A parallel PLO
Palestinian factions plan an alternative to the Annapolis conference and it will convene in Damascus, reports Khaled Amayreh from Ramallah
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MOTHERLY AFFECTION: While children in the northern Gaza Strip watch the funeral of Mohamed Hamad, a young militant killed in clashes with Israeli troops on Monday, their house exhibits a scene made all the more poignant by the seige of Gaza
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has been making frantic efforts to block the "national conference" that the Hamas-led opposition plans to convene in Damascus to highlight their rejection of the upcoming US- sponsored conference in Annapolis, Maryland, scheduled for November or early December. The conference in the Syrian capital was due to take place on 7 November but has been postponed, reportedly in order to coincide with the Annapolis conference.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has asked Syria to cancel the two-day meeting, arguing that it will exacerbate internal Palestinian divisions and seriously weaken the Palestinian position in Annapolis. Earlier this week he dispatched three aides to the Syrian capital in an attempt to convince Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to ban the meeting. Syrian officials have made it clear that Syria will not attend the Annapolis conference unless Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is on the agenda.
In addition to Hamas, several Palestinian factions plan to attend the Damascus conference, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the second most important PLO faction after Fatah. The participation of the PFLP is significant in that it signals an end to the erstwhile PLO unity against Hamas that has prevailed since its takeover of the Gaza Strip in mid-June. Abbas can no longer claim that he enjoys the full backing of PLO factions in his protracted showdown with Hamas.
Participants will also include the Damascus-based PFLP-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, as well as the Islamic Jihad organisation, headed by Ramadan Abdullah Shallah. Farouk Al-Qaddumi and Hani Al-Hassan, two senior members of Fatah, have indicated they will attend in protest against what they term "Abbas's line" and "his subservience to America and Israel".
In addition to organised factions, as many as 700 Palestinian and Arab intellectuals could turn up for the conference, lending the meeting even greater credibility as a vehicle for the expression of national concerns.
According to its organisers, the conference will seek to reassert Palestinian national constants and reaffirm opposition to "the attempted liquidation of the Palestinian cause", particularly the right of return of five million Palestinian refugees.
"The conference will bring Palestinian and Arab leaders, intellectuals and politicians face to face with their historical and national responsibility not to give political cover to US-Israeli schemes to terminate the Palestinian cause in Annapolis," says member of Hamas's political bureau Mohamed Nazzal. It also aims to foreground national unity as the cornerstone of the struggle for liberation which is why, argues Nazzal, Fatah claims that the conference will deepen divisions and should be dismissed as "hypocritical" and "insincere".
"Abbas and his men fear that the Damascus conference will offer an alternative to the PLO which explains their keenness to abort the meeting."
The organisers claim American efforts to pressure Abbas to compromise on issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of return have made the convening of the Damascus conference a "national emergency".
"The PLO leadership in Ramallah no longer represents the Palestinian people for two reasons: first, it is a prisoner of the Israeli occupation and has lost whatever semblance of independence and free will it may once have had, and second, the PLO leadership is unelected, undemocratic and anachronistic, relying for its alleged legitimacy on outdated and mostly appointed bodies," Hassan Khreisha, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Khreisha revealed plans to follow the Damascus conference with two meetings, one in Gaza, the second in the West Bank, to further highlight what he describes as "this mockery" -- i.e. US- led efforts to strike a deal between Israel and Abbas whereby the right of return for Palestinian refugees -- among other issues -- is scrapped.
On 28 October, The Jerusalem Post quoted Sari Nusseibeh, a protégé of Abbas, as saying that, "we will trade the right of return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders."
The Damascus conference, say sources close to the organisers, could well opt to select "alternative and parallel national bodies" should it become clear that the current American-backed PLO in Ramallah intends to continue to disregard "the Palestinian national consensus". The parallel institutions may include a new National Council and a new Executive Committee, offering an alternative to the current PLO executive committee in Ramallah headed by Abbas.
The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot quotes one "leading Palestinian figure", whom it declined to name, as saying that it is now vital for a new PLO president to be chosen. Abbas, he argues, was never duly elected following the death of Yasser Arafat three years ago and the conference might, therefore, select an independent figure to act as parallel chairman of the PLO.
Defending his leadership in the face of mounting criticisms, Abbas continues to insist that the PLO has the right to negotiate with Israel. He denies that he is planning to make far-reaching concessions to Israel in Annapolis and says that any peace agreement he might reach with Israel would then have to be ratified by a majority of Palestinians.
"Any agreement will be put into effect only after it has been ratified, either through a referendum, where everyone, including Hamas, can express their opinion, or through the approval of the Palestinian National Council, which represents the Palestinian people," said Abbas.
Khreisha, though, argues that in its current form the Palestinian National Council is far from representative of the Palestinian people and is "unqualified" to decide on issues that will determine their future. "This is a senile council that was appointed, not elected, by Yasser Arafat. It is amorphous, and we don't really know how many members it has. The PNC is little more than a joke." (see p.8)