The organizers could sense something was wrong about half an hour before the conference began last Wednesday morning.
About 60 people had been invited to what was termed a "national conference" (as opposed to a "popular" one, open to all ). But the hall in the Protestant Club in downtown Ramallah began to fill with hundreds of young men of similar appearance - well-developed muscles, civilian clothes and stern facial expressions. Some held what appeared to be rolled-up posters. They did not exactly look like senior PLO activists who oppose direct negotiations under American and Israeli pressure.
Just to make sure, one conference organizer called another who had not yet arrived and asked, "What time did we call the conference for? The hall is packed." Another PLO veteran said to a friend, "They have come to cause trouble."
Immediately after the first speaker, Dr. Mamdouh Al Aker, opened by saying "In the name of God the merciful," the muscled visitors began to whistle and shout, "With our blood and our souls, we will redeem you, Abu Mazen" - a reference to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Then they unfurled their signs, which proved to be photos of the candidate for redemption. Al Aker, who heads the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights and was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid peace talks, was unable to speak another word.
One of the conference organizers called over the microphone for "a moment of silence in memory of those who gave their lives for the Palestinian people and the Arab nation." A man sitting in the front row, older than the muscle men, rose and signaled with his hand, and the uninvited guests fell silent. Afterward, the 400 young men (according to the conference organizers' estimate ) began shouting and whistling again.
After some deliberations, the organizers decided to hold a press conference in the offices of the local television station, Watan, and used the walk there as an impromptu protest march against the conference's disruption. But once they were outside, thugs grabbed cameras, beat the Watan photographer and prevented people from being interviewed (for example, by pushing photos of Abbas between the interviewee's and the camera ). The police intervened, voices got louder and a fistfight nearly began. Eventually, everyone dispersed, but the event has been the talk of Ramallah ever since.
An important figure among the conference organizers ran to Abbas' office. "Have you gone mad?" he asked.
Later, spokesmen for the security services and the president's office insisted that they had no idea who the 400 were or who sent them, that they had no connection to the disruptive demonstrators and that they respect freedom of speech. They also charged that an illegal demonstration had taken place outside the hall, that internal divisions had erupted among the conference participants and that this is what caused the uproar. A statement to this effect was released by Abbas' office, which added that an investigative committee would be formed to determine how this situation arose.
But conference participants are convinced that those who took over the hall belonged to the Palestinian General Intelligence Service (the Mukhabarat ), along with a few people from the Preventive Security Service. Some recognized faces and recalled names, others had studied with some of the intruders, and some even recognized the commanders. One person identified the group as the newest class of Mukhabarat recruits, who had just finished training.
"I was against the action, but these were the orders I received," one of them whispered to an acquaintance. It was clear they had been instructed not to beat the conference participants.
The conference organizers have no doubts that the order to disrupt the event came from Abbas' office. But Abbas insisted that he has no idea who gave the order. "I don't know which is worse," said one participant, "that he gave the order or that it was given behind his back, by one of his purported well-wishers."
Fatah activists expressed their disgust in private conversations, but the organization did not release an official condemnation, perhaps to avoid strengthening the impression that the one who gave the order to disrupt the conference saw himself as defending Fatah's interests. Similarly, PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned what happened in a closed meeting, but preferred not to speak publicly.
"This is the path to a fascist regime," Dr. Al Aker, who is known for his restrained language, reportedly told Fayyad.
The planners of the foiled conference represent a relatively new and somewhat surprising coalition. They include members of groups on the left of the Palestinian political map - the Democratic Front and the Popular Front, the Peoples' Party (formerly the Communist Party ) and National Initiative (formed by former members of the Peoples' Party and the Popular Front ) - but also a group of independents, headed by tycoon Munib al-Masri, that has been very active in efforts to reconcile Ramallah with the Hamas government in Gaza (via long lunches in Damascus, for example ). This new coalition has previously organized protests against the decision by Fayyad's government (which succumbed to pressure from Fatah ) to postpone local elections "to an unspecified later date."
In the weeks leading up to the decision to resume direct negotiations with Israel, the coalition got about 700 well-known public figures to sign a petition against any negotiations that are not bound by international decisions. Negotiations under the current conditions will cause serious damage and are likely to lead to a worse failure than that of Camp David in 2000, the petition warned.
According to the signatories, Palestinian society must invest its energies today in repairing internal Palestinian political divisions. It can and must rely on international popular support for securing Palestinian rights, they asserted, and it can and must stand up to the pressures being exerted on it. They also said the vote by the PLO's executive to resume direct talks did not pass with the required majority.
The conference organizers have already notified the police that this Wednesday, they will hold a demonstration in downtown Ramallah. But meanwhile, the disruption of last week's meeting has only served to amplify the organizers' message. Who would even have known about their conference, were it not for the 400 muscle men and the anonymous person who sent them?
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