The immediate reaction heard and read in the media was a collective outcry by these people and some cadre, who demanded that their leaders be put on trial for treason and cowardice. But it wouldn’t seem that they need to worry much : it cannot take very long until they are fully rehabilitated by those same people who within a matter of hours managed to re-define President Mahmud Abbas – Abu Mazen – long decried for being a weak and indecisive leader, as a sly fox who had outwitted his ponderous rivals – now deadly enemies – in Hamas and ripped the mantle of constitutional legality away from them once and for all.
There may be something to the latter judgment, as it appears clearly that Abu Mazen, far from being a fervent advocate of national unity and democratic legitimacy, was indeed biding his time and waiting for the tripwire event to take place (after all, he had named Muhammad Dahlan as his security advisor under the National Unity government), prompted and financed by the US and by some of his own Fatah or independent “ultras.”
It was simply a matter of waiting, then, a shorter or a longer while, given that the training of Abu Mazen’s troops by US advisors and their return to the Gaza Strip and West Bank was going on apace. In the longer run, it was imagined, there would be a military confrontation in which heavily armed and -trained Fatah loyalists would carry the day and outlaw the “terrorist” Hamas, while maintaining the “unity” of the West Bank and Gaza. This it was agreed, had to take place well before the general elections in 2010 might once again turn out badly for Fatah. In the face of this ineluctable process, Hamas in Gaza logically decided not to wait any longer, but to respond to every challenge with an effective counter-challenge, thus preempting the process leading to their rivals’ military supremacy.
What nobody and certainly not Hamas could predict was the swiftness of Fatah’s collapse. Fighting was fierce and in pockets, resistance dogged. But within a matter of days Hamas found itself wielding a monopoly of power which, as in the January 2006 legislative elections, it had not anticipated. Indeed, Prime Minister Ismael Haniyyeh welcomed the declaration of the state of emergency, and immediately agreed to lead a caretaker government for the prescribed thirty-day period. But Abu Mazen had his plans, and needed only to take them out of his bureau drawers. These included the names of his emergency government (for which there is no provision in the basic law, but which has been declared a permissible option by some, although decried by Raji Sourani, a Gaza-based legal and human rights scholar). All accepted their appointments immediately. Indeed, Salam Fayyad, the new prime-, foreign- and finance minister, a former World Bank official with no particular judicial training, recited in perfect legalese the reason why his emergency government represented an implied constitutional power. He did not bother to explain how it might be prolonged beyond the thirty-day limit, but he will never have to, because of the barrage of supportive statements coming from the US, the EU, Israel, Egypt and Jordan, Bush and Olmert going so far as to sing the praises of this champion of democracy, now definitively enlisted in Bush’s great “ideological struggle” between democracy and Islamist terror. Meantime, the message was hammered home in their Ramallah headquarters by the myriad Fatah and independent intelligentsia who quickly came out of their year-and-a-half-long retirement in the private sector, to resume their roles as Abu Mazen “advisors” and denounce the “Taliban” regime in Gaza.
A new race is now surely underway. In fact, we are in that respect witnessing a return to the provisions of the Oslo accords, which prescribed for the future Autonomy a “powerful police force,” of tens of thousands of trained men, whose function would be to protect Yasir Arafat’s Authority and the Israeli state which legitimized it from any potential disruptive rival. The race now involves on the one hand, the West Bank’s solidly ensconced security forces (the dozen or so militias established at the onset of the autonomy in 1994) and the donor community ; and, on the other, large sectors of the Palestinian people, driven by their sense of justice and their drive to end the occupation.
In this confrontation, as so often in Middle Eastern politics, there can be no winner. The moneys will of course pour in, the new Palestinian ruling class (if such a description can be deemed to apply to the elites of an occupied and colonized nation) will continue to enjoy ever-accrued benefits, and to support the regime, now back in power and planning to stay there. In the meantime, a first in the annals of a liberation movement, its anointed leader is asking the government of the occupying state to release some loyalist prisoners it is holding in order to strengthen it against its own dissident members. Foremost among those whose release is being sought out is Marwan Barghouti, the emblematic symbol of the nearly-forgotten al-Aqsa intifada, which he led against the dual scourge of occupation and corruption. But he has now pledged allegiance to the regime and unambiguously condemned the Hamas “golpistas” (inqilabiyin). Who knows what five years in prison and the prospect of many more, might not cause one to renege or to embrace ?
The split between the West Bank and Gaza likewise dates back to the late Oslo period, ever since Israel blocked off contact between them after the 1991 Gulf War. The cleavage between their respective leaders has been widening for years, with ever-increasing class-contempt being expressed by West Bank elites for the allegedly extremist and primitive Gazans. So the present formalized divorce does nothing more than confirm what already was. UNRWA and the UN World Food Program have been quick to pick up the humanitarian slack, and as a result, the number of those dependent on handouts in Gaza will increase from 75% to 85%. But it may be presumed that in the short- to medium-term, little else will be markedly different, with the exception of a slightly improved security situation, and an ever greater feeling of claustrophobia.
Meantime the Palestinian people will have a new setback to remember : the day when, on June 14th, 2007, their leaders, by their irrevocable decree, put an end to a remarkable chapter in their people’s remarkable history, with the inauguration of a true democratic transition in January 2006 when Hamas won at the polls, and the destruction of a later national unity government that had enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of the people. Ever since the death of Yasir Arafat, the PA has been anxious to erase the collective memory, be it in the Ramallah Muqata’a or in Jenin camp. But any number of studies and cases show that this is not so easy, and that such memories come back one day to haunt those who attempted to rub them out with a fresh and artificial overlay.
Palestinian democracy has lived. One-third of the elected members of the Palestinian Legislative council are in Israeli prisons ; there can at any rate be no recourse to it to legitimize the government. And there is scant prospect for fair elections in the future, for fear that Hamas might win them again. We have now decisively entered the realm of Carl Schmitt’s and Giorgio Agamben’s state of exception, which they identify as the very essence of mature liberal rule. A dozen militias patrol the West Bank (while one patrols the Gaza Strip), and the executive branch has swallowed up the legislature (with the help of the Israeli occupation). And yet, Palestinian democracy has not died. It lives on in the hearts of those millions of ordinary people who worked towards it with the dawn of the third millennium, who have repeatedly asserted it in the face of their own leadership and the Israeli occupation, have refused to be lured into civil war, and dream of the day when they will be able to impose it against the will of their occupiers as well as on the dependent leadership they have already rejected. It will take time, but the history that was made by Palestinians in Palestine over the past twenty years can never be unmade ; sooner or later, it will provide the basis for a new, just and responsive polity.