At the crossroads
Could the formation of a national unity government solve the crisis of the Palestinian Authority? Very unlikely, writes Khaled Amayreh
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A Palestinian man looks at a building destroyed in an Israeli air strike in the town of Jebaliya, northern Gaza
Hamas and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian political-resistance groups, continue to discuss the possible formation of a "national unity government" as calls for dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA) gain momentum throughout the occupied territories.
A growing number of Palestinian intellectuals and political leaders from across the political spectrum, including prominent Fatah leaders, have recently urged the Palestinian leadership, including the Fatah-dominated PA and the Hamas-led government, to dissolve the PA on the grounds that it has become a liability, rather than an asset, for the Palestinian people and their enduring national cause.
Within this context, the task of forming a Fatah- Hamas coalition government is being viewed by many as a last ditch attempt which, if it fails to tackle the multiple crises facing the Palestinians, would make unavoidable the dismantling of the PA.
Israel has been imposing a crippling financial and economic blockade on the West Bank and Gaza Strip ever since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January, barring millions of Palestinians from accessing food and work. Harsh and punitive sanctions have already pushed many Palestinian families into abject poverty while others are literally going hungry, having been denied due salaries and access to work.
Moreover, Israel is withholding, for the eighth consecutive month, hundreds of millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenue returns that are vital for the functioning of the Palestinian government. This coupled with manifestly vindictive American sanctions again banks operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which has forced banks to refuse any dealings with the Hamas-led government, has created catastrophic economic and social effects as some 160,000 civil servants, including teachers and health workers, have not received salaries for more than six months.
This bleak situation deteriorated even further with the abduction, by the Israeli occupation army, of nearly all Palestinian government ministers in the West Bank, including Deputy Prime Minister Nassurdin Al-Shaer as well as dozens of lawmakers, most of them affiliated with Hamas. The Israeli army has also abducted Parliament Speaker Abdul- Aziz Duweik and his deputy Mahmoud Al-Ramahi, rendering the functioning of the PA government, with its legislative and executive branches, near to impossible.
Meanwhile, talks between Fatah and Hamas are being held in an atmosphere of mutual distrust, given traditional rivalry and dichotomies between the two groups. Hamas is insisting that the composition of any unity government be based on legislative elections results that put Hamas in a clearly preferential position vis-à-vis Fatah (Hamas controls nearly 70 seats of the 132 seats making up the Palestinian Legislative Council). This means that the prime minister will have to be a Hamas member, which the US, Israel and probably the EU wouldn't accept.
Moreover, Hamas is conditioning its acceptance of a national unity government on the termination by the United States and the EU of all sanctions against it, and also the release by Israel of all government officials, including abducted ministers and lawmakers. Fatah, which is undergoing internal power struggles of its own, rejects these conditions, insisting on complete parity with Hamas, irrespective of Hamas's parliamentary majority. "We want to be equal partners, not just an addition to the government," said Fatah parliamentary leader Azzam Al-Ahmed.
Further, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is demanding that Hamas states its explicit, rather than implicit, recognition of Israel in hope that this would pave the way for ending Western sanctions on the PA. Hamas, for deep-seated religious reasons, cannot furnish an explicit recognition of Israel, especially as long as Israel refuses to recognise a Palestinian state on 100 per cent of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip and agrees to allow Palestinian refugees to return home in what is now Israel.
The Hamas leadership instead has reminded Abbas that it has already consented to the so-called "Prisoners' Document" which settles for the creation of a Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 and that raising this issue again was unnecessary.
Notwithstanding, it is amply clear that the ball is not in the Palestinian court. The Palestinians, after all, have agreed to an open-ended truce with Israel, provided that Israel desist their ongoing acts of terror and murder against Palestinians. The PA government also agreed to release the captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in return for the release by Israel of Palestinian detainees and hostages abducted by Israel as bargaining chips.
Israel, which enjoys unlimited American backing, is refusing even to consider Palestinian demands.
Indeed, the Israeli government, bruised by the war with Hizbullah, is now viewing the entire Palestinian front as a secondary issue, especially with the Bush administration showing no sign of even nudging Israel to implement the now-moribund "roadmap plan for peace".
The EU, for its part, is continuing with its flimsy and indecisive posture vis-à-vis the entire Palestinian issue while influential Arab states are basking in their apparent powerlessness, making do with issuing periodic appeals to an unhearing international community to force Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue in accordance with international law.
It is highly unlikely that the overall situation will undergo any dramatic or substantive change in the coming few weeks, given Israel's recalcitrance, American tendentious apathy and official Arab impotence to help the Palestinians in any meaningful manner. American and European preoccupations with the Iranian nuclear crisis will also be translated into more negligence of the Palestinian issue, which will ultimately generate more volatility, extremism and violence.
Israel, of course, doesn't want to return to a pre- Oslo situation when Israeli army officers ran Palestinian affairs, from municipal functions to economic policies. Neither, however, does it want a national unity government that could oppose its slow strangling occupation with greater vigor. Rather, Israel wants the pre-Hamas status quo restored: a quisling Palestinian regime at Israel's beck and call.
Israel thus faces a quandary. On the one hand, it insists, with fanatical American backing, that the PA is stripped of any authority, sovereignty and immunity. On the other, it needs to avoid the chaos and anarchy that this very hobbling of Palestinian self-rule creates and which could force Israel to reassume de facto responsibility for all government, consigning the Oslo Accords to the graveyard of history.