Understanding the Palestinian crisis

I have been scouring the web, trying to gain a deeper understanding of what’s been going on in Palestine. So far, the very best account and analysis that I’ve found is this document, which was posted yesterday on the site of the (Gaza-based) Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. I suspect it was written by the Centre’s extremely dedicated and professional director, Raji Sourani.

Its title is No Alternative to Political Dialogue; PCHR’s Position towards the Current Crisis in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian National Authority. I believe this correctly describes the problem. There is both a crisis inside Gaza, and a crisis in the PA.

PCHR has been doing careful, well-documented human rights monitoring and advocacy work in Palestine for around 20 years now. This is how the “No Alternative” text describes the recent clashes in Gaza:

The Gaza Strip has recently witnessed an unprecedented escalation in the violence between the Hamas and Fatah movements. Last week, as the fighting came to a head, Hamas decided to resolve the conflict militarily by taking over all Palestinian security headquarters and sites and seizing complete control over the Gaza Strip through its military wing – Izziddin al-Qassam Brigades. The fighting claimed the lives of 146 Palestinians (36 of them are civilians), including 5 children and 8 women, and wounded at least 700 others.

According to PCHR’s documentation and observations, this latest armed conflict between the two movements has been accompanied by grave breaches of provisions of international law related to internal armed conflicts, particularly Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Under Common Article 3, each party to an armed conflict not of an international character is bound, at a minimum, to treat persons taking no active part in the hostilities humanely, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms. It also prohibits “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; taking of hostages; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; and the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court.” It also calls for humane treatment of the wounded and medical patients.

In violation of these international standards, the fighting was accompanied by many cases of willful killings, extra-judicial executions, and firing at combatants after their capture. According to eyewitnesses, a number of the wounded were killed inside hospitals; reprisal kidnappings and torture of persons affiliated or suspected of being affiliated with a party to the conflict were also reported. Although most civilians were confined to their homes for the duration of hostilities, numerous unarmed civilians also became victims of the fighting. The status of civilian structures, including houses and tower apartment buildings, was not respected and such locations were often used by the hostile parties during the fighting. As a consequence, many civilians were forcibly placed in a combat area, increasing their suffering and risk of injury. Many casualties were ultimately reported among civilians, including women and children.

Additionally, the access of medical crews and firefighters to combat areas to evacuate the wounded and extinguish fires was severely restricted (see PCHR’s press releases during and after the fighting).

Here, for example, was a PCHR press release issued during the fighting, on June 14. It detailed several law-of-war violations without, in most cases, specifying which side had committed them. (I imagine it must have been very hard to ascertain that, in many cases.) In one case, that report specified that”Hamas gunmen” had committed violations, as follows:

At approximately 16:00 [on 13 June], Hamas gunmen stormed the house of Atef Baker, a Fatah operative, near Beach Camp. They fired indiscriminately inside the house, killing two women and seriously injuring 4 others. The women killed are Jehan Nayef Baker (18) and Heba Sobhi Baker (30). And at approximately 17:00, Hamas gunmen surrounded a number of Baker clan members in the same area, and fired at them. Three Baker clan members were killed: Mansour Omar Baker (47), Mohammad Suliman Baker (28), and Hamada Samir Baker (18).

But here is the way the clashes and their effect on civilians were characterized in the report’s introductory paragraph:

The clashes erupted on Thursday, 7 June 2007, and have led to the death of tens of victims from both sides as well as innocent civilians. Gaza and Khan Yunis were the scene of unprecedented violence. Most victims fell in these two places, especially during Hamas control of the compounds of the National Security Forces and General Intelligence. It is regrettable that both sides were more brutal in bringing civilians into the conflict by taking positions on the roofs of houses, preventing food from reaching civilians, firing at peaceful demonstrations, and preventing civilians from access to healthcare. In addition, they targeted hospitals and transformed them into battle grounds, attacked medical crews, and prevented health workers from carrying out their duties. Life was paralyzed throughout the Gaza Strip, including the areas that did not witness clashes. Houses of members of both sides were destroyed and set on fire or targeted by projectiles in a policy of collective punishment to subdue the other side.

