Monday, January 30, 2006

No Such Thing as Too Much Democracy

I keep thinking that I’m through writing about the Palestinian elections, about which I really don’t know much, it’s not like I’m there, I just read a lot about it and have talked to a few friends. I think I would like to go on to other things, like Ten Against Torture’s inaugural public action, a street theater at Saturday night’s appearance by Hillary Clinton at a Bar Association fundraiser. To dramatize the ongoing torture and unlawful detention of thousands of people in Iraq and Cuba and Afghanistan, which the esteemed senator-would-be-president has not taken any action to stop, we had two prisoners, one in a full black shroud and one in an orange jumpsuit, blindfolded and chained, and two soldiers with cardboard rifles. We got quite a bit of press attention, a fair amount of which ended up being for naught because some members of Code Pink infiltrated the event (go girls) and got arrested, so of course they got on the news, but we were on one television station and quoted in an AP story:

Or, I could share with you the exciting new “scent study” by the Monell Senses Center, the latest in the biodeterminists Stupid Science series. This one spent a lot of money trying to prove that sexual orientation determines whose body odor you like. If we understand it correctly, it actually proved that no one likes body odor much, and I for one am really glad that the Canadian and Swedish governments gave money to support such a worthy effort, instead of wasting it on AIDS prevention or breast cancer. (If you actually want to read more about the study, you can do it at; the new issue of UltraViolet is just up, hot off the press.)

The problem is that I can’t get away from the elections now. I guess you should not complain when the thing you’ve been trying to get everyone to focus on for five years is finally on the front pages every day for a week. But then it elicits such bizarre comments that I just have to respond.

Today’s New York Times reports, “Hamas's victory has set off a debate whether the [Bush] administration was so wedded to its belief in democracy that it could not see the dangers of holding elections in regions where Islamist groups were strong and democratic institutions weak.” Seriously. So does the administration think that they should have forbidden the Palestinians from having elections? And do they think the Palestinian Authority would have listened to them if they had? Do they honestly believe that the Palestinians held elections to make us happy? If they do, I have news for them.

All my friends who are now where I wish I were, in Palestine, say that no one has talked about anything but the elections for weeks. Which is really interesting and I think more than anything attests to the appeal of “Change and Reform” – both the party (that’s the banner under which Hamas candidates ran) and the ideals. Because a little more than a year ago, when they were preparing for the first local elections, particularly men were not at all interested. “Elections can do nothing,” they would say, meaning, as long as we are under occupation, elections are meaningless. Women were more enthusiastic, attending workshops, running for office, and it seemed to me that they had decided –collectively but informally – that since the men were not so interested, this was a form of participation they could take hold of and make theirs. And they did. Women became vice mayors and mayors in villages that had never had a woman on the council before. And they found that it was interesting, and that they were good at it, and that it didn’t undermine the fabric of a traditional Arab-Islamic society.

And possibly, although I have absolutely NOOO empirical evidence for this, that’s one reason that men decided they’d better step up and make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

But more, people in general found that the elections were a way they could have a voice. It might be a voice that no one listened to very much, but it was a way to make a statement. A statement about how fed up and dissatisfied they are, and about how they want things to be. And so with each subsequent election, the use of votes to voice a loud protest got stronger, and unfortunately from my perspective, Hamas was the group that was mobilized to get the protest vote. In the first local elections, most of the candidates were independents. By the third, Hamas was sweeping towns that had traditionally been Communist or Fatah (mainstream nationalist). Not, according to people I know and trust, many of whom voted for Hamas candidates, because they themselves are supporters of Hamas, but because Hamas chose candidates who were “good, honest, independent people.”

My friend Hannah has been going around talking to people about who they voted for, or at least she has been going around, and people are talking very openly about who they voted for, and who their friends voted for. She says many people said they voted for Hamas because of the polling data, that showed Fatah taking a safe plurality, and they felt they wanted to equalize power. So they thought they would send Fatah a message.

