Palestinians Remain Split, US Doesn’t Adjust

Last summer, a tight consensus formed in Washington around Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plans to build up state-like institutions in the West Bank and revive the territory’s sagging economy from the lingering effects of the Second Intifada.

But the strategy – while still overwhelmingly popular in the West a year into its implementation – is facing strong criticisms: Experts on Palestinian politics are now questioning its effectiveness and whether, with Gaza still isolated, the agenda is counter-productive to forming an eventual, unified Palestinian state. 

"Things aren’t falling apart, which is good news," said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, which hosted a Monday event on Palestinian politics. "But things are not going in the direction that people would hope." 

Brown, who was in the West Bank last month, observed that certain institutions, like the security apparatus, are functioning well. This leads to economic progress – though, unlike security cooperation, economic activity is lagging behind pre-Second Intifada levels. 

But not everything is going so smoothly: "Outside of state structures, things are falling apart," Brown said. "NGOs, political parties, and civil society are, if anything, moving backwards." 

Even state structures show limited progress, according to Brown. While existing structures are indeed becoming more efficient, few new institutions are being created. The result is institution improvement rather than sorely needed institution building. 

The Fayyad plan aims to lay the foundation of an eventual Palestinian state, in what is now the Occupied Territories, by establishing institutions which, in the words of Brown, "would force diplomacy to recognize facts on the ground." 

Israel enthusiastically supports the Fayyad plan – it even dovetails with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s calls for "economic peace", an alternative to the stalled notion of negotiated peace. 

The plan has also won much enthusiastic support – including financial support – from the U.S. 

But the U.S. and Israel’s reasons for supporting the agenda may actually be weakening prospects for a comprehensive peace plan. The current divided Palestinian polity is considered an obstacle to a peace deal – but Fayyad’s plan has served to reinforce that status quo. 

The militant faction Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, but was frozen out by the international community because of its designation as a terror group. In 2007, anticipating a coup planned by Israel, the U.S., and the West Bank-based Fatah faction, Hamas violently seized power in Gaza, where it commands strong support. 

The coup led Israel to besiege the Gaza Strip of 1.5 million residents – causing economic stagnation, massive unemployment, and what many experts consider a humanitarian crisis. The situation was exacerbated by Israel’s attack on Gaza in the Winter of 2008-2009. 

Fayyad’s party, Fatah, meanwhile, maintains crucial international support because of its image as a moderate party. 

"The institutional picture is stable because people are getting their salaries paid," said Brown. "The PA is kept alive." 

But a crisis could derail the PA’s system because it has no political legitimacy – the Palestinian legislature hasn’t met since 2007, and the original mandates of elected members from Fatah who remain in their positions have expired with no new polls. 

"If their job is to administer a calm place, maybe they can do it," Brown said. "But Palestine is not always a calm situation." 

By focusing resources on the West Bank, Israel and its Western allies hoped to demonstrate to Palestinians in Gaza that progress is possible for them if they, too, reject the militant Hamas group. 

"There’s a massive logical disconnect by saying that with Israeli and American support, the West Bank can flourish without Gaza and that the West Bank and Gaza can unite at the same time," former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy, now a fellow at the New America Foundation, told IPS. 

Another speaker at the Carnegie panel, former New York Times Gaza correspondent Taghreed El Khodary, said that the effects of the Fayyad plan indeed create fissures – rather than mend them – between the two Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

"People in Gaza cannot relate to ‘Fayyadism’. People in Gaza cannot go the West Bank and feel ‘paradise’," El Khodary said, raising two fingers on each hand and making air quotes as she said the last word. "For Gazans, they feel like they’re being discriminated against." 

Feelings like those only serve to further divide the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

"[The aid system] is deepening the split," said Brown of the Carnegie Endowment. "It’s being harnessed to a set of short term policies that might not be sustainable." 

U.S. President Barack Obama, who initially said he hoped to have a comprehensive peace agreement in two years, now finds himself 18 months into office with few changes in the status quo. 

Despite the contrast with progress in the West Bank, Hamas remains powerful in Gaza. 

"Unlike Fatah," said El Khodary, "Hamas has sustained membership by not promising things it can’t deliver." 

El Khodary also said that Hamas maintains order in the Strip by policing and enforcing justice. Meanwhile, she added, the group makes up for the dearth of international aid by taxing what few items make it through the blockade – or through a system of smuggling tunnels that connect Gaza to Egypt. 

With its massive aid to Israel – about 3 billion dollars a year – the U.S. is in a unique position to pressure Israel to ease up its siege, but has only done so following a major crisis. In late May, the Israeli navy attacked a flotilla of humanitarian aid attempting to break the blockade and deliver its cargo to Gaza. Nine activists, all Turkish nationals – though one also held U.S. citizenship – were killed in the raid. 

Still, the U.S. only pressured Israel into lifting some of the restrictions on the limited items allowed into Gaza. 

"Now it’s the U.S. policy that is the most significant contributor to this division [in the Palestinian polity]," said El Khodary. 

She places part of the blame on the U.S. fixation on the Fayyad plan and, particularly, in Salam Fayyad: "Washington has been repeating the same mistake as when they were angry at [late Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser] Arafat, and they came out with [current PA President Mahmoud] Abbas. The question from Gaza is: Why personalize?" 

"You have one man," she added, "and if something happens to this man, it’s the end of the story."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.