Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Palestinian 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.”
A youth group in the Gaza Strip held a mock trial for the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday. The Youth Parliament, a group under the media department of the Islamist group Hamas, prosecuted Abbas on charge of “betraying the blood of the martyrs and the injured”.
The charge was in reference to Abbas’s agreement to defer the vote on the Goldstone Report at the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month. Many human rights groups have been pressing nations to endorse the UN report critical of the Gaza War seeing it as a way to hold both Israel and Hamas accountable for the hundreds of civilian deaths in the devastating war. The vote on the Goldstone Report was delayed to next March, which looked like a victory for Israel, and some Palestinians charged his decision had raised serious questions about Abbas’s leadership. Abbas, doing some damage control, pledged to push for an exceptional UNHCR session, which is being held on Wednesday. (Read more here.)
The elections for Fatah’s sixth conference, which just ended in Bethlehem, had an unusual first: their first Jewish Israeli member elected to the 120-member Revolutionary Council. Uri Davis, an Israeli citizen living in the West Bank, has been a member of Fatah for 25 years.
Here are some excerpts from Reuters correspondent Ali Sawafta’s article on new council member Uri Davis for Reuters Arabic-language service:
Will Fatah supporters get fooled again?
As election results for the Central Committee trickle in, general opinion has swayed back and forth as to their probable significance.
With at least half of the names announced this morning considered “fresh faces,” the mood today started out upbeat. Our correspondent, Ali Sawafta, noted that about three political generations were represented in the new Committee, offering a wider spectrum of viewpoints reformists say are neccessary to revive the movement.
The ageing executive body of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction is trying to emerge from its current congress in Bethlehem with a “new look” and a “new image” – not easy when the youngest member of the executive is 70-years-old and the oldest 87.
“I am sorry. I have Alzheimers,” joked one Fatah member during the congress when he realised he had forgotten to bring the list of candidates that he was supposed to vote for in the group’s first get-together in 20 years.
The (20 years) long-awaited Fatah conference drags on in Bethlehem this week, as Fatah members from over 80 countries gather to try and put their derailed movement back on track and bring in “new blood” to revive the movement.
Most Palestinians agree that Fatah is in need of major change to revive support. Fatah, vying with the Islamist group Hamas, is the main contender to be the political representative of the Palestinian people. It will be a crucial player in future peace talks.
Younger generations of politicians argue they can offer change, but can’t get a good foothold in the movement because “Old Guard” politicians have clung to top positions since the last Fatah conference in Tunis in 1989. There are only 9 spots in Fatah’s Central Committee for which the incumbents are not running–they were vacated by death.
Driving from Ramallah to Bethlehem for the Fatah conference, you can’t miss the countless images and posters of deceased Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah.The Fatah conference’s own publicity campaign has itself capitalized on Arafat imagery in its advertisements, from posters with the aging leader waving in the background, to TV advertisements with emotional music and Arafat’s image lightly transposed over footage of current leaders meeting. Old clips of Arafat and his followers, huddled together during the Israeli siege the Palestinian Authority headquarters, are being played now and then on the Palestinian TV station Al-Quds.
Arafat’s larger-than-life presence haunts the Palestinian street’s views on Fatah. Talk to Palestinians lingering in the square outside the closed conference proceedings, the conversation quickly turns to Arafat.
The “Palestinian Rothschild“, the “Messiah on the Hill“, “The Man Who Built a Palace in the West Bank“: Munib al-Masri has amassed epithets from journalists in the kind of abundance with which he has amassed his collection of rare artworks. One description he would treasure now, though, would be “unifier of the Palestinians”, the “healer”, perhaps. And some of his compatriots have, not for the first time, been suggesting a more formal title, too – “Prime Minister“.
A bright spring morning spent today with the wealthy international oilman walking the grounds of the extraordinary Palladian villa he has built overlooking the tumbling lanes of his native Nablus left me in little doubt about the strength of his personal commitment to overcoming the rift between Fatah and Hamas that has crippled Palestinians’ efforts to negotiate their statehood with Israel.
A stated desire to open the way for the creation of a Palestinian unity government wasn’t the only reason why Prime Minister Salam Fayyad tendered his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas on March 7.
While the move could help Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas Islamists bury the hatchet in a reconciliation dialogue in Cairo, it also stemmed from Fayyad’s growing sense of frustration over his acrimonious relations with Fatah stalwarts, confidants said.
Walking in the street, travelling in a car or sitting in a cafe in the Gaza Strip these days, you can hear people talking about and analysing one central issue - whether new Egyptian-sponsored efforts to reconcile the rival Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah groups can work. Another thorny thought common in almost every discussion is whether Cairo would be able to turn the current lull in fighting between Israel and Hamas into a durable, sustainable ceasefire that will allow a proper opening of crossings into the coastal territory. Gaza’s 1.5 million popupation was relieved when Israel and Hamas declared separate ceasefires in January following 22-day of Israeli military strikes that killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. But relief is still mixed with doubt and unease a month later.
People who lost their houses remain homeless, living with friends, with relatives and in rental apartments and their hopes to rebuild their homes seem remote following news of a setback in Egyptian efforts to reach a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas earlier this month. In daylight those people visit tents they established on and near the rubble of what were once their houses in order to receive Arab and other foreign visitors who visit to assess the damage and promise aid to come. International donors will discuss funding at Sharm el-Sheikh in neighbouring Egypt on Monday. Bulldozers have cleared streets in areas where the Israeli army operated in January but the rubble of houses, offices and Hamas security headquarters remained unremoved. Hamas policemen helped by United Nations teams acted to remove several unexploded bombs from several locations after two children were killed playing with an object recently.