Support a Palestinian Civil Rights Movement

A Palestinian demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag next to Israeli soldiers, during a demonstration against the Separation Wall in the village of Bilin near the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 22, 2006. (MaanImages/Moti Milrod)

Sometime in 2003, Condoleezza Rice declared to Reuters: “One of the really bad actors in the Middle East has just been deposed, and the president is not going to miss this opportunity” - meaning the opportunity to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. But, as it turned out, not only did this promise remain unfulfilled, the “opportunity” of which Rice spoke did not even exist.

The really bad actor has now been hanged and hastily buried in what appears like Wild West justice to many in the Arab world. All that was missing from the spectacle was the picnicking rabble come to watch the hanging for entertainment. Far from being liberated, Iraq is a quagmire for both the US and the Iraqis. Neither the US’s disastrous machinations in Iraq nor its past performance with regard to the Palestinians inspire confidence in its abilities to understand the complex sensibilities of the Arab world. Far from it.

In as much as the US has energy to spare for a peace plan between the Israelis and Palestinians, it means to bolster Abbas and give the upper hand back to Fateh with certain dire consequences obvious to everyone in the Middle East except to the US itself and to the Palestinian ruling elite whose economic interests are connected to Israel and who are supposedly in charge of the defunct “process” dreamed up at Oslo. What’s more, if the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, there is no reason at all that US intervention is likely to result in anything close to fair negotiations for the Palestinians or that the US and Israel will meet Abbas even half way.

The unfortunate reality of Abbas and of any Palestinian “president” is that he is powerless. When a Hamas majority in the Palestinian legislative Council was elected back in January, the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni asked the following question about Abbas: “If he was useless or powerless even to advance negotiations before, what possible influence can he have when a party that runs what there is of Palestine does not actually want talks at all?”

“Useless or powerless” are adjectives that applied to Abbas before the elections, as they now apply to the Palestinian government that is running “what there is of Palestine.” Recently, Abbas said of Olmert, “We have to meet. We need each other.” But the truth is that Abbas needs Olmert, but Olmert does not need Abbas.

One recent headline blared that “Israel will let Abbas obtain arms” - in a limited way, of course, just enough to make it easier for the Palestinians to get at one another. The whole point of the Oslo agreement was to set up the figure of the Palestinian president as a buffer between the Israelis and the Palestinian people, so that the Israelis will not have to deal with confrontations directly. Political opposition that springs from civil authority through a representative government is not permitted, hence all the talk about a “technocrat” government as a “solution” to the Palestinian attempt at democracy.

Democracy in the oPt is not permitted; it’s as simple as that. You wouldn’t guess at this fact, however, if you took as an indicator the number of NGOs that have been planted in what there is of Palestine through the support of foreign aid in order to enlighten the Palestinian public on that count. As a result, the Palestinian public that elected Hamas is now sufficiently politicized to guarantee an explosion of monumental proportions should any Palestinian leader sign the kind of agreement that Israel has gone a long way in shaping geographically based on its interpretation of the letter of the Oslo agreement - a cantonized, segregated West Bank interspersed by a strong Jewish presence.

Israel and the US control the Palestinian political game and they will not allow the much touted “democracy” to develop in the occupied territories. Palestinian political life is designed to be dysfunctional, because Abbas, who ought to get the source of his authority from the legislative branch (which is what democracy means), is instead totally reliant on Israel and the US to make him useful and powerful.

The way to go forward is for Palestinian civil society to insist on the empowerment of the Legislative Council, if necessary by electing Hamas again. As Azmi Bishara put it, “Since territorial sovereignty is lacking, sovereignty over institutions and through elected national institutions will have to take its place.”

Clinging to the Oslo agreements is a sure dead end for the Palestinians. Since Israel’s racism and apartheid intentions are at long last becoming clear to the world, the best course of action is to support a Palestinian civil rights movement that would make alliances within Israel’s own civil society as well as internationally in order for “the hammer of international opinion and the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions” campaigns to be effectively activated against Israel.

Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

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