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Date posted: December 31, 2005
By MIFTAH

The new year in Palestine really began before the calendar year had begun, with the death of President Arafat in early November 2004. With his death, and the surprisingly seamless transition of leadership to Abu Mazen, Palestinians felt, as did much of the rest of the world, that a new dawn had come to Palestine. But by the end of the year the hopes that had accompanied that new dawn have considerably faded, and Palestinians today are a wearier and less optimistic lot than they were on new year’s day, 2005. In order to trace the journey from hope to despair, MIFTAH undertakes a brief recapitulation of the key events of the year that was.

January: The first noteworthy event of the year were the presidential elections (held on January 15th), only the second of their kind in Palestine, in which Abu Mazen competed with 6 other candidates for the presidency of the PNA. Palestinians voted peacefully and in large numbers during the elections, which were remarkable not only for the orderly manner in which they were conducted, but also for the lack of incident (there was no electoral fraud, no voter intimidation, no vote grabbing, no violence – all features characteristic of elections elsewhere in the Arab world). Abu Mazen prevailed in the end, as he has been expected to, with 62% of the vote (the runner up was an independent candidate, Dr. Mustapha Bhargouthi), which was a healthy-enough margin to assure him the popular legitimacy he needed to occupy President Arafat’s vacated seat, but not so healthy as to expose him to accusations of fraud.

February: Abu Mazen set to work quickly and quietly, as was his wont, and his presidential style, conspicuously different from that of his predecessor, won him grudging respect from all quarters – the Israelis decided that they could “once again talk to the Palestinians;” so did the Americans; and the Palestinians themselves revealed, in various opinion polls, a guarded respect for their new popularly elected leader (“our hearts are with Abu Amr, but our minds are with Abu Mazen” was the prevailing on the Palestinian street in those early months). Even the leaders of Hamas, who had refused to have any dealings with the PNA or with Fatah during Arafat’s life, held rounds of meetings with Abu Mazen, whose style they claimed to find palatable enough for their purposes.

Abu Mazen’s immediate focus was on recommencing talks with the Israelis, and with that purpose in mind, high-level teams of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met at the sea-side resort of Sharm-al-Sheikh in Egypt in mid February. The talks resulted in a quasi-ceasefire agreement, with Abbas promising to hold all Palestinian armed groups to a period of calm (“tahdiyah”), and with Sharon promising to pull out Israeli troops from major West Bank towns and restraining the attacks on Palestinian civilians. While this hard-won ceasefire agreement was immediately threatened by violent acts perpetrated by both sides – the Israelis continued as before with their air rids on Gaza, air strikes on Palestinian population centres, and targeted assassinations of alleged “militants”; and a Palestinian group orchestrated, almost immediately after the ceasefire agreement was announced, a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv – it was nonetheless a remarkable achievement given the mistrust and anger that had marked all such official dealings between Palestinians and Israelis in the preceding years. Moreover, despite these early threats to the ceasefire, President Abbas managed to convince the major Palestinian armed groups (Hamas, al-Akhsa Brigades) to honour their commitments towards an agreed-upon 12 month period of calm.

Also in February, Abu Mazen’s new cabinet was ratified by the PLC; it comprised 24 members, three quarters of whom were technocrats untainted by charges of corruption and cronyism.

March: Much to the dismay of international observers and, of course, the Palestinians, Israel announced late in March it’s approval of 3,500 new housing units in Ma’ale Adumiim, a large illegal Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It also reneged on its promise – given to President Abbas in Feruary at Sharm al Sheikh - to release Palestinian prisoners, and backtracked on its decision to withdraw from key Palestinian towns. Most egregious of all, it continued to build the Separation Wall, despite the condemnation of much of the international community and the International Court of Justice.

Also in March, the World Bank revealed a controversial proposal to enhance conditions at the many military checkpoints set up illegally by Israel in the Palestinian Territories, which proposal most Palestinians considered to be at best inadequate and at worst dangerous, a tiny band-aid over a gaping wound. President Abbas, meanwhile, travelled to London to meet British premier Tony Blair, and while little of substance emerged from the visit, PM Blair re-affirmed publicly his support for a viable Palestinian state.

April: In April, Israeli PM Sharon met with his American counterpart President Bush at the latter’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and their talks were noteworthy for Bush’s attempts to condemn, albeit cordially, Sharon’s intransigence on illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank. The talks also focused on Sharon’s plans to “disengage” from Gaza, and resulted in an agreement of $3 billion in development aid from the US to Israel (allegedly meant to resettle Gaza settlers in the Negev and Galilee regions). This in addition to the $3 billion already provided annually to Israel by the US for economic and military “assistance.” Also in April, Russian president Putin visited Israel and Palestine, and promised that Russia would, in its capacity as member of the “Middle East Peace Quartet,” do all it could to ensure both sides’ commitments to the road map.

