A decisive year
Israeli settlement expansion, the separation wall, internal leadership struggles and the limited return of Gaza made 2005 another tough year for Palestinians, writes Khaled Amayreh
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PALESTINIAN BEGININGS: Abu Mazen plants the Palestinian flag in a former settlement in Gaza
There is no doubt 2005 was an eventful year for the Palestinians and their cause. A few weeks before the New Year, Yasser Arafat -- the man who for decades defined the Palestinian struggle for liberation and justice -- died in mysterious circumstances in a Paris hospital. One year later, the exact cause of death remains unknown. Arafat's personal doctor, Ashraf Al-Kurdi, as well as Palestinian Authority (PA) officials, seem convinced that the late leader died of poisoning, and that the culprit was Israel.
The initial shock of Arafat's death lasted for only a few days as the PA and Fatah, the de facto governing party, moved swiftly to get their act together and establish law and order, with the active help of other Palestinian factions such as Hamas, making sure that the transition of power was as smooth as possible. Hence, Mahmoud Abbas -- aka Abu Mazen -- was unanimously selected by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), to which the PA is formally answerable, as acting president of the PA, pending the organisation of presidential elections.
The elections took place on 9 January 2005, but witnessed a generally modest turnout, and were mostly boycotted by Hamas. Nevertheless, as expected, Abbas was elected as president, while Farouk Qaddumi, another veteran PLO leader based in Tunis, was selected as Fatah chief.
The election of Abbas was welcomed by nearly all of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, which viewed him as consensus leader and rational man, at least in comparison to Arafat. Hamas was pleased with Abu Mazen's propensity to solve problems without resorting to violence, and particularly with his consistent refusal to use force against Palestinian resistance factions as incessantly demanded by Israel and the United States.
Indeed, Abbas repeatedly refused to dismantle resistance groups or even disarm them, arguing rather that measures of this nature would ignite civil war. Many Palestinians actually pinned a lot of hope on Abbas, given his positive image in the international arena, as a reformer, and as a man untainted by the canard of "terror" used continually by the Bush administration to vilify Arafat.
However, Abbas's "acceptability" didn't yield tangible results for the Palestinians, despite the more or less honest observation of the tahdiya, or calm, by Palestinian resistance groups. The de facto ceasefire was brokered in Cairo in March and was inclusive of all the Palestinian resistance factions, including Fatah and Hamas. Israel, however, displayed little respect -- indeed, if any -- for the ceasefire, regarding it as an intra-Palestinian affair and not binding on Israel.
Indeed, Israeli occupation forces never stopped carrying out highly provocative raids, air strikes and assassinations encompassing both Palestinian resistance activists and ordinary Palestinian citizens. Moreover, Israel's permanent repression of Palestinian life -- restrictions on movement, closures, humiliation, curfews, and checkpoints -- persisted, affecting Abbas's public standing among Palestinians.
Continued provocations came despite the Egyptian-sponsored Sharm El-Sheikh summit between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in February, during which both sides pledged to refrain from attacking each other. Israel tried on many occasions to "de-legitimise" Abbas, using the same smear tactics that had been used effectively against Arafat. This time, however, Israel failed to achieve the desired results, as the US and EU continued to deal with Abbas as the elected Palestinian leader, prompting the Israelis to abandon their campaign against him.
2005 was truly a year of elections in Palestine, with the PA organising four rounds of municipal elections throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, with the exception of Jerusalem. The elections witnessed sharp competition between Fatah and Hamas as the latter won control of major Palestinian population centres such as Nablus, Jenin, Al-Bireh and important towns in the Gaza Strip. Fatah made significant gains in the Palestinian countryside and some refugee camps, but it was amply clear that Hamas posed a serious threat to Fatah's erstwhile domination of municipal councils.
The PA has not yet allowed elections to be organised in at least two large towns, Hebron and Gaza City, ostensibly to avoid a resounding victory by Hamas. The two cities are considered Hamas strongholds. Indeed, fears of a massive Hamas victory prompted the PA leadership to postpone legislative elections slated to take place in mid-July. The PA claimed the delay was necessitated by procedural problems and a lack of preparedness. However, it was clear that the decision was motivated first and foremost by serious concerns within Fatah that it would lose to Hamas if the elections were held in July.
Further cause for the postponement was the chronic power struggle that erupted this year between Fatah's "old guard" (leaders who returned with Arafat from Tunis following the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA in 1994) and a much more youthful, "home grown" leadership.
The power struggle eventually evolved into a serious split within Fatah, prompting each faction to submit a list of candidates for the elections, rescheduled for 25 January 2006. The split followed a series of internal elections, or "primaries", by Fatah in several regions in the West Bank and Gaza in which representatives of the "new guard", led by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, emerged victorious at the expense of the old.
Fatah is currently making strenuous efforts to reunify the movement and contest next month's elections with a single list of candidates. The Palestinian elections were also facing threats from Israel, the US and even the European Union. Israeli leaders, including Sharon, have repeatedly threatened to disrupt or even prevent the polls from taking place unless Hamas is excluded.
Indeed, Israel has acted on intent, conducting a series of mass detentions of Hamas and pro-Hamas political leaders and activists throughout the West Bank. More than 1,000 political activists were arrested between October and December, most of them held without charge or trial as part of what is known as "administrative detention".
Hamas remains undeterred by the arrests and has gone ahead with its preparations to contest the elections, especially after its resounding victory in the mid-December local polls in the West Bank. Hamas's stubborn insistence on participating in the elections eventually drew America's ire and European disapproval.
The US House of Representatives warned in mid- December that US aid to the PA would be curtailed if Hamas took part in the elections, and especially if it was permitted to join the next Palestinian government. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana issued a similar warning about withholding economic and financial aid to the Palestinians in the event that Hamas became part of the government.
The US and EU threats were rejected by the PA and all Palestinian factions and political forces as a "repugnant interference in our internal affairs". Hamas argued that, "our freedom to choose our leaders and rulers is more paramount than all American dollars".
Another landmark development in the annals of the Palestinian struggle in 2005 was the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip. The withdrawal began in August and lasted for two weeks, involving the dismantling of a dozen Jewish settlements. Marketed by the Israeli government as a kind of "good riddance", the withdrawal was hailed by most Palestinians as a watershed; the first recession of Zionism from Palestinian lands. Hamas called the withdrawal a "great victory" brought about by the Palestinian people's resistance and sacrifices.
However, it was soon evident that the withdrawal -- if indeed it can be called a withdrawal -- was neither a case of "good riddance", nor did it mean real freedom or liberation for the Palestinians. The Israeli army continues to impose a land, sea and air siege on the Gaza Strip, turning it into a large prison inhabited by hundreds of thousands of impoverished souls.
This powder keg, coupled with the continued Israeli policy of assassinating Palestinian political and resistance activists, re-ignited the "state of war" between the Gaza Strip and Israel, which indeed never really stopped. Israel is now planning to create a "security zone" inside Gaza, while also threatening to target Palestinian population centres in response to the firing of "Qassam" missiles from Gaza onto Israeli territory.
The withdrawal from Gaza did give its residents breathing space and a modicum of personal security. For the first time since 1967, Palestinians were able to travel "somewhat freely" via the Rafah border crossing without Israeli Intelligence officers having the final say on the matter. This freedom has by no means been complete or free from Israeli interference. According to the EU-mediated agreement governing the operation of the border crossing, special cameras installed at the crossing relay all activities to Israeli authorities in real time.
Israel also threatened on several occasions to re-consider the agreement if the PA allowed "undesirables" to return to Gaza, i.e. Palestinians deported by Israel or associated with Palestinian resistance groups.
Finally, and in utter contempt for a ruling by the International Court of Justice in June 2004, Israel continued unabated the construction of the huge "separation wall" deep in West Bank territory. The wall is already closing in on many Palestinian towns, such as Qalqilya, reducing them to isolated ghettos cut off from one another. In the Jerusalem area, for example, the wall has already cut off the eastern part of the city, occupied by Israel in 1967, from the rest of the West Bank.
The wall, coupled with unmitigated Israeli settlement expansion, is effectively killing (or has already killed) any prospect for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank. Indeed, it is widely believed that if this trend persists, as it seems it will, the so-called two-state solution (Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace, as President Bush envisioned), will be impossible to realise.
For this reason, calls -- especially among Palestinians -- for the creation of a unitary and democratic state in all of mandatory Palestine, between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, are bound to increase. The alternative would be the continuation of the Israeli occupation, and with it violence and bloodshed that could spill over to neighbouring countries.