A man with flowing white hair appeared on the large screen in the Red Crescent Society building in El Bireh in the West Bank. It was hard to catch the name of the man, who was speaking in the Red Crescent building in the Gaza Strip. The technique of video conferencing between Gaza and the West Bank, as the sole alternative to the forbidden hour-and-a-half trip, has improved greatly over the past 20 years – as the blockade has tightened on the coastal enclave and amid a drastic drop in the number of people authorized to leave it.
This is how the conference of the Masarat center for policy research and strategic studies was carried out without any technical disruptions. Each panel had speakers in El Bireh and Gaza, and at the end of every discussion, people in the audience could make comments, from both places. Two moderators ran the panels, one on each screen. But sometimes you could hear voices from the other hall, or the other microphone was left on and a few words that you were meant to hear got swallowed up – like the name of the man with the mane of white hair.
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He voiced his comments after the discussion entitled “The Palestinian Authority: Between survival and collapse.” From the podium he said with great emotion: “We analyze and analyze the situation, but on the ground there is no change. The Palestinian people want democracy. I advise Masarat to organize a conference on building democracy in the Palestinian homeland. If there is no democracy, there is no point in anything. We must concentrate on building democracy, to stand against those who don’t want democracy, who control everything.”
The pain could be heard in his voice. It was clear he didn’t distinguish between Hamas rule and Fatah rule when he said “those who don’t want democracy.” A few people in the hall on the screen applauded, but regrettably his time ran out.
The regular opinion polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, headed by Khalil Shikaki, include a question on the degree of fear to speak out against the two regimes. In a poll released this week, 40 percent of respondents in the West Bank answered that they could criticize the PA without fear, while 57 percent said they couldn’t. The latest figures for Gaza are 44 percent and 52 percent, respectively.
Conferences and discussions on current events held every month in various cities – exposed to the suspicious eyes and vengeful arm of the authorities – stretch the boundaries of boldness and show that the oral discourse contains more internal criticism and provides a wider range of opinions than the Palestinian media allows.
This openness highlights the conformity and obedience enforced by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his Fatah party. “It’s difficult to say it, but the authority is tyrannical and a contractor of the occupation,” one speaker said. His words raised no protest from the audience.
Young people who post similar statements on Facebook are subject to harassment and arrest by the Palestinian security forces. So Hamas supporters, with the exception of those in the universities, steer clear of public places and public debates. Thus a small demonstration outside the home of a senior Hamas official in administrative detention – detention without trial – this week was surprising. The protest was in support of Hassan Yousef following a report that Israel’s Channel 12 would broadcast an interview in which his son Suheib blasts his father’s organization.
Some protesters carried posters saying “we are all your sons.” Qassam, son of imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, posted on Facebook his own words of support for Yousef, who served time with Barghouti in prison.
“The correct diagnosis of every disease is the key to the correct cure,” said Dr. Mamdouh al-Aker, a heart surgeon and political and social activist, at the opening of the Masarat conference last Saturday and Sunday. This was the center’s eighth annual conference, and the organizers took pains to include women and relatively young people among the speakers.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that the challenges we Palestinians face are the most dangerous since the Zionist project began, as part of the phenomenon of settlement colonialism,” Aker said.
The “Zionist leadership,” he said, now sees an opportunity to eliminate the Palestinian cause: The White House is siding with the Israeli right, while the Arab world is exhausted and so divided that the Gulf states are forming a front with Israel against Iran, and the Palestinians are at their lowest point of weakness and internal crisis.
After decades in which the Palestinian cause was a global political issue, it has become a humanitarian case, said Mouin Rabbani in another panel discussing regional and global changes. The danger that Israel will carry out a mass expulsion was mentioned several times at the conference.
The sense of urgency and awareness of this nadir in Palestinian history seemed to contradict the relaxed atmosphere at the event, which brought together academics, public sector employees and members of nongovernmental organizations and political groups.
The older people in the audience, a few dozen – whether they were once in exile or not, whether refugees or the lucky ones whose families weren’t uprooted from their homes – were raised in the PLO and saw it as a political home and the identity framework of all Palestinians. They speak with nostalgia of a culture of diverse opinions and arguments that no longer exists or is not allowed today in the organization that has turned – since the Oslo process of the ‘90s – into an empty shell.
