Occupation, not Palestinian democracy, is the real problem

Following the death of Yasser Arafat, the legendary Palestinian leader, the Palestinian Authority (PA) held the Presidential election on 9 January to choose his successor. Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, won the election by securing 62.3% of the vote, on a voter turnout of 65%. His nearest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, received 20% of the vote. The election was held under Israeli military occupation and in conditions of continued Israeli onslaught against the Palestinian population. On 4 January, on the eve of the election, an Israeli tank shell killed 9 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Even Mr Abbas was obliged to describe the victims as “martyrs” and their killers as the “Zionist enemy”. In Khan Younis alone, during the month of December 2004, the Israeli army killed 27 Palestinians, wounded another 110, and totally or partially destroyed 113 homes, rendering up to 1,000 people homeless.

The Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war is in its 38th year. There is little reason to believe, as things stand now, that the election of a new Palestinian President (or of a new parliament or local councils, for which elections are to be held soon) will change the lives of 3.6 million Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – East Jerusalem, the West Bank (WB) and the Gaza Strip. Even if Israel carries out its plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip, it will continue to exercise control over its borders and its economy from without. Ceaseless expansion of the illegal WB settlements, the construction of the apartheid wall cutting through Palestinian land, villages and homes, a network of fortifications and bypass roads that hem them in, is leaving the Palestinian people to live a miserable life in ever-diminishing Bantustans. In other words, as control, occupation and settlement are non-negotiable for Israel and its chief backer, US imperialism, there are no signs that Palestinian statehood, and with it peace between Zionism and the Palestinian people, is about to emerge.

Occupation – the real problem

Over decades, Israel, with the full backing of US imperialism, has changed its stance from land-for-peace to peace-for-peace and now to democracy-for-peace. It is mindlessly meaningless to talk about Palestinian democracy (under the jackboot of Zionist occupation) without addressing the key question of occupation. ‘Come with the right sort of people, leaders who are to our liking, and we might be able to help you’ is the slogan of imperialism, which no Palestinian believes. As Saeb Erakat correctly said recently, if the Palestinians “elected Mother Teresa the Israelis would find a way of linking her with al-Qaeda and the US and UK would eventually mumble their consent”.

The problem in Palestine is the Israeli occupation, not that of democracy, except in the sense that the Palestinian people have been denied for nearly six decades their highest democratic right, namely, their right of self-determination and to a sovereign state of their own. Israeli and imperialist sources have unleashed a relentless barrage of propaganda, as a means of averting the gaze from the brutal Zionist occupation, to the effect that the problem in Palestine is the prevalence of cronyism, incompetence and corruption, accompanied by lack of democracy, accountability, transparency, respect for the law and the primacy of institutions, and the Palestinian failure to put in place economic and security reforms – all of which were allegedly the fault of the late Yasser Arafat.

Palestinians, who have conducted free elections even under the trying conditions of the brutality of foreign occupation, are correctly irked by the demands of the moronic Bush-Blair duo that they (the Palestinians) embrace democracy. For the same reason, large numbers of Palestinians criticised the London Conference of 1 March (of which more later) as an unwarranted intrusion into their internal affairs and a diversion from the main question – i.e., that of the Israeli occupation.

Honeymoon likely to be short-lived

According to the relevant UN Resolutions, every inch of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967 is occupied illegally. Nevertheless, in April 2004 Bush, with the apparent agreement of Britain, threw his weight behind Sharon’s assertion that Israel would hold on to most of the settlements in the WB and that the Palestinians would be denied the right of return. In fact, Sharon, and his close advisor Dov Weisglass, have openly declared that the Gaza evacuation, far from being ‘Gaza first’, is actually a ‘Gaza only’ plan, with the sole aim of freezing the peace process and consolidating and extending Israel’s grip over the WB settlements. All this was in total violation of the so-called ‘road map’, launched with a great fanfare in June 2003, when Bush told the leaders of the PA, Israel and Jordan: “All here today now share a goal: the Holy Land must be shared between the state of Palestine and the state of Israel, living at peace with each other and with every nation of the Middle East.”

This being the case, Israel’s honeymoon with Mr Abbas is likely to be short-lived. Although he has reiterated his long-standing opposition to the militarization of the Palestinian Intifada, even going to the extent of saying that the Intifada was a disastrous mistake, he has also restated his predecessor’s minimum demands for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His stance might be attributed to pre-election rhetoric. The truth, however, is that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people will not allow any crossing of the ‘red lines’ laid down by Arafat. There is no sign at the moment that Mr Abbas is ready to compromise on the minimum demands of his departed comrade. Thus, unless Israel and the US change their stance, it is only a question of time before Mr Abbas becomes the target of the same type of demonisation that was directed by the US and Israel against Mr Arafat.