May: The US House of Representatives approved a $200 million aid package for the Palestinians, which was bitterly criticised by the Palestinians for the stringent conditions attached: no fraction of this money was to be given directly to the PNA, while roughly a quarter of it went, instead, directly to the IDF for “border enhancements.” To add insult to injury, a full 10% of this already meagre amount was to be given directly to the Israeli Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, theoretically to “provide better health care to Palestinian women and children” (the vast majority of whom are prohibited from entering Israel, and can therefore never receive treatment at Hadassah).

Also in May, the IDF shot dead two Palestinian children near Ramallah, an incident which was under-reported in the international press but which incensed Palestinians. The IDF also openly resumed in May its policy of targeted assassinations of suspected Palestinian militants, less than two months after promising to reverse this policy at Sharm-Al-Sheikh. And the Jerusalem municipality announced its intention to demolish 88 houses in Silwan, a Palestinian neighbourhood in east Jerusalem, claiming them to be illegal (though the real reason – to cleanse Jerusalem of as many Palestinians as possible, was obvious to the least politically-astute of observers).

Lastly, President Abbas visited the White House late in May, which was an historic event not only because it was Abbas’ first official meeting with President Bush, but also because it was President Bush’s first meeting with a Palestinian president (as he had refused to meet with President Arafat during his tenure).

June: Although Israel released 400 Palestinian political prisoners early in June, in partial fulfilment of its obligations under the agreement signed between the Government of Israel and the PNA at Sharm-al-Sheikh, the hope and optimism that had marked the first few months of the year was, by June, already waning. A report released in June by the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Envoy, Mr. John Duggard, warned, in prescient fashion, that the Gaza “Disengagement” would not mean end to the Israeli occupation of Gaza. Tense talks ensued during the month between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, during which none of the outstanding disputes (Israeli troop withdrawal from 5 Palestinian regions; the release of Palestinian political prisoners; and an end, or at least a curtailment, of Israeli military incursions into Palestinian areas) were resolved. Also in June, the PNA deplorably carried out its first executions since 2001.

July-August-September: The headlines in July were dominated, as they would be for the next two months, by stories of the Gaza “disengagement.” While international news outlets were giddy with optimism, Israeli and Palestinians alike were more guarded in their views on the historic event: there continued to be much hand-wringing in Israeli circles about what, if anything, the disengagement would achieve for Israel; the national religious settlers remained adamant in their opposition to the process; while Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank feared, not without reason, that “Gaza first” would be “Gaza last.”

The actual “disengagement” occurred over two weeks in August, and went more smoothly than expected. Although one settler murdered 4 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, there were no other incidents of violence, either from Palestinian factions or from Israeli settlers (or Israeli soldiers). Hamas announced that the “disengagement” was a “great victory” for the Palestinian people, brought about by the “Palestinian people’s resistance and sacrifice,” though most Palestinians remained on the fence as to whether the disengagement would bring any positive changes for them. While life for the 1.3 million Palestinians of Gaza was undeniably transformed, almost overnight, with the final withdrawal of all settlers, the Israeli military control over their land and their lives continued more or less unabated. Israel retained control of the air, sea and land crossings, and it retained the right to enter Gaza at will to ensure its own security; Gazans, meanwhile, still could not cross freely either to Egypt or into Israel or the West Bank, and while the Quartet’s Special Envoy for the Disengagement, the redoubtable Mr. James Wolfesohn (the former head of the World Bank) set energetically to work to usher in foreign investment and to create jobs and to rebuild Gaza, Gazans themselves remained more or less prisoners in their overcrowded sliver of land.

October: In October Hamas continued to fare strongly in local elections (which had begun in September in the West Bank), in response to which the PNA postponed, and even cancelled, voting in several West Bank towns. This led to predictable outbursts of fury among Hamas cadres, and there ensued in October several ugly incidents of Palestinian in-fighting. There also occurred a spate of kidnappings in Gaza, orchestrated by disgruntled groups who aimed to improve their salaries, and there was a growing sense of unease and chaos, especially in Gaza, in the weeks following the disengagement. Consequently, the international community’s calls for disarmament of all Palestinian armed factions grew louder in October, but President Abbas seemed unable to do anything more than appeal, weakly, for calm.