Then, regarding the crisis inside the PA that has been sparked by the Gaza fighting, the “No Alternative” report says this:

After Hamas took over security headquarters and sites and seized complete control over the Gaza Strip, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued 3 decrees on Thursday evening, 14 June, dismissing Prime Minister Ismail Haniya; declaring a state of emergency in all Palestinian National Authority (PNA) controlled areas; and forming a government to enforce the state of emergency. On 17 June, President Abbas issued two more decrees, one suspending the enforcement of articles 65, 66 and 67 of the Basic Law (the temporary constitution of the PNA), and the other one outlawing the Executive Force (formed by the Ministry of Interior in 2006) and Hamas’s militias “because of their insurrection against the Palestinian legitimacy and its institutions…”

In response to Hamas’s actions, Israel has closed all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, halting all international commercial transactions. As a result, Palestinian civilians have rushed to shops, bakeries and fuel stations to buy their basic needs, in the wake of expectations of a possible humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Rafah International Crossing Point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt—the sole outlet for the Gaza Strip to the outside world, which Israel already subjects to sporadic and lengthy closings—has now been completely and indefinitely closed.

Parallel to the incidents in Gaza, supporters of Fatah movement in the West Bank have carried out a series of retaliatory attacks against members, supporters and institutions of Hamas. Such attacks have targeted health and cultural associations, charities, press offices, television and radio stations, sports clubs, and various local councils that have been run by Hamas following local elections. According to PCHR’s documentation, at least 50 public and private institutions have been attacked; 3 persons, including a child, have been killed; and at least 60 persons have been kidnapped since Wednesday, 13 June 2007.

In light of these accelerating developments in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), particularly in the Gaza Strip, PCHR stresses the following:

1) PCHR condemns the use of military means to resolve the conflict between Hamas and Fatah movements, particularly the decision to resolve the conflict militarily through the seizure of Palestinian security headquarters and sites in the Gaza Strip by the [Hamas-run] Izziddin al-Qassam Brigades. Although PCHR is aware of the legitimacy of the government and its right to fully have its constitutional powers, and conscious of the security problems that preceded and the urgent need to reform the security establishment, there is no justification for the use of Izziddin al-Qassam Brigades in the military conflict and in the take over of the security establishment, which will only frustrate reform of the security establishment.

2) Steps taken by President Mahmoud Abbas in response to these events violate the Basic Law and undermine the Basic Law in a manner that is no less dangerous than what is happening in Gaza, especially as:

A. The President has the right to declare a state of emergency and to dissolve the government in accordance with Chapter 7 of the Basic Law, but according to the Law, the dissolved government shall serve as an acting government until the formation of a new government that must be approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

B. The Basic Law does not give the President any authority, even during a state of emergency, to suspend the enforcement of any provision of the Law concerning the PLC’s authority to grant confidence to the government, and he does not have the authority to dissolve or interrupt the work of the PLC during the period of emergency (article 113). The Basic Law is superior to all laws, from which all powers, including those of the President and Prime Minister, are derived, and it must not be undermined or suspended in all circumstances.

3) Steps taken by the President are likely to complicate the crisis rather than solving it. The President’s response may lead to further isolation of the Gaza Strip and throw its 1.5-million residents into the unknown by subjecting them to international sanctions. There is also concern that a de facto political situation may develop in which the Gaza Strip is cut-off from the rest of the OPT.

4) The current crisis in the PNA is a political rather than a constitutional or legal one. There is therefore no alternative to dialogue based on real partnership, respect for the results of the legislative elections that were held in January 2006, and putting the interests of the Palestinian people above the narrow, factional interests of the conflicting parties.

5) In the context of such a dialogue, it is important to stress the need to reconstruct the Palestinian security establishment on professional and national foundations, to ensure its independence and not to push it into any hideous factional conflicts so that it may be able to carry out its constitutional duties to defend the homeland, serve the people, protect the society, and ensure security and public order.

6) The only party that benefits from the continuation of the current crisis is Israel and its occupation forces, which continue to create new facts on the ground, especially in the West Bank through the construction of the Annexation Wall and settlements, which undermine any possibility of establishing a viable, independent Palestinian state within the OPT.

7) The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, which has been deteriorating due to the Israeli siege and the suspension of international aid to the PNA, will further deteriorate with the closure of all border crossings and the halting of international economic transactions.

8) The current Palestinian crisis is a new Nakba (in reference to the dispersion of the Palestinian people in 1948) that if not immediately stopped, will only grow as expectations of more economic and social strangleholds fuel concerns over massive emmigration from the Gaza Strip. All Palestinian political factions and civil society groups must therefore bear the historical responsibility to end this crisis and prevent this new Nakba, which has been created by Palestinians on the 59th anniversary of the Nakba of 1948.

9) The international community and Arab States are invited to take immediate steps to prevent this catastrophe by pressing for political dialogue between the Hamas and Fatah movements, as well as all other political factions, and to end this crisis which threatens the PNA and the Palestinian people as a whole.