Sharp contradictions are part of the Palestinian routine, part of the ostensible normalcy conveyed by the bustling cities and festivals that take place every summer. A week ago a music festival ended in Ramallah, followed immediately by the Palestine International Festival for Dance and Music, which has been held since 1993 and includes now not only cities in the West Bank but also in Gaza and Israel.
The Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah is burning, while Israel is set to demolish an entire neighborhood in that city – Wadi al-Hummus – and the Bedouin village Umm al-Khair in the southern West Bank. The helplessness in Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah because of Israel’s policies won’t recede whether music festival take place or not.
Israeli troops next door
The spacious Red Crescent Society building in El Bireh lies next to the small Amari refugee camp. Its upper stories overlook a dense block of concrete buildings, with junk on the rooftops – some of them from corrugated tin – and narrow alleys. It’s hard to imagine that before it was set up as an encampment in 1949, this place was a riverbed abundant with water, olive and fig trees, and grapevines.
Three days before the conference, early in the morning, Israeli troops burst into the camp. Youngsters threw stones, and soldiers fired tear gas and stun grenades, whose explosions echoed all the way to the center of Ramallah. According to one report, the soldiers also fired rubber-coated bullets. Moments of routine fear that seem negligible and aren’t talked about – because no one was wounded or arrested.
Masarat’s starting point is that one must not surrender or be deterministic – that is, one must not act only according to the rules set by Israel and the United States. The message of Masarat’s conferences is that without internal change it won’t be possible to deal with the Israeli threat to Palestinian existence. Change means making a real effort to end the institutional and political divide between Gaza and the West Bank.
Indeed, since its establishment, Masarat, one of whose founders is Hani al-Masri, has been calling, like Cato the Elder, to end the destructive split. It has held conferences locally and abroad for this purpose.
Necessary and possible changes, Masarat says, are also renewing the democratic processes of free elections – for the PA’s parliament and presidency, PLO institutions and affiliated organizations. These aren’t revolutionary statements, nor are they exclusive to the Masarat center. But it’s important to repeat them so that people don’t get used to the state of regime-dictated political paralysis.
The optimism accompanying Masarat’s obvious statements contradicts the pessimism in the polls that Shikaki releases every three months. Exactly one-third of the people interviewed in the poll released this week said they were optimistic about the chances of internal Palestinian reconciliation, while 63 percent were pessimistic. Seventy-one percent want the elections for the parliament and presidency to be held simultaneously (Abbas is only talking about elections to the parliament). But only 41 percent expect any election to be held in the near future, compared with the 47 percent who believe that no election will take place.
Shikaki, who has been conducting these surveys for 26 years, lowered expectations at the beginning of the conference’s second day. The two Palestinian regimes, each in its own territory and with its own backbone party, won’t give up the only ruling power they have. In other words, he said, it’s hard to imagine a reconciliation. A popular unarmed struggle is desirable but hard to imagine because for that a trusted leadership is required. And there is none.
But nobody, he said, wants the PA to collapse due to an inability to function – in contrast to the possibility of a planned dissolution and the political leadership’s departure from the West Bank. The 160,000 people on the PA’s payroll – who now receive only half of their salary – aren’t craving for the authority’s fall. Nor is the wider public, which receives health and education services and internal security from the PA, or the political party running the PA, Fatah, or for that matter its rival in Gaza, Hamas.
Meanwhile, the wider world wants to keep the PA intact because it helps preserve regional stability. Israel also doesn’t want the PA to collapse; it wants the PA to continue security coordination, maintain its control of arms, and block acts of armed resistance.
Perhaps the people will turn against the PA, Shikaki said, if and when the PA is no longer able to pay wages and provide services. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said Abbas’ refusal to take from Israel the tax and customs money it owes the PA – which the PA isn’t accepting because Israel deducts the portion equivalent to the PA’s allowances for prisoners and their families – could lead to the authority’s collapse. But despite the risk of collapse, 62 percent supported Abbas’ refusal, as most of them supported the boycott of the conference in Bahrain organized by Jared Kushner.
When asked to choose between economic prosperity and independence, 15 percent of the respondents chose prosperity and 83 percent independence.
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