RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Palestinian politics are at an impasse. The four-year term of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) ended on 25 January with no new elections planned. Presidential elections, meant to be held last year, were also postponed indefinitely.
IPS spoke with Dr. Mahmoud Ramahi, a neurosurgeon and secretary-general of the PLC, on the political deadlock.
IPS: You spent three years in an Israel jail and were released last year. What were you held for?
MR: I, together with 47 other Hamas members and elected parliamentarians of the PLC, were arrested by the Israelis following Hamas taking control of Gaza in June 2007 and the capture of an Israeli soldier by Gaza-based fighters. We were not charged with anything specific other than being Hamas members.
IPS: The PLC’s four-year term expired on 25 January with no new elections in the pipeline despite the activities of the PLC being frozen since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza. How do you assess the current situation and what happened when you tried to hold a press conference several days ago addressing the issue?
MR: Local media outlets were pressured by the Palestinian Authority (PA) not to allow us to hold the press conference on their premises. We held the conference instead in our offices.
After this members of our staff were arrested by PA security men who trumped up false money laundering charges against them. I myself was followed by several security vehicles but not arrested due to my parliamentary immunity.
Our staff was eventually released at midnight and the charges were dropped following pressure from Fatah PLC members in Gaza who feared that reciprocal measures by the Hamas authorities there would be taken against them.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has issued a decree saying no new presidential or legislative elections will be held in the near future despite issuing one last year stating that these would be held in January this year.
IPS: Abbas has said that until Hamas signs an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation agreement there will be no elections. Why is Hamas refusing to sign the document?
MR: We have three conditions for signing the document. The political arrest campaign against Hamas members in the West Bank must cease. All West Bank Hamas members dismissed from their employment on the grounds of political affiliation must be reinstated, and new elections should have been held on 25 January. The PA agreed to these conditions during last year’s unity talks.
However, following US envoy to the Mideast George Mitchell’s visit to Cairo last year the Americans applied pressure on the PA and Abbas then reneged on the agreement.
The PA stated they no longer had the funds to reemploy dismissed Hamas employees. They further stated that any future election committee could only comprise Fatah members. These circumstances are obviously unacceptable to us after we won the last elections which were both free and fair.
IPS: Is there any personal interaction between Fatah and Hamas PLC members despite the PLC being frozen?
MR: Prior to Fatah’s revolutionary conference last August we had quite cordial relations with our Fatah colleagues. However, as the conference drew near communication ceased and they told us that talking to us would jeopardize their chances of being elected to Fatah’s central committee.
Previously we respected Fatah under the leadership of the late president Yasser Arafat as the first Palestinian revolutionary organization. However, we believe that the current policy of persecuting Hamas members and negating the right to resistance against the Israeli occupation is a big mistake on the part of the PA.
IPS: Do you believe the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank has grown and do you think this popularity might be another reason for the PA refusing to hold elections?
MR: Abbas has publicly acknowledged our growing popularity. I have no doubt that if free elections were held tomorrow we would win them again as we did in 2006. At the student elections at Birzeit University last year, we got 20 percent more votes than the previous year and lost only by a narrow margin.
A lot of PA employees are only affiliated to the PA because they are dependent on the PA for employment and a salary. If the EU had to stop paying their salaries for one month the PA’s support base would diminish even further from the little it has now.
IPS: Hamas accuses the PA of running an undemocratic political entity where political arrests, human rights abuses and the muzzling of the press is the norm, but isn’t Hamas doing the same in Gaza?
MR: The Hamas leadership in the West Bank has not only criticized what is happening in Gaza but urged the leadership there to cease these practices. However, it is important to remember that the PA has more than 500 political prisoners in the West Bank whereas Hamas has only 50 prisoners and a number of these are held on murder charges. Many of these arrests were also in retaliation for the West Bank arrests.
IPS: PA prime minister Salaam Fayyad admitted that torture of Hamas detainees in the West Bank occurred but said this officially stopped last October. Is this true?
MR: For the most part the severe beating of detainees and tying prisoners in stress positions has stopped. But other forms of abuse are now being implemented such as forcing detainees to sleep on cold, concrete floors without mattresses or blankets in winter or flooding cells with water so sitting down is impossible.
IPS: Why should the US negotiate with Hamas if they have reason to believe that even though your organization won free elections once in power you would enforce an Islamic theocracy?
MR: We are a moderate Islamic movement and we were never given even a month’s period after the elections to prove our credentials. If we had been given a chance and proven ourselves to be undemocratic then it would be logical to boycott us but not before. I explained this to ex-US president Jimmy Carter after the 2006 elections which he helped to monitor and may I point out that the PA is far from democratic.
The influence of Islam in the region is increasing whether the West likes it or not. The choice is to deal with moderate Islamic groups like ourselves or continue boycotting us and fuel real Islamic extremism in the form of al-Qaeda and then try negotiating with them.
IPS: The Americans also say your refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist is problematic.
MR: We have already stated repeatedly that we accept the existence of Israel within the 1967 borders as a political reality even if we do not approve its moral legitimacy.
Israel on the other hand has never recognized the right of a Palestinian state to exist even under the PA, despite the PA recognizing Israel’s right to exist. All Israel has recognized is the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.
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