Inside a Failed Palestinian Police State

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.

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22 Responses to Inside a Failed Palestinian Police State

  1. Matthew says:

    The reference to the Adam Smith Institute was a nice touch. After decades of botched diplomacy, clearly a “hidden hand” may be the last hope.

  2. gracie_fr says:

    What if there were brave politically savy Palestinians who were actually engaged in creating a “third party” alternative in the West Bank, one with prospects of potential appeal in Gaza…???

  3. Nice postcard.

    Re the headline as well as your lead-in topic here, you might also want to pay some heed to Khaled Amayreh’s recent article “A Police State without a State.”

    Back in 2002-2004, as I watched the excruciatingly painful last years of Yasser Arafat, including meetings with him in both of those years, I started thinking (and writing) about the extent to which he had started to suffer from a bad case of the “Big Man-ism” that had afflicted so many former leaders of national-liberation movements in Africa– but with this significant difference: They at least had achieved the national liberation from colonial rule that they and their followers had fought and suffered fo, for so long, before they lapsed into Big-Manism. Arafat never even achieved that…

    From that perspective, Abu Mazen is (as always) just once again following along weakly in Arafat’s footsteps.

    It is probably also important to note, re the topic of what you’re writing about, that there are large areas of the West Bank in which Fateh is even weaker than it is in Ramallah…

  4. Oh, one more point: It might be worth pointing out for the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with the Adam Smith Institute’s work in its London home-base that it is regarded there as an extremely rightwing outfit, akin to the Hudson Institute or the Heritage Foundation in the US. Unbelievable why Tony Blair would have foisted such an outfit onto the NSU– and more so, why any Palestinian would have agreed to such outside intervention (or indeed, any outside intervention at all?) in the ever-sensitive task of formulating their negotiating stance.

  5. Y.Ben-David says:

    Golly, gee whiz! The Palestinians have a corrupt government!
    Really, what did you expect? What was Arafat before Rabin and Peres brought him in? A corrupt, mass murdering terrorist chief. Just ask the Lebanese who lived in FATAHLAND of southern Lebanon before 1982. They viewed the Israelis as liberators, at least until they decided to support HIZBULLAH.
    Do any of you really think a HAMAS regime would be any different? What is an example in the Arab world of an efficient, non-corrupt democracy the Palestinians could have used as a prototype to model their own state after? Please don’t give me the line “they couldn’t build a state apparatus, they were under occupation”. The Jews built a state apparatus under British occupation that was ready to step in and govern once the British left.
    The only difference a HAMAS regime would make is that different clan chiefs would get their hands on the aid money being given.

    I can only repeat what Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli Foreign Minister and negotiator at Taba, who as a fellow “progressive” of yours, views the lines of a “2-state solution” pretty much along the lines you all envision, said about Arafat…”he was the Palestinians misfortune”.
    You all liked him because he aligned himself with “progressive forces” like the USSR, went around babbling slogans about “the struggle against capitalist imperialism”, claimed he was a “socialist” (in other words, another one of those billionaire “socialists”) and you all insisted to us Israeli that we bring him in and empower him. Tragically, that was done, and now you are all complaining about the regime he set up, as if it could have been any different. How naive!

  6. William Burns says:

    Y. Ben David,

    I don’t know why you think the fact that the British did a better job as occupiers than Israel reflects well on Israel.

  7. Matthew says:

    William, I think this is the most appropriate response to knee-jerker YBD:

    As you can imagine, the last white South African defending Apartheid’s crimes must have been pretty lonely….

  8. Tony says:

    Public service announcement: Responding to YBD is a waste of energy, he has nothing serious to offer the kind of discussion we’re here to have, but parachutes in from Planet Likud every time I post something to spew this drivel that has nothing to do with the values shared by most of the people who come to this site. Better to simply ignore him…

  9. Y. Ben_David says:

    Tony, where does it say that only people who agree with you may post here? If you want to have a moderated group and all those with dissenting views are banned (I know other “progressive” bloggers who do that), then do so. I note that you rarely refute what I say. If you think I am wrong, say so.

    And again, your accusing me of being a “Likudnik” simply shows your ignorance of Israeli politics. You obviously don’t know anything about the history of the Likud, you simply repeat slogans that they used 30 years ago and gave up 15 years ago.
    The Likud’s policy regarding the Palestinians is almost exactly that of both the Labor Party and Kadima, the only difference between their opposition to giving up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem which they claim they oppose and the other two support.

  10. Tony says:

    I didn’t say you may not post here, what I said was that I have no interest in having a conversation with you, because it’s a waste of my time — which, frankly, I think is your purpose here, together with our other Hasbara man, “Fred.”

  11. Y. Ben_David says:

    I would appreciate it if you would explain why it is a waste of time. Actually, the two of us ultimately want the same thing…i.e. peace. As I said, if I am wrong, say so. I, for example said that bringing Arafat to rule the Palestinians was a disaster and a great disservice to them, even more than for Israel. Am I wrong for saying that? If so, why? This is the reason for the catastrophic situation described in the article you posted here.

  12. Matthew says:

    YBD: By you wanting “peace,” you mean wanting Palestinian land”; by “catastrophic situation” in the lives of Palestinians, you must mean the advent of gun Zionism in the early 20th Century.

    If you really wanted peace, you would oppose Settlement Contruction, oppose the hideous ideology that God grants any human beings real estate, and oppose the idiotic and racist notion that any ethnic/religious/national group is “special,” “chosen,” or “unique.” As long as Zionists are infected by the outlook that God/Providence/Yahweh has a role in their desire for land, you will never have peace. In fact, you will just mirror image of the Madassa attendees who are just as certain that Allah gave them dominion for all time over the Land of Islam.

  13. Matthew says:

    Correction. It should say, “In fact, you are just the mirror image of the Madrassa attendees who are just as certain that Allah gave them dominion for all time over the Land of Islam.”

  14. Fred says:

    I was never into “Hasbara” until Tony roped me into it. But I’m warming to the concept.

    If we could have a peace with the Palestinians the way the US has peace with Canada then I’d be willing to give up most or all of East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank outside of the residential Jewish areas.

    But that’s not going to happen. Any Palestinian State created there is going to start, sooner or later, shooting rockets into Israel. Hamas, or something much like it, will take over. Possibly the Syrians will do to the new Palestine what they did to Lebanon. But the chances for a peaceful Palestinian neighbor are microscopic; Regardless of where the lines are drawn. So I am opposed to the creation of a Palestinian State.

    Peace with the Arabs would benefit me directly. But I don’t see a path from here to there.

  15. Fred says:

    The religious perspective you describe certainly exists among some Israelis. But it has never been government policy. It was not the attitude of the Founding Zionists. And probably never has been a majority opinion among Israelis.

    Israel has had the physical power to evict the Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank for several decades. If the Religious Zionist position that you describe were dominant, it might have done so. And I’m not at all sure you’re accurately describing Religious Zionism (or the settler movement).

    The belief that Jews have a duty to live in Israel has been normative Judaism for over 2000 years, it is not “Hideous”. It just the religion.

  16. Peter H says:

    You all liked him because he aligned himself with “progressive forces” like the USSR, went around babbling slogans about “the struggle against capitalist imperialism”, claimed he was a “socialist” (in other words, another one of those billionaire “socialists”) and you all insisted to us Israeli that we bring him in and empower him.

    Actually, if you read writers like Edward Said & publications like Journal of Palestine Studies, you would have read plenty of criticism of Arafat’s authoritarianism & corruption well before his death.

    However, there’s a difference between people who attack PA corruption because they are genuinely interested in Palestinian liberation, and those who focus on Palestinian corruption to distract from the consequences of Israel’s dispossession, colonialism, & occupation on the Palestinians. Arthur Neslen falls in the first camp, while Y. Ben David falls in the 2nd camp.

  17. Judy says:

    Let’s face it, once in Ramallah, Arafat quickly created his crony network and created a host of conditions in which the growth of political alternatives was improbable.

    Corruption ensued.

    Flash forward to 2006 when Fatah loses a democratic election, garnering huge support from non-Hamas folks, to protest Fatah’s outrageous corruption.

    So why does the US and other Western allies force the corrupt party down the throats of the people of Palestine? How can a third party develop when the little aid that gets in is funneled, not through the channels of gov’t, but through Abu Mazen?

    How can any American politician even talk about “the peace process” with a straight face?

  18. Sherri Munnerlyn says:

    Hi, I was reading over John Dugard’s last report and realized one point he made about internatuional law under the Geneva Convention is very significant. And it has a strong and firm basis, because he is arguing the statute itself.

    John Dugard makes a specific statement about international law that has serious implications for the future, and this statement he makes is based upon a provision in the Fourth Geneva Convention itself. He says, under

    IX. Peace Talks

    57. It must be recalled that article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that persons in an occupied territory shall not be deprived of the benefits of the convention of any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territory and the occupying Power, or by the annexation by the occupying Power of part of the occupied territory. This means that any agreement between the Palestinian authorities and the Israeli government that recognizes settlements within the occupied Palestinian territory, or accepts the annexation by Israel of Palestinian land within the wall, will violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.

    What this is saying is that the pre-1967 borders cannot be negotiated. Any agreement beween Israel and the Palestinian Authority that attempts to do that will be invalid under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Fourth Geneva Convention makes all settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank illegal. This seems harsh and rigid, but remember legal counsel advised the Israeli government of this fact in 1967 before a single settlement was built by Israel in either East Jerusalem or the West Bank or Gaza. This is pointed out by Israeli Historian Tom Segev in his book 1967.

    What are the implications of this opinion to the issue of the right of return? Well, it definitely has application to refugees forced out since 1967.

  19. Jay says:

    You falsely claim the Palastinians are the victims and want peace? Then why does their Charter still call for Israels destruction?
    Its a simple question you cant answer!

  20. ej says:

    Jay presumes that Israel deserves to exist. On the contrary. Israel is a cancer, run by a succession of gangsters, born and nourished on ethnic cleansing.
    To give the total thumbs down to Israel is not, however, synonymous with wishing to wipe it and its inhabitants out. The Canadian (Jewish) philosopher, Michael Neumann, astutely highlighted the difference in The Case Against Israel.
    The essential problem is that Israel refuses to tolerate a Palestinian state, refuses to tolerate the granting of humanity to the Palestinian people.
    I must say that I find the presence of lobotomised zionazi lickspittles on decent sites, in this case Y Ben-David and Jay, odious. On Mondoweiss it is Witless Witty. On JSF it is Eurosabra (at least demonstrating some sophistry in the process of parading his inhumanity).
    They parrot the usual mantras, untruths we have heard a million times. Their presence demeans the sites they appear on. They deserve to be censored.
    Do we have to put up with this shit for another 60 years?

  21. Earl Divoky says:

    I’m always amused by the Zionist claim that Israel has the right to defend itself from all threats, real or imagined, but that blogs like this don’t have the right to defend themselves from trolls. Ignoring specious and argumentative arguments seems to me to be a common sense alternative to active censorship.

  22. Steven Solomon says:

    What exactly is the ‘Zionist establishment’?
    Israel’s Likud party?
    Jews in general?
    Jews in the Diaspora?
    Jewish Zionists?

    please clarify.

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