She also explained something that I had seen references to, without understanding what it meant: that Fatah did not unify its slates. For those who don’t know, there were two parallel elections: national and district. People voted for candidates from a national list, and then they voted for a candidate from their district, and placed them in two separate ballot boxes. 66 representatives were elected from each list, for a total of 132. In the national election, Fatah and Hamas (Change and Reform) came out almost equal 28 to 29. But in the districts, Change and Reform took 45 and Fatah 17. The main reason for this, Hannah explained, was that in most districts Fatah had many candidates, and Change and Reform only one. So none of the Fatah candidates won. While I didn’t realize that, Fatah’s leadership certainly did, so the fact that they refused to unify certainly means they deserved to lose.

I personally expect, and I don’t say this with any glee at all, Hamas to crash and burn, because, among other things, they are inheriting a government that has already been bankrupted, thanks to Israeli siege, foreign debt, abandonment by its ostensible allies, and a measure of bureaucratic corruption (see my previous blogs on the PA’s financial crisis). So their ability to meet the needs people elected them meet is going to be pretty much curtailed, unless Iran steps in to shore them up, which could do them more harm than good politically. The cynical side of me (some of you might ask, is there another side?) believes that the U.S. and Israeli governments planned this out, to cut Hamas’s knees out from under them before the final carve-out of the pseudo-state is completed. (Israel would be a much better candidate for that planning than the current U.S. government, I have to say.)

But whether they did or didn’t, and whether my predictions are right or wrong, the Palestinian people should be proud of the fact that their clarion call of protest has been heard, loud and clear. If they had done what was expected, and voted for Fatah, the news would have been barely a blip on our internet news services. The US and Israel would have hailed them as marching toward democracy, the US would have taken credit for forcing them into it, and then they would have proceeded to try to muscle them into and through another round of “peace talks” aimed at cementing (literally) the borders that Israel has been busy unilaterally carving out with its bulldozers. Instead, the US regime has had to admit that it does not really believe in democracy, and that is something we have been trying to make them do for years. So for that if nothing else, we must be grateful to the Palestinian people.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bankrupting Palestine

January 19, 2006

So “Paradise Now” won the Golden Globe for best foreign film, which is pretty amazing. Also amazing was the Associated Press article, which identified the filmmaker as “Hany Abu-Assad, an Arab born in Israel — currently living in Holland — who considers himself Palestinian.” Did you ever hear anyone describe Louis Malle as “a white man born in France, currently living in the United States, who considers himself French”?

I don’t believe the writer or his editors intended to be offensive, but the statement illustrates the struggle that Palestinians have to wage every day, to be accepted and understood as a nation. And on that note, we return to the question of U.S. aid to the Palestinian authority.

Let's start with an article I saw in the New York Times in July, entitled, "Palestinian Security Forces Are Found Unfit." It reported the results of a study financed by the Dutch and Canadian governments, but conducted by a Washington-based group called Strategic Assessments Initiative, in close consultation with a U.S.-appointed security coordinator, Lt. Gen. William Ward. So this report, which was apparently intended in part to "guide foreign donors," concluded that "The security forces of the Palestinian Authority are divided, weak, overstaffed, badly motivated and underarmed." It blamed a lot of it on the legacy of Arafat, who on his death became everyone's favorite whipping boy (even more so than when he was alive), citing his "policy of duplication and promoting rivalry within his organization."

There is plenty of truth to claims of corruption in the PA, under Arafat and since. No one has been more relentless in pointing that out than Palestinian activists from all political factions. "Over six years ago [that is, 1988], a Palestinian parliamentary panel conducted an investigation of the PA corruption. The nine-member panel of the Palestinian Legislative Council had, at the time, acted upon the Palestinian State Controller's report that found that nearly half of the authority's $326 million 1997 budget had been lost through corruption or financial mismanagement," wrote Palestinian Jordanian Hasan Abu Nimah in 2004.

But there are a bunch ironies in the security report, which were of course not mentioned in any of the reportage about it. It pointed out that there were too many divided, "largely unintegrated forces like General Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Special Security, Special Forces and the Political Direction Department," something that I observed during my time there. I remember a time during my first three months in Salfit when a coworker and I tried to get a knowledgeable Palestinian friend to explain to us all the different Palestinian security forces and what they did. What the report doesn't mention is that since the Oslo period, the majority of U.S. aid to the PA has been for security, and a lot of those conflicting and competing security forces - twelve separate forces - were established with the aid and support of the U.S. government.

