Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Poisoned Chalice

There will be no referendum on the Prisoners' Document, writes Azmi Bishara. The only options are for the Palestinian factions to agree, or else come to blows

Israel kicked off the world cup by killing an entire family in Gaza, and it hasn't taken a break in its systematic bombardment and assassination of Palestinians since the beginning of the season.

But then this is the season when people seem to lose their minds as a matter of course. Even if you're blasé you have to try to look enthusiastic so as not to appear out of touch. You don't want to come across as stiff or, if you are in politics, indifferent to the issues that people are talking about. But if you are a fan, then you have to go overboard. You have to be wild -- in the socially accepted sense, of course, when people smile and say with a mixture of admiration and jest, "He's gone off his head!"

If ordinary people are content with sticking the national flag on their car aerial, the true football fan must paint his whole car the colours of the national flag, deck himself out in the same colours and parade at the head of his family in a demonstration that is neither for or against anything.

A street urchins' game has become an international carnival of consumerism. A relatively modest international event has become a global industry dependant on levity, frivolity and just plain mental paralysis, a pretext of escaping the cares of life. A new consumerist religion has swept the world, its rituals practiced in public squares. Most of its emblems and talismans -- the flags, masks and scarves -- are made in China, of course. The consumer frenzy, the desire to keep up with the Joneses, the fear of standing outside the crowd, have drawn people who had never before been interested in football into the circle of hysterical screaming that sounds as if someone has fallen off a building.

But Mondialism is not as universal a religion as it might appear. In spite of the ubiquitous display of its embroidered flags on rooftops, in windows and kiosks, people have not substituted it for their national flag, contrary to the claims of some political economists who are praying for a cult of universal consumerism stemming from a transnational human identity. Instead, the flags, scarves and masks are just more of the consumerist flotsam and jetsam that pollute every environment. No holiday is complete anymore without the firecrackers, gadgets and trinkets for which people empty their pockets in order to win popularity. Meanwhile, any notion of a supranational feeling is gainsaid when the crowds part and rally behind different flags on the basis of parochial calculations, and when local politicians hop on board for a cheap ride and hand out little gifts and awards to fellow passengers in order to rally support.

The game of the poor is no longer for the poor. It has become a billion dollar enterprise that is funded by commercials, that is immensely profitable, that poor people, now, have to pay to watch. The rites and rituals of Mondialism are lyrical. The sessions of collective spectatorship are harmless and even heartwarming, that is until the match is over and those celebrating victory start parading through the streets blaring car horns in the middle of the night.

And as if all this noise and commotion was not enough to distract attention from the enormous crime that epitomises the very nature of the occupation, internal Palestinian dissension had to erupt. It is not difficult to see how the situation could flare so spontaneously out of control, as two rival factions set upon each other, sucking a good many ordinary people into the violence, and as the so-called activists from one side create situations that force their leaders to take actions that compel the activists on the other to retaliate. Such are the volatile dynamics of the ghetto -- the misery-torn, poverty-stricken camps (or cities) in which most Palestinians live.

Israel commits its crimes -- the random bombardment of residential areas that kill entire families, an economic blockade intended to break the will of the people and make them rue the day they voted for the "wrong" candidates, arbitrary acts of brutal collective punishment and vengeful violence perpetrated against civilians -- in the ghettos. Israel created these ghettos; it created the urban, social and economic environment that led its inhabitants to make the political choices that Israel now punishes them for.

Gaza wasn't always like that. There was a time when it was a pleasant, even relatively affluent seaside city. After 1948, however, it was turned into an enormous refugee camp, to which fled the inhabitants of most of the southern Palestinian coastal cities. Following the occupation in 1967 Israeli authorities helped turn it from a refugee camp into a complex of slums. They became a source of cheap labour for the Gush Dan area around Tel Aviv and served as a consumer outlet for Israeli goods. Any independent, or even semi- independent, economic activity that had existed was eliminated in the process of restructuring and acclimatising these quarters to a life of total dependency on Israeli labour demand and market supply. Simultaneously, with no central planning authority around, living conditions deteriorated even further under the twin pressures of random urban sprawl and overcrowding. Gaza, which had supplied the Palestinian national liberation movement with huge numbers of its rank and file, was transformed into an enormous camp with a single door that could be slammed shut during an Intifada. Gaza, because of its geography, lends itself to collective punishment and to being the largest prison in the world.

