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Allow Palestinian elections, to break the stalemate

Palestinians, wherever or whomever they are, agree that they are today witnessing a new nakba, or catastrophe, one that is exceeded in pain, suffering and losses only by the nakba of 1948.
Since the second intifada broke out in September 2000, Israel has renewed its occupation; 3.4 million Palestinians (15 percent in refugee camps, 28.5 percent in rural areas and 56.5 percent in urban areas) have been isolated in cantons sealed off from one another by Israeli settlements, bypass roads and the powerful Israeli Army. Jerusalem has been cut off from the rest of the West Bank, with most of its national and social institutions closed down by the military. In addition, around 150,000 middle class and professional Palestinians have left the country.
Since 1996, the elected Palestinian Authority (PA) has become a replica of other Arab regimes: It is weak, corrupt and lacking any legitimate power to enforce law and order and maintain domestic security; it also lacks the capacity to resist the policies and practices of the occupying power. The duties of the PA are limited to conducting administrative activities and diplomatic contacts through a huge bureaucracy that employs more than 120,000 civil servants.
Islamist factions have shown a willingness to challenge the Israeli strategic threat embodied in the separation barrier, to prove that that it will never be a solution to Israel’s “security complex.” The barrier will only lead to more confrontation, more bloodletting and more nightmares. Islamist spokespersons have been requesting a share of Palestinian political power since the Cairo cease-fire talks, and for the first time they have been arguing that the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO) is not
the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
In addition, Hamas, one of the two main Islamist groups, is going through a political transformation. It is shifting from the old slogan of “an Islamic state in all of Palestine” to a call for a transitional state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution to the refugee problem. By so doing, Hamas is following in the footsteps of the PLO.
The separation barrier is a new strategic factor whose aim is to reshape the relationship between the land and the people, and to mark new borders between Palestinians and Israel using “security” as an excuse. The 475-kilometer wall, which in places is between six and eight meters high, will control 16.8 percent of the West Bank. It will surround 206 towns and villages and will imprison more than 800,000 Palestinians.
The wall is Israel’s current mechanism for isolating Palestinians, forcing them into a giant ghetto and, subsequently, through the ongoing killing, destruction and dehumanizing policies of the Israeli government, forcing a “population transfer” that will lead to full Israeli control over the land. As a consequence, the wall will undermine any hope of a viable Palestinian state. International and regional circumstances have not resulted in intervention by third parties to prevent or amend Israel’s plans to impose this drastic unilateral solution.
If the status quo is maintained, from an international perspective the Palestinian question will become focused upon the need to provide humanitarian aid and to facilitate the movement of Palestinians through Israeli gates, guards and guns. The PA is on the verge of collapse and is financially bankrupt; in a month’s time it will be unable to pay salaries to its civil servants. All talk of the need to dissolve the PA and hand responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinians over to the Israeli military will no longer be the subject of backroom chatter or academic speculation; it will become a national necessity and demand. However, dissolving the PA will only lead to a deepening of the disastrously chaotic situation.
What options do the Palestinians have in such an environment of fear and uncertainty, and in the absence of any possibility of negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? What kind of strategy can civil society organizations and the PA develop that simultaneously covers the international, regional, Israeli and domestic fronts?
In the international arena, a legal case has already been submitted to the International Court of Justice against the separation wall, and it has the support of Middle Eastern states. The effort will expose Israeli atrocities with the hope that this will lead to international pressure to end them. On the Israeli front, efforts should focus on continuing to reach out to public opinion in order to bring down Sharon’s right-wing government, which has failed in the last three years to deliver security for Israelis, or to negotiate with the Palestinians, as promised.
Within Palestinian areas, a joint effort is needed to develop a national agenda so that the PA’s reform program will succeed in keeping the authority alive and helping strengthen its bonds with civil society. Long-awaited Palestinian elections should be held to bring legitimacy to regional and national institutions, and reverse the sense of confusion that has spread as a result of the weakness of the current establishment. Elections will also help rally the various “angry” youth groups to a unified national candidate list and election campaign, for the good of the national cause.
In the last decades, the mission of Palestinian civil society groups has been to maintain and enhance national identity, heritage and culture, as well as human dignity and values. Furthermore, these groups meet the daily needs of the Palestinian population in the absence of a national government and a solution to the crisis with Israel. In the current situation, they too are expected to support an election formula.
On the other hand, it is time that the PLO leadership puts an end to its obsession and fear of the growing power and support for the Islamist opposition factions, and the possibility that they may become an alternative leadership. The PLO should recognize the need for the emergence of legitimate elected councils in every district, and not continue to rely on the present appointed councils that are corrupt.
Civil society groups, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and some PA ministers favor the idea of starting with local elections (with a 20 percent quota for women), city by city, because they hope that these will bring about a change in the social and political environment and allow for the implementation of reforms.
The idea is to demonstrate that there is a living society in Palestine that has national pride and that demands a two-state solution. But for elections to be made possible, there is a need to ease conditions in the West Bank and Gaza in order to allow people to move, mobilize and campaign. If elections take place, they will show Israel and the international community that an alternative path to the current stalemate is possible.

Mahdi Abdul Hadi is chairman of PASSIA, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR


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