November: Fatah held in November a series of poorly-organised internal elections (called primaries) to decide in democratic fashion whom it would field for the upcoming national legislative elections in January. The results of the primaries indicated a strong support among Fatah foot-soldiers for the so-called home grown “young guard,” who were led by the jailed, charismatic Marwan Bhargouthi. Most of these “young guard” Fatah cadres claimed to have had leading roles in starting the second Palestinian intifada, and harboured a simmering resentment towards the “old guard” who had run Fatah for decades, and to whom they referred derisively as Tunisians (as they had returned to the Palestinian Territories from Tunis with President Arafat during the Oslo years). These “old guard” were considered by many Palestinians to be cronies of Arafat whose time had long passed, and the younger guard of Fatah rightly assumed that their strong showing at the primaries would assure them prominent places in the final Fatah electoral list. When President Abbas, presumably under pressure from prominent figures of the “old guard” called off several primaries and nullified the results of others, the young guard erupted in anger, and sometimes, regrettably, in violence.

As the mood in the Palestinian Territories grew progressively darker and less certain in November, one sliver of hope was offered by American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who visited in November and brokered an agreement between the Government of Israel and the PNA to open the border crossings in Gaza and to restore to the Palestinians some semblance of sovereignty. The EU took up its role as international monitor of the crossings (into Egypt and Gaza), and Palestinian Gazans were allowed, for the first time in years, to cross from the Rafah checkpoint into Egypt.

December: The year began with hopes for peace and ended with chaos, uncertainty and internal strife. There were in December twin upheavals in Israel and Palestine: in Israel Amir Peretz toppled the octogenarian Shimon Peres as leader of the Labour party, while Sharon surprisingly quit Likud to form his own party, Kadima, thereby setting in motion a spate of defections (mostly from ambitious Likud moderates who left Likud to hitch their wagons to Sharon) and all-round uncertainty.

In Palestine, meanwhile, the internal divide between old and new guard in Fatah became an open split when Fatah announced a final electoral list comprised, still, to the dismay and rage of the “young guard,” many “old guard” figures. Empowered by their strong showing in the primaries the previous month, the “young guard,” led by Marwan Bhargouthi, announced their own electoral list under a separate name – “al Mustaqbal.” Much confusion ensued in the next few days, as many of the “young guard” figures, most prominently Mr Bhargouthi himself, had also been included in the Fatah official list, and the admirably independent-minded Palestinian Central Election Commission decreed that two lists with the same names could not be allowed to compete in the elections.

There ensued much frantic bargaining among Fatah “old” and “new” guards in the last few weeks of December, and the latest news indicates that the latter have agreed to abandon their renegade al-Mustqabal list and return to the official Fatah fold (in return, the Fatah old guard have agreed, it seems, to allow greater prominence and more spots on the official list to the young guarders). Despite this quick patch-up, however, Fatah’s reputation continues to flounder on the Palestinian street, while Hamas’ is solidly ascendant. Also in December, Hamas continued to rout Fatah in local municipal elections, this time winning with wide margins in Nablus and al-Bireh and further threatening the beleaguered Fatah. Municipal elections in traditional Hamas strongholds (Gaza city, Hebron) have yet to be conducted, though the results – strong wins for Hamas again – are predictable enough. Hamas’ strong showing in local elections indicates that it will fare respectably, in the worst case scenario, in the national legislative elections, and this despite Israel’s continued and continuous rounding up of Hamas officials and activists.

All of this has frightened not just Fatah, but also the Israelis, the Americans, and the Europeans, who all seemed be joining forces, towards the end of the month, to threaten a withdrawal of support (and money) for the PNA should Hamas triumph. While President Abbas has officially remained adamant that Hamas be allowed to participate freely, many Palestinians fear that he will now postpone the elections, ostensibly to lobby the Americans and the Europeans to allow Hamas to contest, but in reality to allow for the wounds within Fatah to heal.

Meanwhile, as Israelis and Palestinians alike are distracted by the machinations of their equally complex internal politcs, Israel continues on, indomitably, with its theft of Palestinian land, rights, and lives. The wall continues to be built; the settlements continue to expand; Palestinian civilians continue to be terrorised and killed (always, it is claimed, accidentally) by Israeli air strikes and raids which have just been resumed in Gaza; and the checkpoints continue to proliferate and sometimes be transformed into frightening “terminals” which are indistinguishable from permanent international borders.

The year began with much anticipation about Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza. It ends with the fear and terror brought about by Israel’s unilateral actions across the Palestinian territories, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. December 31, 2004 was a day of hope. December 31, 2005 is a day of despair.

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