A huge penal colony, a collection of overcrowded slums, a cesspool of poverty and frustration ready to explode at any minute because there is no hope -- that is Gaza. It is there in front of us for anyone to diagnose or analyse. But, Israel, above all, has no right to pass judgment or complain about the way the denizens of Gaza behave. Israel is the curse of Gaza; it made Gaza what it is today.

And now, Israel wants to do the same with the rest of the occupied territories. It won't be long before Hebron, Nablus, the suburbs of Jerusalem -- Abu Dis, Al-Izriya, Al-Ram, and the areas around the separating wall are transformed into a cluster of mini-Gazas. Israel wants the Palestinians in a situation based on plans drawn up long ago and now being put into effect. Unilateral disengagement from Gaza was only phase one in these plans, the first in Israel turning its back on what it created. Little wonder the Qassam missiles are like shots in the Israeli backside. Since disengagement Israel has been reminded that it can't turn Gaza into prison and then turn its back on it without getting stung in return. Gaza wants to prove that Israel can't simply wash its hands of its problems in Gaza while leaving Gaza's problems unsolved.

In tandem with its disengagement from Gaza Israel continued with the construction of the brutal separating wall that is snaking through the West Bank and around Jerusalem. The purpose of this wall is to dissect the West Bank into sectors, each of which will then suffer the same fate as Gaza: entrances that can be clanged shut, overcrowding, no horizons for development.

Although this is what Israel has in store for the West Bank, it would much prefer to pass it all off in the guise of a settlement agreement. That's why it's looking for a reliable party to act as guard and warden and superintendent of the bare means of subsistence. That party will be called a government, and the prison it is to oversee will be called a state. But, treaty or not, Israel is determined to create these ghettos and then leave. Some Palestinian politicians are trying to take advantage of this dilemma and claim that they hope to preempt Israeli designs by entering into negotiations over a settlement with Israel. Better something than nothing, they say. Better to haggle for the best deal possible than let Israel impose a solution unilaterally. This attitude will not lead to a better bargain; indeed, it is a recipe for defeat because ultimately it hands Israel control of the Palestinians' internal politics, vulnerable to the volatile dynamic generated by deprivation.

To turn against the Palestinian government on the grounds that it should make concessions, such as recognising Israel, in exchange for food is a dangerous trend. Europe has promised to lift the blockade if such concessions are forthcoming, but they haven't promised to secure reciprocal concessions from Israel. To reproach the Palestinian government, instead of standing with it in a unified front against the blockade, is tantamount to raising a white flag. To maintain that the Palestinians have to reach an agreement with Israel before the latter forges ahead with its own plans is to capitulate to those plans.

This puts the Palestinian-Palestinian dispute in an entirely different light. The game now is that whoever wants to show that they can sign an agreement with Israel, or get Israel to negotiate, must remove the obstacle that stands in the way, ie the popularly elected Palestinian government. This flies in the face of the whole rationale of democratic elections and the principle of sovereign, autonomous decision- making. But this is what the escalating campaign surrounding the referendum on the so-called prisoners' document is about, an attempt to reap the "benefits" of the international blockade against the Palestinian people in order to produce a party qualified to negotiate with Israel, after everything that had stood in its way -- from Arafat to the elected government -- has been removed. Obviously, this party will be prepared to be flexible, which is to say to accept Israeli conditions.

