Friday, February 16, 2007

Challenges to Palestinian Unity

The following piece is written by my colleague Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and the Director of the Institute of
Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. It is a particularly insightful overview of all the challenges facing the Palestinian particular, his explanation of how and why the indomitable spirit of Palestinian unity that we so long admired has broken into self-directed violence and despair.

by Daoud Kuttab
Copyright 2007: Project Syndicate

The reconciliation between the leaders of the two major Palestinian
groups, Hamas and Fatah, that has just been negotiated in Saudi
Arabia is being hailed as a major political breakthrough.

But the national unity government created as a result of this
agreement faces many daunting challenges. The agreement needs to be
followed by an effort to end the economic and administrative siege
of Palestine, as well as serious peace talks with Israel aimed at
ending the 39-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. At
home, the new government needs to pay its civil servants, restore
law and order, and end the chaos that has become the norm in the
Palestinian territories.

The internal fighting in Palestine began in part as a result of the
political impasse caused after Israel and the international
community imposed an economic embargo on the Palestinian Authority. This economic siege, zealously enforced even by Arab and Islamic banks, followed the new Hamas-led government's refusal to accept the demand by the "quartet" - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - that it recognise Israel, accept all previous agreements with Israel, and renounce terrorism.

Palestinians complained that the international community acted
unjustly, simply because they were unhappy with the result of a free
and fair election in the Palestinian territories, which Hamas won
overwhelmingly. The government created after the January 2006
elections has been unable to pay civil servants because of the
international banking blockade and the refusal of Israel to transfer
millions of tax dollars collected on behalf of the Palestinian

After months without pay, the government, headed by Hamas' Ismael
Haniyeh, was confronted with a serious challenge in September, when
civil servants went on strike, demanding to be paid. The differences
between the Fatah-led presidency of Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas'
Islamist government spilled into the streets. Threats by Abbas to
hold elections to resolve the deadlock seemed to add oil to the fire.

With unemployment rising, income dropping to record low levels, and
internal tensions escalating, fighting between supporters of Hamas
and Fatah began. Attempts to reconcile the parties began in Gaza,
before moving to Cairo, Damascus, and finally Mecca under the
supervision of Saudi King Abdullah, whose country has been a
financial backer of the Palestinians for decades.

One of the first challenges for the new government will be to
convince the international community that it respects previous
Palestinian agreements. This includes the mutual recognition agreed
by the PLO and Israel, as well as the Oslo Accords. By announcing
the acceptance of previous agreements and supporting the Arab peace
initiative, the new government should be able to bring economic
normalcy to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.

Money, however, is not the only need. The cease-fire understanding
between Palestinian factions and Israel will need to be honoured
through the commitment of both sides and a parallel political
process. The international community, especially the US, is giving
verbal support to launching serious Palestinian-Israeli talks, and
the Mecca Agreement paves the way for Abbas to negotiate an end to
the occupation. This will test the resolve of Israel and the
international community to achieve tangible progress on restarting

But the newly established national unity government faces yet
another daunting challenge. If resumption of political violence and
property destruction is to be avoided, a new internal security
policy will be needed. The numerous militias, groups, gangs and
individuals who own and use weapons must be controlled. The new
unity government must insist on the creation of a single, united
armed force.

In order to end lawlessness, the Palestinian security leadership
will need to lift the protection given to armed individuals who have
been using their weapons with impunity to injure, kill, and destroy
property. Indeed, law and order must be the top priority of the
unity government, owing to the need to restore the Palestinian
public's confidence in Palestinian leaders from all factions.

The past year has been one of the most difficult years in modern
Palestinian history. For years, the world envied the Palestinian
people's strong social fibre, as they held together despite the
occupation. With a strong sense of national identity, Palestinians
boasted that they had a clear unifying purpose: ending the Israeli
occupation and establishing an independent and democratic state.

But the recent months of infighting have left a deep wound among
Palestinians. If that wound is to heal, much effort must be exerted
to restore a functioning economy, strengthen internal security, and
improve Palestinians' relations with their neighbours and the
international community.

Daoud Kuttab

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