Sharm el-Sheikh meeting

On 8 February, a month after his election as PA President, Mr Abbas met Ariel Sharon at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. It was the first such top-level contact since Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak failed to reach a comprehensive deal at the US-sponsored talks in Taba (Egypt) in January 2001. During these talks, which were also attended by the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, the two sides agreed on the observance of a mutual ceasefire, with the Israelis agreeing to withdraw their army from some Palestinian towns and release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. But there was complete silence on final status issues – the status of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, the final borders, the questions of water and of settlements.

On the declaration of the first-ever mutual ceasefire (in the past the Palestinians have declared unilateral ceasefires which were never observed by Israel), Sharon said: “We agree that all Palestinians will stop all acts of violence against all Israelis everywhere and in parallel, Israel will cease all its military activity against all Palestinians anywhere”.

Sharon also spoke of Israel having to “painfully wake up from our dreams” and of the impossibility of maintaining the occupation. Addressing the Palestinians, he stated: “I have already said that Israel has no desire to continue to govern over you and control your fate”. This is the same man who is supervising the construction of the apartheid wall which cuts deeply into the WB, who has insisted that Israel will keep most Zionist settlements in the WB, and who is proposing the curb the entry of east Jerusalem Arabs into the WB.

Commenting on the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the WB, warned thus: “The summit had a security agenda rather than tackling the main issues, which is ending the occupation, the right of return for refugees and the right of statehood,” adding: “In my opinion, it seems the PA has rushed the matter of a ceasefire without harmonising with the rest of the Palestinian factions.”

All sections of the resistance have been observing an undeclared ceasefire since the middle of January, confining themselves merely to responding to Israeli attacks. The resistance, however, made its position clear in a recent communiqué, which referred to a ceasefire but insisted that its success depended on Israel:

“We will not allow the Zionist enemy to continue its daily aggression without responding”, the statement said.

“Any [ceasefire] can only succeed if the enemy clearly declares its acceptance of all our conditions, including stopping all kinds of aggression and releasing prisoners.”

The London show

The London Conference of 1 March, organised by the British government, had absolutely no contribution to make to the resolution of the conflict. Ignoring the question of Israeli occupation and other key issues of vital concern to the Palestinian people, it solely and patronisingly concentrated on Palestinian reform. Apart from condescending lectures on ‘reform’, all that the PA got was a promise of aid to the tune of $1.2 billion. Although Israel showed its contempt for the conference by staying away, the Palestinian delegation was nevertheless lectured on how important it was for the Palestinians to continue the ‘peace process’ through non-violent means alone.

Victory to the Palestinian people!

All that has happened thus far is that there is an uneasy truce between the two sides, and Israel has released 500 Palestinian prisoners, while another 7,500 continue to languish in Israeli dungeons and concentration camps to be tortured, maltreated and humiliated by their Zionist concentration camp guards. The coming days will show whether the Zionists, and their imperialist backers, are serious about Israel not having any “desire to continue to govern over” the Palestinians. If they are serious, then they must observe the ceasefire scrupulously, release all the Palestinian prisoners, freeze all settlements, remove the apartheid wall, and move quickly to the thorny questions of final status talks – a Palestinian sovereign state on all the territories occupied in 1967, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Bitter past experience teaches the Palestinians and their friends not to be too optimistic on this score. Every time there has been a chance for advancing the peace process, the Zionists, with full US imperialist backing, have scuppered it. After all, in 2003, when Mr Abbas held the post of prime minister, it was Sharon who ignored the unilateral Palestinian ceasefire, continued his campaign of assassination of the leaders of the Intifada, thus forcing the resistance to resume the armed struggle. Should they do this again, they will have no one to blame but themselves for the inevitable resumption of Palestinian armed struggle for liberation. Whatever anyone may say, if Israel is considering the evacuation of Gaza, it is solely as a consequence of the armed struggle of the Palestinian people. The Intifada, far from being a disaster, has been a brilliant success. The blows delivered by it to the Zionist occupation alone are responsible for keeping alive, and at times moving forward, the peace process. A passive Palestinian population would be totally ignored – and deserve to be ignored – by Israeli Zionism and imperialism alike.