The prisoners' document is an excellent conceptual effort and its substance should be considered. However, the assembly of political detainees that produced it, as significant as it was, is not a substitute for political institutions and organisations. What's the point of all those Palestinian political organisations engaged in a dialogue if they are not to be accorded any right to modify this document? The individuals who are treating this document as though it is their private property are not interested in it as a contribution to the political debate but as a tool to achieve their own ends. They do not hold the document sacred. On the contrary, they have reduced it to a weapon to be wielded against political adversaries at home, instead of as the possible basis for an agenda against the real enemy, which was presumably the document's objective. This is why Palestinians are divided right now. They are divided over the referendum as a political ploy, not over the document itself.

If those pushing for a referendum supported the substance of the document, surely they would agree, if one of the dialogue participants asked them to do so, to renounce the Geneva document because it conflicts with the prisoners' document over the right to return. They might also consider renouncing the Roadmap, or at least lodging several reservations against it, as Israel did. After all, the prisoners' document affirms the Palestinians' right to resist, whereas the Roadmap insists that the PA has to dismantle the infrastructure of "terrorism". Yet I doubt they would agree to do this. Consistency is not what interests in them. Even less are they concerned with the principles contained in the prisoners' document, principles they have already compromised. What concerns them is getting Hamas to compromise, too, to step in line with the document by recognising Israel in return for nothing, and by acknowledging international legitimacy.

But international legitimacy, certainly in the way it is being bandied about, is a very nebulous concept. It seems to cover every decision taken by the Quartet, for example. International law, on the other hand, has concrete substance. Every Palestinian party should have the right to insist upon respect for international law and to demand the implementation of UN resolution 194 establishing the Palestinian right of return, the rulings of the International Court of Justice on the separating wall and the countless other UN resolutions that in support of the rights of Palestinians.

Any participants in the Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue sincere in their desire to formulate a common strategy would use rational arguments to persuade other participants of their point of view, as opposed to using the blockade as a pretext to shove opinions down other people's throats. A common strategy is a means to promote common welfare through unification around a set of agreed upon principles. Such a strategy cannot be obtained or sustained through coercion. The very concept of a national unity government imposes not only a ceiling on its constituent members' leeway but a floor beneath which they should not sink.

Hamas cannot run a government under the current circumstances without a platform. But this platform cannot be based on a fiction. Fatah should not try to force Hamas to adhere to the Oslo accords as though they were still alive. Bush's letter of guarantees to Sharon, and Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan, long since put paid to Oslo. All that remains of Oslo is the Palestinian Authority, and this authority consigned its own past to history as soon as Hamas decided to take part in the legislative elections.

As for Hamas, nothing obliges it to recognise this past retroactively. Hamas has every right to reject Oslo and its logic. But Hamas does not have the right to run the PA without a political platform that promotes national unity. Hamas did not win the legislative elections so overwhelmingly as to efface all rivals -- in terms of ballots cast it won perhaps 44 per cent. Nor did Fatah, winning 43 per cent of the votes, come out so badly that it should hide. But the elections were not run on a proportional basis, as a result of which one of the parties swept control of parliament, giving it the right to create a government -- albeit a national unity government -- and to elect a prime minister.

If the parties participating in the dialogue can agree on a common strategy, which should be possible if they are sincere in their intention to form a national unity government, then it will possible to agree a political agenda for that government. A Palestinian consensus will serve as a powerful basis from which to move, on the international front, against the separating wall, against the Olmert plan and against the economic blockade, while on the domestic front it will sustain the resistance against the occupation according to the means and aims agreed upon.

I do not think that the referendum will take place. The Palestinian factions have only two courses of action before them: to come to agreement or to come to blows before the referendum is held. In whichever case there will be no referendum. Naturally, one hopes they agree. They have to agree. This whole business surrounding the referendum is not a game in which we root for opposing teams as they fight to win the world cup. It is about very different types of elimination, and the only cup at the end contains poison.

There will be no referendum on the Prisoners' Document, writes Azmi Bishara.

The only options are for the Palestinian factions to agree, or else come to blows