Second, I haven't seen the report itself, but the Times article didn't mention until two-thirds of the way down that Israel had gone "to war against the Palestinian security forces, ... destroying much of their infrastructure." They talk about "traditions of rivalry and personal command," clans, corruption, embezzlement as reasons why there are "few all-terrain vehicles, few radios and no coherent communications network other than the civilian mobile phone system," minimizing the role of the concerted onslaught by the fourth most powerful army in the world. They talk about lack of arms as if Israeli soldiers did not routinely burst into the homes of Palestinian policemen, demanding they produce weapons which they have long since gotten rid of for that very reason. During my time in the West Bank, a huge number of the arrests I documented were policemen of one kind or another.

One of the main reasons for the overstaffing of security forces is the lack of any other jobs. The stranglehold which Israeli closure has imposed on the Occupied Territories, and the failure of the international community to invest in the Palestinian economy, has resulted in a 75% unemployment rate among young men in Gaza, and an official rate of 20% in the West Bank, but in some cities and some seasons, it climbs to over 50%. In 1992, just before Oslo, there were 116,000 Palestinians working inside Israel; by 1996 that number had been reduced to 28,000. At that point, many Palestinians began working in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Since the Intifada began in 2000, that has become increasingly difficult, and permits to work inside Israel have dwindled to a trickle. And in order to work in any Israeli-controlled territory, or even to be allowed to travel between Palestinian areas, from one's village in Salfit to nearby Nablus, for instance, men have to get clearance from the Israeli secret police, and anyone who has been in prison will not get it. So for a large number of men, jobs with the PA are the only option.

Recently the World Bank, backed by the European Commission, withheld $60 million in promised “aid” (the “” are because all World Bank aid is really debt, which ends up enriching the rich countries and destroying the poor ones) – half the allocation for the year – because the PA failed to institute structural adjustment programs that would increase unemployment and poverty. Specifically, the West is upset that the PA is spending too much on salaries – “almost its entire yearly revenue of some $1 billion.” “They have to cut salaries or cut staff,” said Nigel Roberts, the World Bank honcho in the OPT, in a January 8, 2006 interview with the New York Times. (

Yet Roberts admits that the fiscal crisis is not of the Palestinians’ making. “The checkpoints and the barrier cost the Palestinian economy about 5 percent real growth every year, Mr. Roberts said. That is a major toll, given that 10 percent real growth would be needed to solve the unemployment problem. In 1999, before this intifada and the Israeli response, the Palestinian Authority had a balanced budget and needed no outside support. Now, even though revenues have recovered to where they were in 1999, the deficit has ballooned.” The article cites a further Catch-22: The severe unemployment among youth, especially in Gaza, is causing more of them to be recruited into the militant groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but the strength of the militant groups is deterring the foreign investment which is cited as the only thing “that can offer enough jobs for the growing population of young men.”

Meanwhile, in another shocking development, in August a Rhode Island judge ordered all the PA’s “U.S.-based assets” frozen because of its failure to pay a $116 million judgment won by the family of Yaron and Efrat Ungar in a lawsuit against the PA and PLO. The Ungars, dual US-Israeli citizens, were killed in a Hamas bombing in 1996. Originally there was a $116 million judgment issued against Hamas (good luck collecting that one), but then the Ungar heirs sued the PLO and PA, arguing that they “provided a safe haven” for the bombers, and won. (In another twist of weirdness, the Ungar case is one of the precedents which is being used by Palestinian survivors of Israeli terror attacks to sue two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, Avi Dichter and Moshe Yaalon. (,7340,L-3185131,00.html))

But back to the frozen assets, once again, I wondered how many US-based assets the PA/PLO have. Quite a lot, it turns out. According to the Boston Globe, “The frozen assets include US holdings in a $1.3 billion Palestinian investment fund meant to finance economic development as well as bank accounts used to pay Palestinian representatives in Washington, according to lawyers and court documents filed in Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and New York. Also frozen are about $30 million in assets from the Palestinian Monetary Authority, the Palestinian equivalent of the US Federal Reserve.”

And now, finally, the bush regime has threatened that “aid to the Palestinian Authority would be reviewed and possibly reduced if it gave Hamas a role in government after this month’s Palestinian election, U.S. diplomatic sources said on Friday.” ( Okay, wait a minute. Who’s talking about “giving” them a role in government? Actually, as far as I can tell, Abu Mazen and the P.A. are doing everything in their power to prevent Hamas from gaining power. Some friends who are there have relayed the speculation that the Authority is behind the rash of kidnapping internationals and other attacks in Gaza, hoping it will reach a point that would give them an excuse to cancel the elections. Remember elections? Those things where the people get to decide who they want in power? The measure of democracy, that we’re so proud of engineering in Iraq and Afghanistan?

“The United States wants the January 25 parliamentary election to take place as scheduled to strengthen Palestinian democracy and has reluctantly accepted Hamas's participation in the poll,” the nearly incomprehensible article goes on. “But Washington is wary that Hamas, making its first bid for parliamentary seats, could make a strong enough showing against Abbas's dominant Fatah movement to win cabinet seats. U.S. diplomatic sources warned that such an outcome would prompt a review of U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians because of existing U.S. prohibitions on providing any "material support" to groups on Washington's terrorism list.”

What exactly is the bush administration suggesting that Abu Mazen do? Prevent people from voting if they’re likely to vote for Hamas, as they did in Egypt? (No, that’s right, it wasn’t Hamas, it was the Muslim Brotherhood.) Not count the votes of people who vote for Hamas, like they did in Ohio? (No, it wasn’t Hamas, it was the Democrats – almost the same thing.)

So if I understand the situation correctly, the PA is supposed to dismantle the militant groups, but it can’t pay any of its security people, and it can’t pay security people because it can’t attract foreign investment, and it can’t get foreign investors because people are voting for Hamas, and people are voting for Hamas because the PA can’t do anything, especially about unemployment and the lack of services, and the PA can’t do anything because all its assets are frozen.

All of this underlines the impossible situation the PA is in, that it is expected to function as a government, without any self-determination. Pardon the analogy, but it is as if the Judenrat (the Jewish Councils installed by the Nazis to run the ghettos) were being told by the world to figure out how to feed all the Jews in Europe on a balanced budget, while their property was confiscated and they were forbidden to go outside the ghetto.

Shortly before I left Palestine for the last time, my teammates and I had lunch with a guy who had lived in the States for a long time, who said that Arafat (who was still alive) and the entire P.A. should resign and force the Israelis to fulfill their responsibility as an occupying power. Basically, he argued, the P.A. is facilitating the occupation.

The illusive question of just what "Palestine" is rears its head even among the gliterati. The announcement of “Paradise Now”’s triumph at the Golden Globes “ruffled some feathers in Israel and elsewhere since Palestinians do not yet have a state. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that it was incorrect to refer to a Palestine before a Palestinian state has been established.” Three years ago, the Motion Picture Academy refused to consider Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention” for an Oscar, on the grounds that Palestine was “not a country recognized by the United Nations,” but apparently that position has softened in the last few years. "There are other areas as well that are recognized for Foreign Language Awards purposes that are not countries — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Puerto Rico. The (Academy's Foreign Language) committee wishes to be as inclusive as possible,” the AP quoted an Academy spokesman. ( )

Well I say, if you're a state enough to be expected to pay your debts and feed your people while some other country is stealing all your resources, you're a state enough to have your movies win foreign prizes. And maybe all the money "Paradise Now" will make at the box office can pay off that $116 million judgment to the Ungars.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Arafat Redux

January 16, 2006

I'm having deja vu.

Just over a year ago, the world held its breath as a leader lay unconscious. As die-hard supporters predicted that he would improbably return to lead his people for another decade, pundits speculated about what his death would mean for the precarious Middle East peace process that he alone had been able to carve out of an endless cycle of violence.

If there's a life after death, Yasir Arafat must be enjoying the knowledge that the man who blocked his lifelong ambition, to be the one to bring freedom to his people, is now denied the opportunity he only recently realized he wanted (if he did) to be the one to bring "peace" to his. The media, which accepted Sharon's reimaging from hawk to dove much more easily than they did Arafat's more credible transformation, try to tell us that Palestinians are saddened by Sharon's impending death. Okay, they say, some people remember a little incident in Lebanon 20 years ago that he might have had a hand in - as if the massacres at Sabra and Shatila had not been proven in an Israeli court to be Sharon's responsibility, as if that was the last thing Palestinians have to be angry at Sharon for, as if he had not been the one to scuttle the last "peace process" with his brazen march to Haram al-Sharaf. An Israeli friend who is hanging out in Ramallah said succinctly, "Yeah, the tears are really flowing here."

