An expert in international law and an  old friend of the Palestinian
people wrote me with utter distress  a few days after Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh were reported
to have reached an agreement  Sept. 11 to form a national unity
government.
The content of  his message was alarming, especially coming from an objective  American academic who was involved in the drafting of past Palestinian  national documents. "The Palestinian people were being set  up," was the underlying meaning of his message. To know  why, here is a bit of context.

The Palestinian declaration  of independence of 1988 in Algeria was structured in a way that  would allow the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee to devise foreign policy, thus representing the Palestinian  people in any future settlements with Israel. The signing of  the Oslo Accords in September 1993 and onward demoted the function  of the Executive Committee and eventually undermined the import  of the PLO altogether, concentrated the power in the hands of  a few at the helm of the Palestinian Authority (PA): the late President Yasser Arafat and a clique of business contractors  and ex-revolutionaries turned wartime profiteers.

That combination destroyed  the achievements of the first Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993  in ways that Israel could only dream of: It cemented a faintly  existing class society, destroyed the impressive national unity  achieved by the Palestine-based leadership of various parties,  hijacked the people's struggle, reducing it to mere slogans,  and damaged Palestinian credibility regionally and internationally.  Israel, of course, enjoyed the spectacle, as Palestinians bickered  endlessly and as the PA's security carried out daily onslaughts  against those who opposed the autocratic methods of the government,  desperately trying to demonstrate its worthiness to Israel and  the United States.

The PA, itself a political  construct of various Fatah blocs, had its own share of squabbling,  which culminated at times in street fights and assassinations.  Abbas, then, was of the opinion that if Arafat refused to share  power, the Fatah dispute would exasperate and could lead to a  failed government. Both the U.S. and Israel backed Abbas, hardly for his democratic posture, but with the hope that Abbas would  hand over the little remaining political "concessions" that Arafat wouldn't, a sin that cost Arafat his freedom in his  later years.

But events in the Middle East  often yield the exact opposite of what the U.S. and Israel push  for. Though Abbas was elected president a few months after Arafat's  passing in November 2004, he needed some political legitimacy  to negotiate or renegotiate Palestinian rights with Israel. That hope was dashed by the Parliamentary elections of January 2006,  which brought in a Hamas-led government two months later. The  U.S., Europe and Canada responded with a most inhumane economic  siege, and a promise to punish anyone daring enough to aid the  Palestinian economy in any way. Succumbing to pressure, even  Arab neighbors helped ensure the tightness of the siege. Some  in Fatah seemed also determined to ensure the collapse of the government even if at the expense of ordinary Palestinians. The  so-called liberated Gaza, once hoped to be the cornerstone of  Palestinian independence, was deliberately turned into a hub  of lawlessness and violence, where hired guns ruled the streets,  threatening the safety of an already crushed people.

Palestinian morgues mounted  with bodies when Israel unleashed its tactlessly termed Summer  Rain, an intensive military onslaught that killed 291 Palestinians  in the months of July and August alone. The atrocious one-sided war was justified to the Israeli public as a humanitarian endeavor  to save the life of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured  in June by Palestinian militants wishing to exert pressure on  Israel to ease its deadly economic siege.

Palestinians, though browbeaten  and fatigued — denied salaries, physically besieged, politically  isolated — were desperately trying to shield their democratic  choice. The issue by then had transcended to that of Hamas, Fatah  and their ideological differences, to that of a nation denied  the right to make its own choices, to choose its representatives  and hold them to account.

But Hamas, too, was learning  the harsh reality of being in the position of leadership. Unlike  Arafat, Hamas wanted to seek support from its Arab and Muslim  milieu, the devastatingly unexplored strategic alliances undermined  by the PA's reliance on the West. But even Hamas itself seemed  unaware of the extent of weakness and political deficiency of  the Arabs and Muslims, who could barely assert their own rights,  much less that of the Palestinians. Hamas learned, the hard way,  that the U.S.' rapport with Israel would hardly weaken even if  an entire nation must go hungry and hospitals run out of badly  needed medicine. That hard lesson in real politic is what the  Palestinian government is now scrambling to learn, amid dismay  and confusion.

It was within this context  that Abbas and Haniyeh convened in intense discussions to form  a coalition government. Abbas — and mainstream Fatah behind  him — must have realized that the harder Hamas is hit, the stronger  its popular support grows, thus undermining Fatah's own chances  of political recovery. Although Hamas has called for a national  unity government from the start, it did so from a position of  strength, and with a hint of arrogance. Now a national unity  government is its only outlet to the world: without it, neither  its survival, as a relevant political movement, nor achieving  any of its declared objectives are as secured as it may have  seemed in the heat of victory. Moreover, a generation of already malnourished children are facing a formidable humanitarian crisis;  something had to be done.

But amid the rush to form a  government, key questions won't be laid to rest: Who will speak  on behalf of the Palestinian people internationally? Who will  formulate their foreign-policy agenda? And who will be entrusted  with the task of defending or redefining their national constants  — the refugees' right of return, the end to the Israeli occupation,  preserving their water rights, removal of all settlements, borders,  etc? Will it be Abbas, chairman of the PLO, or the elected legislative  council and government?

This quandary was the cause  of despair for my friend, and should be for anyone who wishes  to see a real and lasting peace. If any peace settlement fails  to adhere to the democratic concept, according to which Palestinians  wish to govern themselves, then Palestinians should ready themselves  for another Oslo-style agreement, imposed from the top and rubber  stamped by the PLO's Executive Committee, long-devoid of its  democratic principles and dominated by the elitist few.

I, too, am worried. The Palestinian  democratic experience should not be squandered again.

Ramzy Baroud teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology and is the author of forthcoming The  Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle.  He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He  can be contacted at: editor@palestinechronicle.com

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