Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Mourning women

Palestinian women mourn the death of Hamas activist, Iyad Battat, at his funeral in the West Bank village of Dahariyeh (photo: AP)

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Opposition needed

By Graham Usher

Last week, two events gave eloquent expression to the plight of the different streams of the Palestinian opposition in the West Bank and Gaza.

The first occurred on 13 December, when a unit of the Israeli army's Duvedan "undercover" squad entered the West Bank village of Beit Awwa, near Hebron. In an operation deploying (among other weaponry) anti-tank missiles, the unit laid siege to a house and killed a "wanted" Hamas activist, Iyad Battat, and a resident of the village, Nader Massalemeh -- "unwanted", unarmed and a father to five children.

The hit carried all the hallmarks of an extra-judicial execution, a reading the Israeli government did not overly try to refute. "Anyone involved with terrorist activity is a target for our security forces," Israel's Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh admitted to the Associated Press on 14 December. Battat had been "wanted" by Israel for his alleged involvement in the killing of an Israeli Border Police officer in the West Bank in January this year.

The second incident came three days later outside a Palestinian Authority prison in Jericho. Following a vigil in protest at the continuing internment there of three of the 20 signatories to the petition criticising the Oslo process and Yasser Arafat's mode of governance, co-signatory and Palestinian Legislative Council member, Abdul-Jawad Salah, was asked to enter the compound of the PA's General Intelligence Service. He describes what followed: "A captain asked me my name. Before I could reply, he started beating and kicking me. Then other soldiers joined in, throwing my glasses to the other side of the room and causing my nose to bleed. They finished by throwing a bucket of water over me."

Abdul-Jawad Salah was the second PLC member and petition signatory to be assaulted in as many weeks. Unlike the attack on Mouawiyah Masri -- shot in the leg by three masked men in Nablus on 1 December -- the PA could not this time deny its involvement. The GIS head in the West Bank, Tawfiq Tirawi, simply denied that Salah had been assaulted. Salah is presently calling for an emergency session of the PLC and appealing to the Palestinian High Court to determine the matter "according to the law".

In their different ways, the two events not only show all that is wrong with an "autonomy" that allows the Israeli army to conduct a shoot-to-kill policy in the occupied territories and the PA's security forces to crush all forms of Palestinian dissent without even a nod to due process. They also expose the increasing bankruptcy of both the Islamist and democratic resistance to each form of abuse.

For Hamas, the killing of Battat means not only the loss of another fighter, but puts in question its entire military strategy in the West Bank and Gaza. In the last 18 months, Hamas has lost at least three military leaders at the hands of the Israelis (and perhaps the PA) and had scores of others arrested in co-ordinated sweeps undertaken by the Israeli army and PA police and intelligence services. It has also had its principle political leadership in Amman deported or arrested by King Abdallah, probably in collusion with Israel, the US and the PA.

And while Sheikh Ahmad Yassin may vow -- as he did at a rally in Gaza on 17 December commemorating the 12th anniversary of Hamas's founding -- that Palestine's Islamists will "continue the Jihad and the path of martyrs", many of his followers may question whether the "struggle" should now forsake the gun in favour of exclusively political forms.

Palestine's secular opposition has an equally acute dilemma. For the assaults on Masri and Salah expose not just how little regard the PA's increasingly powerful security chiefs have for notions of parliamentary immunity and political freedom of expression. They also highlight how meek an institution the PLC has become, says Palestinian analyst and community activist, Mustafa Barghouti.

"The PLC's decision in Gaza [to sanction the 20 signatories of the petition] should end its present term of office," he says. "When only 33 members out of 88 agree to restrict their own right to expression -- and at a time when the Palestinian public was clearly opposed to the PA's arrest of the petitioners -- the only conclusion is that this PLC no longer represents its electorate and should step down."

The question is what kind of opposition should represent the Palestinians? Former member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference, Taysir Aruri, calls for a new "third force" in Palestinian politics that would appeal to the "wide spectrum of Palestinian opinion" that is appalled both by the PA's growing authoritarianism and by the sectarian solutions proposed by Hamas. "We need a secular movement that insists that the only way to mount a genuinely united national front against Israel is by the PA addressing and redressing the economic issues of corruption and mismanagement," he says.

Barghouti agrees that a democratic opposition is sorely required to meet "a deep need in Palestinian society". But he is wary of advocating another "ideological" party to sit alongside the existing ideologies of nationalism and Islam espoused by Fatah and Hamas. Rather, "the opposition should be a modern, issues-based movement that at once addresses people's needs and mobilises to fight for them," he says. "If you insist on an ideological affiliation, you end up by excluding people. And a democratic movement, by definition, must be open to all. Otherwise you will be seen as simply another movement established to serve its leaders' ambitions rather the needs of the people."

But whatever their disputes over the character of the movement, Aruri and Barghouti agree on one issue that must now become the primary focus of any opposition. "Democracy is becoming a precondition for our national survival as a people," says Barghouti. "If you look at all our problems -- whether it is corruption in the economy, human rights abuses by the security forces or our weak negotiating performance with the Israelis -- they all stem from the absence of law and of systems that can hold leaders accountable according to democratic practices."

If these "democratic forms of representation" are not soon forthcoming, he predicts, the alternative is both grim and apparent. On the domestic front, it means a further evolution of the "minority" in the PA that grows "stronger every day by virtue of its monopoly of economic and military resources". And, on the national, an "autonomy" that "acts as a sub-agent for Israel's security needs".

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