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Prospect Magazine: "New hope for Palestine?" by Jo-Ann Mort

Jo-Ann Mort, CEO of ChangeCommunications, is an Executive Committee Member of Americans for Peace Now and often writes about Israel and Palestinian issues

14TH AUGUST 2009 -- ISSUE 161

Palestine's warring leaders have long kept their own people under siege--but as Hamas's popularity wanes, there is fresh hope for the peace process

By all accounts the Fatah Party Congress earlier this month--the first in 20 years--was a big success. It showed democracy in action, the type that the White House would no doubt like to see throughout the Arab world, with real debate and clean elections. But it was as much about who was not in the meetings room in Bethlehem on 4th-6th August as it was about those in attendance. And those who were not in attendance are as critical to Fatah's success--and that of the Palestinian nationalist camp that Fatah represents--as those who were.

Among the victors was Marwan Barghouti, a man who was calling the shots as the leader of Young Fatah, from an Israeli prison where he is serving five consecutive life terms for his leadership role in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the second intifada. Barghouti came third in the central committee voting, but first among the "Young Guard," Fatah members now in their forties and fifties. This group, who earned their street credibility through two intifadas and myriad terms in Israeli prison, is also seen as more reform and grassroots oriented than the elder Fatah leaders around Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Today, this faction also includes supporters among Palestinian business leaders with MBAs, and intellectuals from the universities.

A shrewd and charismatic leader, Barghouti has already declared his intention to run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority if elections are held as scheduled in 2010, whether he is in prison or not. His name reportedly is top on the list for a potential prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas since 2006. "Fatah needs a leader, and according to all the polls and information that we have, Marwan is the leader of the nationalist camp," Knesset member and leader of the left-wing Meretz Party Haim Oron told me when I visited him recently in his Tel Aviv office. Oron visits Barghouti in prison on a regular basis and has good ties too with Barghouti's allies in the West Bank, including Qadora Fares, a Young Guard leader seen as Barghouti's eyes and ears outside of prison. Oron is one of several Knesset members who have called for Barghouti's release, including former defence minister Ben Eliezer and several members from the Kadima party.

"From [Barghouti's] point of view, a two-state solution, finishing the conflict with Israel and an existing liberal state has always been his goal. Every Palestinian leader who speaks about a peace agreement knows more or less the parameters of the deal," Oron explained. Fares, who talked to me just prior to the Fatah Congress from his office in Ramallah where he heads an NGO for prisoners' families, puts it this way: "If Marwan is out of prison, in one year we can find a new atmosphere. We need a national leader. Arafat was important because he recognised the other factions. We have movement leaders now. Marwan can bring together all the factions and create a new structure and national identity that includes part of Hamas, the big groups, the intellectuals and the secular."

A June 2009 poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre and the Fredrich Ebert Stiftung Centre found that Fatah's popularity among Palestinians has risen to 34.9 per cent compared with 26 per cent in January 2009. Hamas's popularity suffered a setback for the same period: their support ratio declined from 27.7 per cent to 18.8 per cent.

One clear sign of the public's growing impatience with Hamas is a play written by a knowncritic of Hamas that ran for ten days in July in downtown Gaza City and which openly criticised the Hamas strategy of lobbing rockets into Israel. It even featured women in all the key roles, singing in front of a mixed audience that included Hamas minister--in defiance of strict Muslim custom.

There's no doubt that part of Hamas's plunge is as attributable to the severe damage that Israel wreaked on Gaza during the recent war as well as the Israeli closure of Gaza to people or goods. Hamas has secured quiet inside Gaza, with no visible evidence of roving gangs or rival extremist movements, but the situation has made the Gaza Strip into a land mass without a functioning economy, at the same time that the West Bank economy is projected to grow by 7 per cent (though the Hamas Culture Minister, Osama Alisawi called the West Bank's growth "a false improvement," when I met him at the end of July). The Hamas leadership is not suffering due to the closure of Gaza--the people of Gaza are. The closure, meant to isolate Hamas, has only strengthened Hamas's economic hold on the region through their control of the tunnel commerce, along with other tariffs they slap on the small, but determined, business class. This is a stiff and inhumane price to pay for political change.

Indeed, this economic coercion by Hamas is one of the many ironies of the situation, since one of the reasons that Hamas was voted in over Fatah in the first place in 2006 was the perception--and reality--of Fatah's corruption. And the perception lingers that Hamas leadership is humble. Instead of the beachfront villas of the old guard Fatah leaders that were looted by Hamas after what Fatah calls 'the bloody coup" of 2007, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya still lives in his home in the Beach refugee camp, a dismal, dense neighborhood, along with 63,000 other Gazan residents.

"We are telling the people how to work through the siege--that even the Prophet Mohammad went through a siege," one senior Hamas leader commented, his armed bodyguard waiting outside his office as I sat between his desk and a football match on TV along with two other reporters. He told us, too, that Hamas "ensured salaries and paid them even during the war," but failed to mention that the money for those salaries came from Prime Minister Fayyad's Fatah government in Ramallah. He also claimed that Hamas was "regulating businessmen not to hoard" during the siege, but if you talk to businesspeople, the truth is that Hamas demands a tax paid to them outside of whatever taxes lawfully need to be paid to Ramallah.

Still, even with Fatah's image improved and their polling numbers up, the issue of Palestinian unity looms as large--if not larger--as the need to renew serious peace negotiations with the Israelis. That fact was brought home by the Hamas leadership, which refused to let any of the 470 Fatah delegates from Gaza leave the Strip for the convention. A few managed to sneak out and the rest took part by telephone.

Whatever happens, some form of unity is a prerequisite for elections. As one senior Hamas leader put it to me, "If we agree all together, I am okay for a January 2010 election."