Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ political honeymoon is almost over. And the results are worrisome. Palestinians gave Arafat’s heir a huge boost in the January presidential elections in which he ran against a number of serious contenders. The victory was followed by a few more important accomplishments, including the tahdi’a (quiet) that all Palestinian factions (included the Islamists) agreed to and have honoured since.
Expectations among Palestinians were elevated even more with the Sharm El Sheikh summit in which the Israelis promised a number of steps matching the Palestinian security reform actions.
By all objective accounts, the Palestinian leader has made tremendous progress in the difficult and complicated tasks facing him. The security apparatus was overhauled in the spirit of the Egyptian-American ideas that resulted in the reduction of the security forces to three well defined and accountable departments: intelligence, police and national guard.
The new Palestinian minister of interior, Nasser Yousef (refused by Arafat this post), has proved to be a serious and professional internal security chief. Among his first decisions was the removal of most of the security chiefs who were responsible (directly or indirectly) for the state of chaos and the absence of the rule of law in Palestine. These changes have already been noticed as the Palestinian public has seen a drastic drop in cases of lawlessness and serious investigation in any new reports of individuals or security personnel taking the law in their own hands.
Abbas has also signed into law a number of important pieces of legislation, including one that has overhauled the entire Palestinian judicial system. Municipal elections have taken place and legislative elections are expected in July. Abbas has refused to compromise on the promises he made regarding the Cairo Agreement, with the other Palestinian factions, which he has articulated in public since. Control over the Palestinian Broadcasting Authority has been removed from the PLO and the office of the president and placed under the direction of moderate Nabil Shaath’s information Ministry. This week Shaath expelled a sheikh for a sermon that was transmitted on Palestinian TV.
One would expect that all these accomplishments would be matched by, at the minimum, an improvement in the daily lives of Palestinians. Israel continues to refuse to coordinate its prisoner releases; over 8,000 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails, many of them without trial or charge. Save for the redeployment in three Palestinian cities, the catastrophic closure imposed on the Palestinian cities in the West Bank is still valid. Palestinians are not allowed to travel from one West Bank town to another without a permit. Even those with permits in Bethlehem are still unable to drive their cars to Ramallah, or vice versa, and are forced to travel in shared public taxis.
Settlement activities continue, clearly in defiance of the roadmap whose tune all international leaders are singing day and night. Instead, a huge settlement is now being planned east of Jerusalem and a university has been declared in the illegally built Ariel settlement.
The Sharon government, not wanting to rescind its collective punishment (illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Convention) of Palestinians, is turning the tables on Abbas and blaming him for not doing enough vis--vis the Islamic movements.
Ironically, Israeli officials are now talking to the newly elected Hamas mayors who they want Abbas to disarm. For the record, the US appointed Lieutenant General William Ward has had nothing but praise for the Palestinian leadership’s actions in dealing with the security issue. And if there is any doubt about the Palestinians’ commitment to their unilaterally issued ceasefire, some might need to be reminded of the calm that has been reigning for half a year now. The Israelis may be waiting for the Bush-Abbas meeting before acting, but the Palestinian population continues to suffer for no fault of its own.
World political and economic leaders meeting on the Dead Sea shores might need to take these issues into consideration while talking about the future of the region. The present quiet on the Palestinian side can’t be sustained without a serious reciprocal effort of the Israelis. All the money and good intentions in the world will do very little to move the peace process ahead while one party is occupying, humiliating and refusing the basic freedom to a people who yearn to live free from oppression and military control, on their own land.
* Daoud Kuttab is director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah.