Guest Column: Arthur Neslen. Jewish holiday meals at the homes of relatives or our parents’ friends are the last place that my generation of Jewish dissenters from Zionism expect to encounter kindred spirits. But that’s exactly where I first met Arthur Neslen, an English journalist related by the contours of Jewish geography to the family of a close friend of my father’s, with whom we once spent Rosh Hashanah. Arthur was more than a kindred spirit, of course, he was the first Jewish journalist employed by al-Jazeera and was hard at work on his excellent book Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche, which uses hundreds of interviews with a cross section of Israelis to reveal the mindset that drives contemporary Israeli policy. Arthur is currently living in Ramallah, in the West Bank, researching a new book. He filed this postcard for Rootless Cosmopolitan, in which he explains the steady collapse of Fatah, from internal rot as much as from external challenges:
Inside a Failed Palestinian Police State
By Arthur Neslen
The death of Hamas preacher Majed al-Barghouti in a prison cell last week — apparently after being tortured — momentarily shattered the surface calm of news reports from Ramallah. But neither the subsequent rioting nor the fact that the dead man came from one of the most prominent Palestinian families disrupted the ‘democracy versus terror’ agenda that has distorted most news reporting out of the West Bank since last June (when Hamas took control of Gaza).
Martin Luther King once described rioting as ‘the voice of the unheard,’ but despite al-Barghouti’s death, most Ramallans currently seem too depressed to riot. The only events to have lifted spirits in the city lately have been a freak snow storm, and a similarly rare suicide bombing in Dimona — the latter prompting local shopkeepers to cut prices for the morning and, in one case, to waive payment altogether.
More typical events in the last week have included a mysterious explosion, continued Israeli army raids, and a major downtown gunfight between PA ‘security’ forces in balaclavas and youths from the city’s Amari refugee camp. The violence, unheard outside Ramallah, is at once cause, effect and byproduct of a pervasive gloom that has settled over ‘Fatahland’ like smog.
In private, moderate former cabinet ministers now compare the government of PA president Mahmoud Abbas to France’s Vichy regime under German occupation. In public, meanwhile, West Bank trades unions affiliated with Fatah are battening down the hatches in an increasingly bitter dispute with the PA that has already sparked a two-day national strike this month.
Sources in the Fatah grassroots camp aligned with Marwan Barghouti, the movement’s single most popular leader who remains in prison in Israel, warn of a rage building among their supporters that they will be unable to control. They complain that the failure of Mahmoud Abbas’s strategy to produce anything other than an increased expansion of settlements, mass arrests and assassinations, has cost him his
authority among the Fatah rank and file.
The narrative in much Western news reporting since last year’s Gaza civil war that effectively ended the Second Intifada has emphasized the Annapolis process as the great hope for delivering Palestinian national goals, but you’d be hard-press to find support for it in any quarter of Palestinian society. For now, most Ramallans seem content to soldier on with their private struggles to make ends meet, until stronger political winds again rake up the dust. But feelings of bitterness, defeat and resentment have multiplied.
Supposedly, this gloomy picture is all wrong. Ramallah is enjoying an economic boom with a reported growth rate of 10 percent last year. Residents of cities such as Nablus and Tulkarem are fighting each other for apartments here, while rents and living costs rocket. Billions of dollars and batteries of Western consultants are washing over the streets like icy rain. But the money isn’t trickling down the Fatah food chain.
Supporters of Mohammed Dahlan (the U.S.-backed Fatah strongman driven out of Gaza by Hamas) and Islamic Jihad alike talk about the aid monies as something akin to blood money; the Jihad stalwarts are indignant, Dahlan’s supporters just resigned. Where five years ago, Ramallah was at the heart of the intifada, today there almost seems to be an intifada against its heart.
The pavements of the town’s central roundabout, Al Manarah, were recently fenced off with the same metal security barriers used by the Israeli army at Qallandia, a checkpoint that bars most Ramallans from Jerusalem. When that didn’t stop people from taking their traditional route around the roundabout by foot, armed Fatah soldiers assumed positions on a traffic detail. Such Egyptian-style ‘security’ might impress visiting Western dignitaries but it also lends weight to an increasingly powerful, if whispered, Hamas critique that the Fatah leadership is a corrupt, disorganised and undemocratic syndicate which speaks to, and governs for, a Western audience.
Without western aid, the PA would surely collapse, and that might be a bad thing. But the funnelling of donor dollars here is socially engineering an alternative Palestinian capital, cut off from the rest of the West Bank, and the world. The strings attached to the aid economy – market liberalisation and a crushing of the Intifada’s resistance dynamics – only reinforce the sense that Palestine has become a truncated, failed police state before it is even sovereign.
Opposition to this trend is far from easy. The activists of Hamas, still the majority party in the elected Palestinian Legislature, are in hiding, or in jail. Police violence is endemic. Protests, such as those against Annapolis and Bush’s visit, are routinely suppressed with force. Fatah functionaries stand guard in Hamas mosques to ensure that free religious assembly does not turn into anything more civic-minded.
In a Brechtian twist, when the U.S. president’s arrival brought curfews, street closures and checkpoints back to Ramallah for the first time since Israel’s army pulled out, the city bit its collective lip. Fatah rules, okay – with an iron hand – but is utterly powerless in the face of U.S. and Israeli diktats.
I used to watch the PA’s last symbolic act of defiance from my window at night, a green laser beam that shone from the tip of Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum in the Muqata towards Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque. In the week that Gaza’s wall fell it was switched off, reputedly at the behest of Tel Aviv. Few complained.
The prevailing mood of passive disengagement and cynicism was well captured by two of Abbas’s presidential guards during the ‘celebrations’ at the Muqata after Israel freed 400 prisoners (who were anyway due for imminent release). “This means nothing,” one griped to me. “There is no confidence between the two sides and there will be no peace.” A soldier standing next to him agreed, adding “There will be war here forever.”
In Ramallah’s cafes and bars, morbid conspiracy theories circulate about the influence of groups such as the Adam Smith Institute, which oversees the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit. Meanwhile, in private, the NSU’s workers wheel out the same complaints of cronyism and incompetence that their predecessors rehearsed last year, and their predecessors, the year before that. All the time, Fatah rots from within.
A friend involved with Fatah’s preventive security unit, relayed an apparently widespread belief among his comrades; that Abbas will sign up to a final status deal giving Israel Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, while losing most of east Jerusalem and the refugees’ right to return. He would, according to the theory, then be assassinated.
This may be why Abbas appears to have no more intention of signing a peace agreement than does Ehud Olmert. Both leaders would have drowned by now without a peace process but neither has the power base, conviction, leadership skills or public goodwill to survive a peace deal.
For Abbas, at the very least, any deal would trigger the much-anticipated Fatah civil war. The question is what there would be left to fight over in Fatah by that point, if it did.