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“Little Palestine”

October 27, 2009

palestinianflagPalestinian reconciliation efforts suffered another setback when President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree for presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 24, a move that was rejected by the Islamist group Hamas. Egypt has been mediating for over a year to heal the split between Abbas’ Fatah party and Hamas but the two rivals have continuously failed to reach a unity agreement. (Read our Q&A to understand why the two Palestinian factions fail to reach an agreement on Cairo’s latest proposal.) Most Palestinians believe a unity deal is crucial to achieving Palestinian statehood but don’t think an agreement is likely. However, the rare case of successful Fatah-Hamas partnership in the West Bank village of Beita might convince them otherwise.

Elected leaders of this town come from different backgrounds and political affiliations but all serve on the same council, working in synergy to build a robust independently-funded infrastructure – a rarity in the Palestinian territories.

In the 2004 municipal elections, Beita village produced an 11-member council comprised of 6 Hamas and 5 Fatah members, with Sheikh Arab from Hamas as mayor. Shortly after the elections, Sheikh Arab joined forces with Abu Haitham, a former mayor of 8 years who had headed the Fatah ballot list, and together they worked to start building what they call ‘Little Palestine’.

“We asked ourselves this question, ‘Why did we come to this council?’ and all 11 members answered: ‘We came here for the good of the town,’” Sheikh Arab told Reuters. “We cooperate on what we agree and we pardon one another on issues we do not agree. We try to pretend as if Beita is Little Palestine with all of its problems – political, social, economic, and security issues.”

Like most Hamas leaders in the West Bank, Sheikh Arab was arrested by Palestinian forces loyal to Abbas in 2007, the year Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah. He was released in 2009 and now serves as deputy to the current mayor, Abu Muhanad, a Fatah member who last held the post while Sheikh Arab was in detention.

“Outside the walls of this municipality, I am still Fatah and defend Fatah, and he is Hamas and defends Hamas. But we defend the right things and what is wrong on what we all agree is wrong,”  Abu Muhanad said about his relationship with his deputy mayor.

Unity and cooperation within the leadership isn’t the town’s only achievement, said Abu Haitham, the former mayor who oversees various investments and development projects. “On top of the slogan to have unity and cooperation, we have adopted another principle and that is how to move from relief to development. In this respect, we concentrated on investments and how to rely on our income,” he said.

Unlike neighbouring municipalities which rely heavily on foreign aid, Beita Municipal Council generates profit from its sustainable local development projects funded entirely by private investors from the village and by Palestinian expatriates. A factory for the high-end mineral water bottling company Yanabee gives 35 percent of its profit to the municipality, allowing the council to be self-sufficient and avoid taking orders from foreign donors on how funds should be used.

Other locally-funded projects include an infrastructure connecting most of Beita to water and electricity, a flea market where produce is sold in bulk and a housing project on a hill top near the Jewish settlement Itamar.

Another project or two and Beita will be completely independent and self-sufficient, the council says.

“We are an organisation that carries out services. When we sit around the table, we are supposed to find the grounds on which we can achieve whatever we can for our country. This is why we have harmony — not to forget, we are cousins,” said the current mayor, Abu Muhanad.

“My brother and I are in the same municipality council: my brother is Hamas and I am Fatah, what do you want us to start with one another now?” Abu Muhanad said with a smile.

Click below to watch our visit to Beita and our interviews with the village’s three mayors on October 21, 2009:

PHOTO: A Palestinian Fatah supporter gestures behind a Palestinian flag during a rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah against Israel’s offensive in Gaza and in support of President Mahmoud Abbas January 19, 2009. REUTERS/Fadi Arouri (WEST BANK)

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