Educating the Palestinians
By Amira Hass
Long before it became popular in the United States and Israel to demand "democratization and changes in the structure of the Palestinian Authority," many Palestinians, from all walks of life, were demanding it, whether in public and private discussions or at demonstrations. Minor Fatah officials, not only well-known critics like Dr. Haider Abed Shafi, have been heard saying that the Israeli occupation cannot be blamed for every domestic wrong. The Palestinians are more frustrated than anyone else that their critical discourse has yet to yield changes in the political system and in the style of government and public administration. Ultimately, they are the ones who experience the universal phenomenon of the over-privileged in government and business doing everything they can to not lose those privileges.
Both in Israel and the United States, people like to forget that domestic Palestinian demands for democracy and transparency were part-and-parcel of domestic Palestinian criticism of the manner of negotiations for a political settlement, and, from the Palestinian perspective, the despairing results of those negotiations. Many Palestinians believe that it was a non-democratic Palestinian government that made it easy for Israel to shape the Oslo process into something different from what the Palestinian public perceived as fulfillment of its national rights. The main focus of that critique is on the expansion of settlements, with the number of settlers nearly doubling during the decade of political negotiations.
If the PLO overseas, with Yasser Arafat at its helm, had not been in such a hurry 10 years ago to solve its nearly personal problem - being on the verge of eviction from Tunisia and on the decline - it might have been able to hear the warnings of the local Palestinian leadership, such as Shafi, Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi, who said the settlements were the heart of the problem, and that no paper should be signed without an explicit Israeli commitment to not add a single house to existing settlements.
In 1993, Israel was no less pressed than the Palestinians to prove that it was part of the victorious West in the mono-polar geopolitical situation. That could have given the Palestinians some room to maneuver. Palestinian insistence at the negotiating table, which a decade ago was backed by an international consensus about the illegitimacy of the settlements, could have produced a ban on new settlement construction instead of the ambiguous "preservation of the status quo." Israel might have been forced to evacuate a few "isolated settlements" in the Gaza Strip. Or, with more efficient, professional, and aware negotiations, it might have been possible to expose Israel's unwillingness to give up its urges for territorial expansion and continued control over the Palestinian future.
In the Oslo years, the Palestinian leadership consolidated its economic standing thanks to extra privileges for freedom of movement (something denied to the general Palestinian public) that were granted to the VIPs, their children - many of whom became entrepreneurs - and their cronies. The Israeli negotiators knew how to use the well-known weaknesses of the PLO leadership for high living and astounding apathy for the living conditions of their people.
As it became evident the Oslo process was not producing the national and personal results that were promised, the Palestinian leadership was forced to step up compensation on a personal basis (particularly to Fatah members) - through jobs, bloated civilian and security bureaucracies, under-the-table handouts and charities named for Arafat instead of development of a social welfare framework.
And when those payments weren't enough, the leadership silenced criticism with intimidation. The critics drew a connection between the non-democratic live-style and the acceptance of Israeli dictates at the negotiating table, which was expressed in the security coordination and the continuing negotiations despite the expansion of the settlements. That made it possible to portray actions against critics as part of the campaign against terror and Oslo's opponents.
A non-democratic leadership, which did not have inherent contempt for the intelligence of its public, would not have called Ramallah, Nablus, and Gaza "free cities," only because the Israeli army in the Oslo years was not inside those cities, but surrounding them. But the fraud did not bother Israel during the Oslo years. On the contrary, it helped Israel behave as if the years of occupation were over, and as if the PA was an independent political entity, and not an autonomy broken into disconnected enclaves, with no authority over the land, water and freedom of movement of its residents, bent under the burden of the responsibility to reconstruct all that was destroyed during the years of direct Israeli occupation.
The Palestinians do not need the patronizing comments of Colin Powell. The leaked intentions of Ariel Sharon, about his readiness for a Palestinian state on condition the Palestinians obey his instructions on the structure of their government, may impress Congress, but not those Palestinians who made note of him saying that there is no difference between Netzarim and Tel Aviv.