Well, on this last score, good luck to anyone urging the “international community”, as presently constituted, to press for the immediate resumption of political dialogue between Hamas and Fateh! Right now, Mr. 3% (Ehud Olmert) is in Washington DC, crowing with Mr. 30% (George W. Bush) about the “opportunity” the Hamas-Fateh split presents for (their endless, always inconclusive version of) the peace process… and Mr. 30% has hurried to send more financial aid to help prop up Abu Mazen and Fateh.

However, there are three big problems with providing such speedy, one-sided US support to Fateh at this moment:

(1) It makes even more of a mockery than we have seen before, of all the Bushites’ earlier pronouncements about the depth and sincerity of their support for democratization of the Palestinian polity;

(2) It makes Fateh look even more than before like the cat’s-paw of the Israelis and the Bushites in the Middle East– not a good thing for anyone at this point;and

(3) All this aid will make no difference at all to Fateh’s political fortunes with the Palestinian public unless (a) Fateh can show itself capable of using the aid in a way that is accountable, well-governed, and speedily makes a demonstrable contribution to the public good, and (b) the Fateh leaders can show palpable achievements in other key areas of the Palestinians’ quality of life– primarily, the freeing of the Palestinian communities in both the West Bank and Gaza from the socio-economic strangulation that Israel continues to maintain over both territories, and by making palpable progress in the peace negotiations with Israel.

Regarding #3 there, neither ’a’ nor ’b’ looks likely.

I see that already, within even a few days of the debacle Fateh suffered in Gaza, its ever-jockeying array of second-level bosses have already resumed their longheld practice of working against each other in very public and very damaging ways. Primarily, many Fathawis seem to have their knives out against Mahmoud Abbas’s strongly US- and Israeli-backed “national security advisor”, Mohammed Dahlan.

In that Haaretz report there, Avi Issacharoff wrote:

Palestinian sources said that the subject came up at a meeting of 20 council members in Ramallah on Sunday. According to sources, some of the council members said they believed that Dahlan should be relieved of his duties as part of Fatah’s efforts to regain strength on the Palestinian street.

Among those attending the meeting were Jibril Rajoub, Ahmed Ghanem, Mohammed al-Horani, Samir Shehada, and other prominent Fatah members. “We hope that Dahlan will be removed,” one of the participants said. “We hope this will help stop the atrocities that Hamas is perpetrating in the Gaza Strip.

Dahlan is among those responsible for this debacle, and even his own men are saying that he had deserted them along with Fatah’s top-brass in the strip.”

[The charismatic and long-imprisoned Fateh operative Marwan] Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Hadarim Prison, released a statement from prison yesterday in which he demanded that Fatah’s leadership in the strip be replaced with other operatives currently in the region.

Indeed, the political situation inside the West Bank seems to be very far from the anti-Hamas triumphalism that is being portrayed in some of the western mainstream media. Some western analysts and politicians seem eager to paint a picture in which all of Fateh and a large proportion of the Palestinian people are locked into bitter, irreconcileable hatred and fear of Hamas, such as can easily be harnessed to the US and Israel’s further campaigns against the organization. But even within Fateh, this seems not to be the case.

The fact is– as the PCHR document so aptly described it– the Palestinian political situation is in a deep crisis. Both President Abbas and the Hamas-led legislature have earned a notable degree of democratic legitimacy in the fairly recent past. That is a basic fact to remember.

And now, for Abbas to summarily dismiss the Haniyeh-led National Unity Government by declaring a “State of Emergency” may seem to buy him a little time. But the Palestinian Basic Law allows him to rule through his own hand-picked PM, under his own, unilaterally declared State of Emergency, only for 30 days before the SOE has to be renewed “with the consent of two-thirds the Legislative Council.” (Answer to qu.6 in that PDF file of commentary by Nathan Brown there.) And even under the SOE, his powers are strictly limited.

So after 30 days, he requires the cooperation of the Legislative Council… This, while significant numbers of elected Hamas deputies have been detained by the Israeli Military Occupation.

Where is the concern expressed in the US or other western countries about those detentions? And how on earth can any democracy-respecting government anywhere support Abbas in extending the SOE beyond the allowed 30 days if he can do so only by having an Israeli-picked subset of the elected deputies ready and able to support that extension?

… Anyway, I have a lot more to say about this topic, but no time now to say it. One aspect I want to pursue is the ways in which the West Bank is different from Gaza– and the ways in which it is not as different as many of the “instant” commentatoriat here in the US seems to think.