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, one of the most prolific and articulate English language writers in Palestine, expressed the mainstream Palestinian perspective this way: “With the Israeli PM, so to say, laying the foundations for a very unjust peace agreement with the Palestinians, it would be fair to say that in terms of striking a genuine peace agreement, which many Palestinians and Israel's have sought, the future looks quite grim. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, and what many media and political analysts have been uttering in recent days, that Palestinians have lost a partner they can do business with, Palestinians have actually been freed from a unilateralist leader.”

Prime Minister Qurei did send good wishes to Sharon's family, which is ironic since a year ago, the pre-pacific Sharon and his buddies couldn't stop toasting each other long enough to announce that under no circumstances would Arafat be buried in Jerusalem. This disparity of expectations is testimony to the huge power imbalance that exists between the Palestinians and the state of Israel, that the Palestinian leadership cannot say what they really think even about a man who has spent his entire adult life murdering Palestinians. I feel the humiliation, just thinking about it.

Will anyone in the mainstream U.S. media point that out? I doubt it. Will they even remember it? I doubt it. Already they are writing stories about how the expected success of Hamas in the coming Palestinian elections will scuttle the "peace process", not even mentioning that it is solely due to Hamas that there has been a sharp decline in violence in the last six months, and that Israel’s idea of a peace process has meant killing nearly 100 Palestinians since the “disengagement” from Gaza (, approving a huge new settlement expansion on the edge of Modiin Ilit (, completing the isolation of Bethlehem by the Wall just in time for Xmas and adding insult to injury by posting a sign saying “Go In Peace” in Hebrew, English and Arabic signed “Israeli Ministry of Tourism”. My Israeli friend Dorothy Naor writes that it reminds her of the “Arbeit Machts Frei” sign posted over the gate to Auschwitz.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports today that “U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority would be reviewed and possibly reduced if it gave Hamas a role in government after this month's Palestinian election, U.S. diplomatic sources said on Friday.”

I wondered, how much money does the U.S. government give to the PA? Hard to get an exact figure, but the State Department website talks about an annual total of $200 million, but it doesn’t normally go directly to the PA - a $20 million grant for utilities approved in December 2004 and tied to the January 2005 presidential election was “only the second time in history” that US money went directly to the PA, and required a special policy waiver by president Bush. So where does it go?

According to a May 2005 Washington Post article, “In the emergency spending bill that lawmakers completed late Tuesday, the White House had sought $200 million ‘to support Palestinian political, economic, and security reforms,’…. But the fine print of the document gives $50 million of that money directly to Israel to build terminals for people and goods at checkpoints surrounding Palestinian areas. Another $2 million for Palestinian health care will be provided to Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, while the allocation of the rest of the money is tightly prescribed.”

Keep in mind that U.S. government direct aid to the Israeli state - not counting this $50 million for checkpoints - is about $14 million a DAY or $5.1 BILLION.

I am learning more interesting stuff about US aid to the PA but that will wait for another time. I want to close with this encouraging statement made by Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff in today’s Haaretz, "Deep in my heart, I know it's impossible to reach any peace agreement with the Palestinians without Hamas" because without it, the Palestinian Authority is not representative enough.”

My Arabic teacher Adwan, echoes that point. His village, Jayyous, elected a majority of Hamas candidates to their local council in the recent municipal election. But, Adwan says, it doesn’t mean that people are necessarily in favor of all of an Islamist regime, or are in agreement with all of Hamas’s principles. People voted for the Hamas candidates, he says, because they were good people, honest, an independent. Hamas picked people who were not necessarily members of their party, he says.

I’m very interested to try to learn more about why Hamas would do that, and why “good, honest, independent” people are drawn to Hamas. But what is clear is that the simplistic “good vs. evil” narrative that the US media likes to apply to the conflict will not help us to understand, or to influence the situation in a positive way.

Shut Down Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib!