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Democracy: In Which You Say What We Want and Do What You’re Told (With Apologies to Dave Barry)

A recent World Bank report observed that the Palestinian economy was in the throes of “one of the deepest recessions in modern history exceeding the scale of economic losses suffered by the U.S. in the Great Depression, or Argentina during the recent financial collapse.” More than one out of three available labor force participants are unemployed. And to keep pace with the expanding available labor force, 30,000 new jobs would have to be created each year. The highest percentage of unemployment is concentrated among youth: 37.2% among 15-19 year olds and 36.3% among 20-24 year olds.

On a macro level, this has resulted in over 54% of the population living in poverty (up from 20% in 1998). Food security has become one of the most pressing issues in Palestinian society. The economic crisis has left all but a few Palestinians, and this is particularly true in Gaza, dependent — to at least some extent — on foreign aid to survive. Food consumption levels have fallen by 25% per capita and 37% of the population has insecure access to food. The United Nations food program serves 220,000 families with almost a quarter of Palestinian children still suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition.

It should be obvious to anyone who has either been to the Occupied Territories or has access to credible information that Palestinian society is currently in an extremely tenuous situation. In addition to the devastating impact of the occupation, the recent Palestinian Legislative Council elections saw the upset victory of Hamas, and what this means for prospects for peace and equally, if not more significantly, for Palestinian civil society is still to be determined.

Like many participants and observers, Grassroots International’s (GRI) Palestinian partners believe that there are multiple causes for the outcome of the elections, and that no single answer adequately captures the reason why we collectively find ourselves at this juncture. During our March 2006 program visit we found that our partners were largely in agreement that even more than a rejection of Fatah (especially for its corruption) and the splitting of the vote between secular parties (aggravated by disgruntled Fatah members running as independents), it was the continuing Israeli occupation and Fatah’s failure to resolve that, and to provide adequate physical and economic security and stability that were the main reasons why many Palestinians voted for Hamas candidates. The turnout saw 76% of eligible voters participating, with less than 45% of the vote going to Hamas. The final results of the legislative elections saw Hamas winning 74 out of the 132 seats, giving them a clear majority. Fatah took 45 seats and independent candidates took 13.

Fatah Corruption

Fatah, the party led for many years by the late president Yassir Arafat, which had formed the administration after winning the last elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (the PLC functions as the Palestinian parliament) had become increasingly corrupt and authoritarian, and lost grassroots contact with its base. Although the term of the Council had ended in 1999 the Fatah-led administration had failed to hold fresh elections, effectively extending its term by seven years until 2006. As Ghada Zughayar, the External Relations Assistant to the General Director of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC — a GRI partner) noted in a position paper circulated by PARC, “the PA [Palestinian Authority, i.e. the government] failed to improve the social and economic situations and at the same time corruption, nepotism and chaos increased in the Palestinian Territories.”

Israeli Unilateralism

On the other side was the growing intransigence and unilateralism of the Israeli government headed, until his recent stroke, by Ariel Sharon. This was exhibited not only by the Gaza disengagement but also by the rapid and illegal construction of the Wall in the West Bank, flouting international law in an attempt to unilaterally redraw Israel’s borders under the guise of security. Additionally, the economic suffocation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) continued through frequent and long closures preventing the movement of Palestinian products and workers into Israel, between the West Bank and Gaza, or abroad. In fact, even humanitarian aid including from the United Nations has been affected.

To date in 2006, the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel (one of the main passages for goods and people) has been closed 60% of the time. In a 2004 report on anticipated effects of the ‘disengagement’ plan on the Gazan economy, the World Bank commented that “Without a major reform of the [Israeli] closure regime, the Palestinian economy will not revive.” The report went on to predict that the Gazan poverty rate would, in fact, climb under the disengagement plan to as high as 72% by 2006 and that unemployment would increase a further 6% during the same time frame.

The Separation Wall, begun by the Israelis in 2002, has had real economic consequences for many West Bank Palestinians. The Wall is actually not built along the Green line (the pre-1967 border) but goes deep into the West Bank in many places. Many farmers have lost access to their lands now separated from their homes by the Wall. City-dwellers, such as those living in Ramallah and working in Jerusalem, have found the Wall, the checkpoints, and the Israeli-only access roads between Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank effectively blocking easy and direct access to their jobs. This economic isolation combined with the ongoing military occupation has made life even more untenable for the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians.

Additionally, the Wall, the access roads, the settlements and planned settlement expansion has divided the West Bank into separate cantons, effectively making a Palestinian state unviable. And any further unilateral Israeli disengagement following the March 2006 Israeli elections would mean increased economic problems for Palestinians in the OPT, as the economies of Israel and the OPT have been intricately intertwined for the last 38 years.

Secular Failure

Most of the secular parties fared poorly in the elections in large part as a result of having lost contact with their base over the years. Many secular political leaders, intellectuals and activists had moved from organizing to administrative positions within the NGO sector. This obviously constrained their playing a leadership role in providing a secular alternative to both Fatah and Hamas. Hamas, which had track record of providing direct services through its affiliated organizations stepped into this vacuum. Not only did it not draw a line between its political and service delivery roles but capitalized on its record and its reputation for being uncorrupt.

GRI’s partners, and many Palestinians, are resolute in their view that the vote is not an endorsement of Hamas and, in fact, while Hamas won a majority of the seats it did not win a majority of the vote. In fact, all of GRI’s partners – particularly the women’s organizations – are extremely concerned about the social and political impact of Hamas’ victory on the future of a secular and democratic Palestinian society and state.

Effects on Palestinian Women

As Zughayar noted that “In light of the elections and the formation of the Cabinet, Palestinians expressed a lot of concerns that Hamas would impose Islamic laws and social codes across the Palestinian Territories. People are afraid that Hamas will impose the hijab on women and gender separation at work, etc. These things might look trivial to some, but definitely reflect people’s legitimate concerns about the future of the fundamental freedoms and rights, which people have striven for…. Dr. Maryam Saleh, Hamas Minister of Women’s Affairs, said at a public meeting in Ramallah on Monday, March 20 that women’s main work is at home. She also added that there is no objection [on the part of Hamas] to giving part of their time to societal charitable work.”

While the general economic instability and political uncertainty has taken its toll on Palestinian communities and families, women, who make up over half the Palestinian population (over 1.8 million), have been the most affected; as Palestinian men continue to dominate leadership and control resources. The majority of poverty cases lie in women-headed households. In one study, 73% of women-headed families were unable to meet their basic needs in food, clothing, education and healthcare. The inability to access basic supplies and services has contributed to the phenomenon, like elsewhere around the globe, of the “feminization of poverty.”

With the detention and death of so many Palestinian men – traditionally the family breadwinners – many women are now responsible for providing for their families despite the disadvantages they face through a combination of laws, high fertility rates, traditional social values and lack of access to schools and workplaces. At the same time, the incidence of physical and emotional violence against women is disturbingly high.

International Reaction

Given the recent elections, the continuing violence, and economic desolation, the Palestinian people are in even more critical need of hope and viable solutions. Instead, aid from Western governments and official agencies is now cut off or drastically reduced. Since the elections, Israel has been withholding the transfer of millions of dollars in customs revenue owed the PA. Canada’s newly elected government was the first to officially announce aid cut-off. The European Union and the United States have also frozen aid to the Palestinian Authority. And the U.S. State Department is currently reviewing how it might channel aid to NGOs, and has forbidden U.S. nationals from doing business with the Authority (with few exceptions). This has created a chilling ripple effect with many international humanitarian aid organizations unsure if they can continue to do their work–afraid that they might be accused of providing “material support” to terrorists by working with the PA–and putting much needed aid on hold.

The cut-off of official aid will undoubtedly exacerbate an already devastated economy, where a third of the population relies on the Authority as an economic lifeline. Even if all official aid is now channeled through NGOs, as seems to be suggested by the U.S. State Dept, it does not address the issue of Israeli closures. Neither does it answer the question of how government employees, a significant percentage of the population, would be paid their salaries and benefits if aid to the Palestinian Authority is stopped.

In the United States, several anti-Palestinian resolutions have been introduced by Members of Congress in the aftermath of the Palestinian elections. The most over-reaching is H.R. 4681, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) on February 1. This resolution goes far beyond reaffirming the current U.S. ban on direct assistance to the Authority. It also calls for many other troubling provisions including restricting U.S. humanitarian aid, designating Palestinian territory as a “terrorist sanctuary” thus triggering restrictions on U.S. exports, prohibiting official Palestinian diplomacy or representation in the United States in a way that is counter-productive to promoting dialogue and a just peace, reducing U.S. dues to the United Nations because some of its bodies advocate for Palestinian human rights, and denying Palestinians the ability to receive assistance through international financial institutions.

Such unconstructive approaches would only perpetuate the cycle of violence, military occupation, and human rights violations rather than promoting dialogue and a just, peaceful resolution to the conflict. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, of which Grassroots International is a member, is a diverse coalition working for freedom from occupation and equal rights for all by challenging U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has led a national effort against H.R. 4681. See the U.S. Campaign website for more information on the Campaign and the fight against H.R. 4681.

Conclusion

Under these circumstances it is imperative that organizations like Grassroots International and other independent aid agencies continue their support for civil society and non-governmental organizations that embrace human rights and democratic principles and engage in building needed social service infrastructure by providing economic alternatives and advocating for national policy reform. For the last 23 years, GRI has accompanied such grassroots organizations and social justice movement groups within the OPT. We are committed to continuing to work in solidarity with these groups on the ground.