The Palestinian president wants to push ahead with fresh elections, but it's unlikely to happen. Khaled Amayreh writes from Hebron
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Palestinian prisoners celebrating their release as they arrive to the Betunia checkpoint on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah (photo: AFP)
As the war of words between Hamas and Fatah continues, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas seems determined to organise presidential and legislative elections in the occupied territories, with or without Hamas's participation.
Last week, Abbas succeeded in convening the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Central Council in Ramallah in an obvious effort to get the council to endorse his recent measures against Hamas following the latter's takeover of Gaza 14 June.
The unelected (and ageing) council, which acts as a kind of PLO politburo, endorsed the anti-Hamas steps, including the dismissal of the Hamas-led government, the appointment of the Salam Fayyad government in Ramallah, as well as Abbas's call for early general elections. However, it was obvious that the council's recommendations were less than decisive, which may reflect a certain hope on the part of councillors that rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah remains possible.
But Abbas, at least ostensibly, seemed in no mood to even entertain the idea of a modus vivendi with Hamas, at least in the foreseeable future. In his speech before the council, Abbas employed vitriolic phraseology against Hamas, referring to the, "criminal and bloody coup-mongers who rose up against Palestinian legitimacy."
Abbas also referred to Hamas leaders as, "the person known as Ismail Haniyeh" and "the person known as Khaled Meshaal." In the Palestinian lexicon, such expressions are used to describe common criminals and collaborators.
Abbas's aides used even more overblown language in reference to Hamas, underscoring Fatah's adamant rejection of reconciliation with the Islamic movement, regardless of the damage to the Palestinian national struggle this rejection will cause.
"They in Hamas have banned themselves from being members of the PLO, we have no relations with them anymore. They have cut all ties with Fatah, we don't want to have any dialogue with them," said Nabil Amr, a close aide to Abbas, in an interview with the pro-American London-based Al-Hayat newspaper last week.
Amr went as far as saying that Fatah would "recover" Gaza in the "next few weeks or months," but he didn't elaborate as to how this would happen or if Israel would do the job on Fatah's behalf.
Amr, a former Palestinian Authority minister of information who a few years ago was rumoured to have asked pro-Israeli circles in Washington for funds and political backing to fight Hamas, went as far as accusing Hamas of sheltering and harbouring Al-Qaeda, a charge that seems devoid of credibility.
Amr narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Yasser Arafat loyalists 20 July 2004. He suffered severe injuries and his right leg had to be amputated.
Hamas's spokesmen responded to Amr's accusations, calling him, "a willing agent of America and Israel who would like to see American and Israeli war planes reduce Gaza to rubble."
Meanwhile, the de facto paralysis of the Palestinian Legislative Council was reinforced this week when Fatah boycotted a session that was supposed to give the Fatah-backed government of Fayyad, now dubbed a "caretaker government", a vote of confidence.
The council sought to convene twice in recent weeks but alternate boycotts by both Fatah and Hamas prevented the forming of a quorum. The crisis is exacerbated by the continued incarceration by Israel of over 40 Palestinian lawmakers detained pending the release by Palestinian resistance fighters of an Israeli soldier captured in Gaza over a year ago.
Israel, which views the rift between Fatah and Hamas as a strategic boon that should be utilised to the fullest, refuses to release the lawmakers, citing their affiliation with "an illegal organisation". Meanwhile, Fatah hopes that the continued paralysis of the Legislative Council, either because of the incarceration of Hamas's lawmakers in Israel or exploits by both Hamas and Fatah, will leave Abbas no choice but to organise general elections, which Fatah hopes to win.
Any road to elections, however, will be fraught with legal, political and practical impediments. In addition to sidelining the Palestinian parliament, which is manifestly illegal pursuant Palestinian Basic Law, the organisation of presidential and legislative elections may well be impossible, especially in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip where nearly 40 per cent of Palestinian eligible voters are based.
Moreover, even in the West Bank, which Fatah controls mainly as a result of consensual arrangement with the Israeli occupation, a boycott by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and likely some leftist organisations could render prospective polls null and void.
Some Fatah leaders, like the conspicuously anti-Hamas Azzam Al-Ahmed, believes there is a way to circumvent probable obstacles by holding elections gradually. Such a possibility, however, would be hard to translate into reality since Fatah plans to amend the current electoral law whereby the entire occupied territories, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, will be considered a single electoral circuit.
Fatah hopes that the proposed proportional representation system would work to the advantage of the movement since Fatah would contest the election with one national list, as opposed to the myriad of Fatah-affiliated independents and competing regional lists of candidates who contested the 2006 elections when the movement lost.
Fatah may find out that the direction of the winds is not that favourable; that its prospects are not that promising. Today, Fatah is a movement divided against itself. And although Abbas and his immediate coterie of advisors and hangers-on may enjoy international acceptance, they are not so easily accepted by the rank and file of the movement, especially at the grassroots level.
Indeed, there are large segments of Fatah -- people who support such veteran Fatah leaders as Marwan Barghouti, Jebril Rajoub, Hani Al-Hasan, Farouk Al-Qaddumi -- who are not enthusiastic about the direction taken by Abbas. There are two main reasons for their scepticism.
First, Abbas's rejection of dialogue with Hamas may be an easy and attractive choice in the short run, but in the long run such a course could cause incalculable damage to Fatah itself and the overall Palestinian struggle. Second, there are many who in Fatah believe that Abbas's decision to "place all Fatah's eggs in the American-Israeli basket" is perilous and potentially disastrous.
Many feel, and probably Abbas himself understands, that any modicum of success the Fatah president might be able to achieve depends first on Israel's "goodwill" (whatever that means), and second on the Bush administration's willingness to pressure Israel to give Abbas "tangible accomplishments on the ground," such as dismantling settlements and the so-called separation wall.
This seems a very remote prospect, to put it mildly. Hence the precariousness of Abbas's position.
Last week, Israel sought to "strengthen Abbas against Hamas" by releasing from detention some 250 Fatah prisoners. Instead, however, of strengthening Abbas, the Israeli "gesture" actually embarrassed him as it was viewed as a bribe taken at the expense of some 11,000 Palestinians prisoners languishing in Israeli jails and camps, including as many as four thousands who are affiliated with Fatah.
"We are not kids who can be bamboozled and pacified by petty and silly gestures from Israel or America," said Mohamed Amr, a relative of one of the prisoners released on 20 July. "We want one thing, we want an end to this Nazi-like occupation. Anything else, anything less, won't work. This is our message to Abbas, to Olmert, to Blair (the International Quartet's new envoy), and to whomever it may concern."