred to the Central Electoral Committee. In addition, the principle of proportional representation should be adopted in municipal elections.

Immediate action should be taken to guarantee the independence of the judiciary so it can serve as a credible arbiter. Here, it should be noted that the emergence of an autonomous judiciary has been prevented not through any lack of qualified personnel but because of the absence of political will on the part of the PA.

As we embark on the road ahead we must find the wisdom and dedication to commit ourselves to the principle that ultimate authority lies with the will of the people. The welfare of the people is contingent upon preserving and safeguarding our national unity. The will of the people can only express itself clearly through free and democratic elections.

* The writer is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative.

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