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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - December 27, 2005

What has gone wrong (with Palestinian elections), and what issues are at stake? Q. ...why is it seemingly so easy for suicide bombers to pass through the West Bank security fence?

Q. With Hamas seemingly poised to win, Fateh split into two competing lists, and increasing talk of a postponement, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council are looking like either a fiasco or a disaster--or both. What has gone wrong, and what issues are at stake?

A. At the regional strategic level, the basic problem is that in recent years experiments in liberalized representative democracy in Arab countries have consistently led to an increase in power by Islamists. This has been the case in Morocco and Kuwait and, most recently, in Iraq. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood gained 20 percent of the parliament despite heavy (and illegal) constraints imposed by the Mubarrak regime. Thus the prospect that Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, will either rise to power in the Palestinian elections on January 25 or will come close is fully consistent with the regional trend. The Bush administration's campaign to encourage democratic elections in the Arab world is also Islamizing it.

The Islamists gain votes because they represent a popular wave that is sweeping many parts of the Muslim world. In Palestine they also represent a more efficient and far less corrupt alternative to Fateh, the mainstream movement founded by Yasser Arafat and currently led by President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). In the Palestinian case Israel, too, is responsible, insofar as it helped create Hamas (as a counterweight to Fateh) back in the late 1980s, and its initial response to the intifada that broke out in late 2000 was to decimate the Palestinian security forces loyal to Fateh, thereby creating a vacuum that Hamas has filled very effectively. Moreover, by rejecting the negotiating track with Abu Mazen and offering few if any confidence-building gestures, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon has weakened the Palestinian leader and damaged his credibility with his constituency.

Nevertheless, Israel is not responsible for the widespread Palestinian corruption that has hurt Fateh, most recently in local municipal elections swept by Hamas. Nor can it be blamed for the recent split in the Fateh electoral list that pits the old guard of formerly Tunis-based exiles cultivated by Arafat against the younger "insider" generation led by the jailed Marwan Barghouti. This weakens the Fateh "ticket" even further, to the benefit of Hamas. Nor, for that matter, is it Israel's fault that Abu Mazen is universally judged--by American, EU and Arab officials who try to work with him--to be an ineffective leader.

How strong is Hamas, and how weak Fateh? Polls and assessments by Palestinian political insiders vary widely. Thus, for example, Hamas gained 32% of the vote (vs. 50% for Fateh) in an opinion poll administered on December 6-8 by the capable Khalil Shikaki. A week later, Hamas scored 41% (21% for Fateh) in an exit poll Shikaki carried out at polling places for the Dec. 15 local elections dominated by Hamas. Obviously, the pollsters are having difficulty predicting an election in which half the council is elected on national lists and half on local lists. One way or another, it is now impossible to discount an out-and-out Hamas majority on January 25.

The threat of a Hamas victory and the disarray within Fateh have produced a Palestinian electoral situation characterized by considerable uncertainty. There are many questions at stake, but few answers:

* First and foremost, will the vote take place at all on January 25? Abu Mazen is committed to elections and is under heavy American, EU and Egyptian pressure to proceed. But Palestinians afraid of a Hamas victory are encouraging him to find an excuse to postpone the elections, in the hope that Fateh will rally its political forces in the interim.

* Secondly, will the Sharon government prevent or obstruct the vote in Jerusalem? Sharon has threatened to do so, in response to Hamas' candidacy, citing that movement's armed militia and terrorists and its covenant, a violent anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli document. The US is pressuring Sharon to back off. Some Palestinians actually want him to persist, thereby giving Abu Mazen an excuse for postponing the elections. Hamas, smelling an electoral triumph and seeking to hold Abu Mazen to his electoral commitment, has responded to this ploy by agreeing to elections even without Jerusalem.

* But does Hamas really want to win these elections? That would obligate it to negotiate with Israel, something it claims it does not want to do, and to meet western standards for receiving aid (i.e., disbanding its armed units and abandoning terrorism, neither of which it agrees to do at this point). Some observers believe Hamas wants to win a large enough percentage of the vote to influence policy, but without forming the next Palestinian government. Were Hamas to win, it would be the first electoral victory for the Muslim Brotherhood anywhere in the Middle East.

