Archaeology of the Middle East roadmap III
‘Immediate prospects for Palestinians grim but not entirely dark’
According to recent polls, Fatah and Hamas between them have the support of roughly 45 per cent of the Palestinian electorate, with the remaining 55 per cent evolving quite different, much more hopeful-looking political formations
By Edward Said
Like Arafat, Abu Mazen has never lived anywhere except the Gulf, Syria and Lebanon, Tunisia, and now occupied Palestine; he knows no languages other than Arabic, and isn’t much of an orator or public presence. By contrast, Mohamed Dahlan, the new security chief from Gaza — the other much- heralded figure in whom the Israelis and Americans place great hope — is younger, cleverer, and quite ruthless. During the eight years that he ran one of Arafat’s 14 or 15 security organisations, Gaza was known as Dahlanistan. He resigned last year, only to be re-recruited for the job of “unified security chief” by the Europeans, the Americans and the Israelis, even though of course he too has always been one of Arafat’s men. Now he is expected to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad; one of the reiterated Israeli demands behind which lies the hope that there will be something resembling a Palestinian civil war, a gleam in the eyes of the Israeli military.
In any event, it seems clear to me that, no matter how assiduously and flexibly Abu Mazen “performs”, he is going to be limited by three factors. One of course is Arafat himself, who still controls Fatah, which, in theory, is also Abu Mazen’s power base. Another is Sharon (who will presumably have the US behind him all the way). In a list of 14 “remarks” about the roadmap published in Ha’aretz on 27 May, Sharon signalled the very narrow limits on anything that might be construed as flexibility on Israel’s part. The third is Bush and his entourage; to judge by their handling of post war Afghanistan and Iraq, they have neither the stomach nor the competence for the nation building that surely will be required. Already Bush’s right-wing Christian base in the South has remonstrated noisily against putting pressure on Israel, and already the high- powered American pro-Israel lobby, with its docile adjunct, the Israeli-occupied US Congress, have swung into action against any hint of coercion against Israel, even though it will be crucial now that a final phase has begun.
It may seem quixotic for me to say, even if the immediate prospects are grim from a Palestinian perspective, they are not all dark. I return to the stubbornness I mentioned above, and the fact that Palestinian society — devastated, nearly ruined, desolate in so many ways — is, like Hardy’s thrush in its blast-beruffled plume, still capable of flinging its soul upon the growing gloom. No other Arab society is as rambunctious and healthily unruly, and none is fuller of civic and social initiatives and functioning institutions (including a miraculously vital musical conservatory). Even though they are mostly unorganised and in some cases lead miserable lives of exile and statelessness, diaspora Palestinians are still energetically engaged by the problems of their collective destiny, and everyone that I know is always trying somehow to advance the cause. Only a miniscule fraction of this energy has ever found its way into the Palestinian Authority, which except for the highly ambivalent figure of Arafat has remained strangely marginal to the common fate. According to recent polls, Fatah and Hamas between them have the support of roughly 45 per cent of the Palestinian electorate, with the remaining 55 per cent evolving quite different, much more hopeful-looking political formations.
One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached myself to it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat’s old (rather than young) Fatah activists. It’s been called the National Political Initiative (NPI) and its main figure is Mustafa Barghouti, a Moscow- trained physician, whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief Committee, which has brought health care to more than 100,000 rural Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghouti is a quiet- spoken organiser and leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and organisation of note behind a political programme that promises social reform as well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional rhetoric, Barghouti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practices the pluralism and co-existence it preaches. NPI does not throw up its hands at the directionless militarisation of the Intifada. It offers training programmes for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that this answers to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI which is about to become a recognised political party, seeks to mobilise Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections — authentic elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen.
The vision here isn’t a manufactured provisional state on 40 per cent of the land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by Israel, but a sovereign territory liberated from military occupation by mass action involving Arabs and Jews wherever possible. Because NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement, reform and democracy have become part of its everyday practice. Many hundreds of Palestine’s most notable activists and independents have already signed up, and organisational meetings have already been held, with many more planned abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible difficulties of getting around Israel’s restrictions on freedom of movement. It is some solace to think that, while formal negotiations and discussions go on, a host of informal, un-coopted alternatives exist, of which NPI and a growing international solidarity campaign are now the main components. —Al Ahram