* Before Hamas deals with an electoral victory or postponement of elections, it must decide what to do on January 1, when the current "pause" (tahidiya) or ceasefire negotiated nearly a year ago in Egypt expires. Exile Hamas leaders in Damascus have stated that Hamas will not renew the ceasefire; local leaders in Gaza, who have maintained a remarkable discipline among armed Hamas units in respecting the ceasefire (something Abu Mazen seems incapable of doing with dissident Fateh groups and gangs), advocate continuing the ceasefire at least until elections. This reflects an astute reading of Palestinian opinion polls, in which a large majority consistently favors refraining from violence. It appears likely to be the course chosen by Hamas for the coming weeks at least.

*Will Fateh succeed at least in coordinating between its two rival lists, thereby reducing electoral damage? An agreement has reportedly been worked out, whereby the Barghouti-led younger activists (running under the banner of "al-Mustaqbal", meaning the future) will run on the Fateh national list, which will elect half the 132 council members, and the older generation, the "statues" (a derogatory Palestinian term) will have to compete at the district level, where locals vote for individuals according to the number of seats allocated for each region, and where their chances of beating younger independents and impressive academics and professionals recruited by Hamas are reduced.

If this agreement holds, it constitutes a victory for the younger generation of Fateh leaders. Its initial lead in internal Fateh primaries had earlier caused the old guard to pressure Abu Mazen to ignore the outcome in composing the Fateh electoral list, thereby provoking internal violence that sabotaged additional primary elections and bringing about the advent of Mustaqbal. An alternative compromise that has also been mentioned will merge the two lists, with Mustaqbal predominant, reflecting its greater popularity compared to the old guard. The defeat of the "statues" under a compromise arrangement was driven home by the announcement of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alla), a representative of the older exile generation, that he was pulling out of the race.

* Finally, one additional interesting feature of these elections is the proliferation, on the Fateh lists as well as the Hamas list, of names of men either recently released from Israeli jails, or, like Barghouti, still serving time. The Hamas list even features Miriam Farhat, the proud mother of a 17 year old suicide bomber and two additional sons killed in the conflict. On the one hand, these people are local heroes, hence political assets. On the other, the next Legislative Council promises to be notable for the empty chairs of elected members who cannot take up their positions because they are in Israeli jails, alongside the membership of others who have absolutely no qualification for office beyond having served time in Israeli jails or given birth to "martyrs". A few lists, like the independent Freedom movement led by outgoing Finance Minister Salaam Fayad, offer higher quality candidates. Assuming elections are held on time, will voters prefer them? The polls indicate that Fayad and other independents and small party lists will receive relatively few votes, at least at the national level.

How will the Sharon government (serving and future) deal with a Hamas victory or even a strong showing by Hamas? That is the topic for a future Q and A.

Q. Based on what we know about the recent Netanya suicide bombing and many others before it, why is it seemingly so easy for suicide bombers to pass through the West Bank security fence?

A. Basically, they don't pass through it, or even over or under it, but around it or through official crossing points. Thus far there is no recorded case of a terrorist or anyone else actually traversing the fence where it has been completed.

In this regard, there are two problems with the fence. The first is that it is indeed far from complete. The Sharon government's pledge to finish building the nearly 700 km.-long fence by the end of 2005 has not been honored; only about half is complete, with the entire Jerusalem corridor featuring bits and pieces of fence that can easily be circumnavigated by a determined terrorist or illegal worker or migrant. The reason for the delay is only partly budgetary; the main problem has been the government's drive to include West Bank settlements near the green line and near Jerusalem inside the fence. This has sparked endless appeals to the High Court of Justice (by Palestinians and Israelis alike) that delay fence-building and cause already constructed sections to be dismantled and moved. Had the government undertaken to put the fence on the green line it could have been completed by now, thereby ensuring a far greater level of safety for Israelis from suicide bombers.

The fence encircling the southern half of the West Bank, the Judea region, is, incidentally, planned to be on or very near the green line in most sectors, reflecting the impact of international and local Israeli criticism and court rulings. But because priority has been given to parts of the West Bank near Israel's main population centers further north, and because in so many of these sectors the fence is bogged down in litigation, the southern sector is lagging. Beersheva has paid the price; suicide bombers involved in attacks there in the last year or two simply walked or drove across the green line in the Judean Desert.

Recent revelations from a Shabak (GSS) investigation indicate that the Hadera suicide bomber (two months before the recent Netanya bombing) drove from the northern West Bank to Jerusalem, where he entered Israel at a point not yet fenced, then was driven back north to Hadera, a few miles from his point of departure. The entire trip took a couple of hours instead of the minutes it would have taken prior to construction of the fence, and offered a graphic and deadly illustration of the rationale for completing the security fence with haste.

But not all recent suicide bombers have crossed into Israel in areas not yet fenced. Some were driven through checkpoints at official passages by Israelis, both Arabs and Jews.
Because many of the West Bank settlements lie beyond the fence (even "consensus" settlements like Ariel are still beyond the fence), their residents drive back and forth every day to jobs and schools inside Israel. This means that thousands of settler or settler-related cars with Israeli license plates traverse the official checkpoints along the fence every day, entering and exiting the West Bank. IDF security guards at the crossings check these cars superficially, at most coaxing a word or two out of the driver to ascertain his/her Israeli (rather than Arab) accent.

In some places the fence divides Arab villages on both sides of the green line, or (where it deviates from the green line) separates Palestinian farmers from their fields and olive groves. A variety of permits allow these people limited passage at designated crossings in order to pursue their livelihoods and maintain families separated by the fence.

Not all Israelis, whether Jews and Arabs, who drive or walk through all these checkpoints and crossings are honest, law-abiding citizens. Palestinians have paid to be smuggled into Israel in Israeli cars by Israeli drivers, largely for purposes of illegal employment, with the odd terrorist masquerading as a day-jobber occasionally included. A number of these drivers have been arrested and prosecuted. In the more controversial cases, the Israel Police have demanded that Israeli Jewish taxi drivers check IDs of Arabs asking to be transported across the lines, then have prosecuted drivers whose passengers turned out to have forged IDs that only the trained eye of a specialist could detect.

There are two dynamics at work here. On the one hand, if there were no settlements beyond the fence and the route of the fence approximated the green line, the official crossings could be turned into fully controlled border transit points where every traveler is thoroughly checked. This is the Israeli intent now concerning the Gaza-Israel crossings as well as West Bank-Israel crossings not frequented by settlers, e.g., in northern Samaria where four settlements were recently evacuated and the fence abuts the green line.

The issue here is political, and the problem will only be resolved when the fence is completed and if and when the settlements beyond it are removed. At that point it will be far more difficult for terrorists to traverse the fence--but not impossible: in a few isolated incidents, terrorists from Gaza have succeeded in entering Israel concealed in containers or trucks carrying goods, using green line crossings not frequented by settlers (even before the Gaza settlers were removed). Lately, attempts have been made to tunnel under the fence in the sandy earth surrounding Gaza.

On the other hand, as long as Palestinians suffer from economic hardship, some will be desperate enough to exploit any option to sneak through the fence crossings to look for work, and will pay large sums to unscrupulous Israeli drivers. This is a classic "north-south" problem similar to the situation along the US-Mexico border--with the caveat that, in the Israel-Palestine case, terrorists will also continue to take advantage of this opportunity. It can only be dealt with by developing the Palestinian economy and/or allowing large numbers of Palestinians to work in Israel and commute daily in an orderly, licensed manner.

Since the current trend of "separation" and unilateralism precludes encouraging Palestinian commuter workers--the Gaza disengagement plan calls for all Palestinian labor in Israel to be phased out by 2008--and bearing in mind that the Palestinian Authority has to create 37,000 jobs a year merely in order to keep up with population growth and prevent its current huge unemployment figures from growing, the fence is liable to have the inadvertent effect of exacerbating economically-based tensions inside Palestine, even as it improves Israel's security situation.