Watching peace talks, Palestinians plan for self-government

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- In a cramped office here, Sari Nusseibeh pores over texts with such dozing titles as "The 1991 Election in Zambia" and "Paraguay's Elections."

The philosophy instructor is in charge of figuring out how to organize an election, in case Palestinians get to hold one.


At An-Najah University in Nablus, Mazen Husni is collecting electricity bills from all the West Bank towns. He must figure out how much power is needed, in case Palestinians have to provide their own.

These are among the Palestinians' first, unsteady steps in planning their own state, as they hope the Middle East peace negotiations produce an agreement for self-rule.


Even if statehood is unlikely, Israel's prime minister has promised that an agreement on autonomy would leave Palestinians in control of dozens of governmental levers they have not pulled in the 25 years since Israel's invasion.

Their attempt to figure out what to do is an extraordinary effort: 20 committees of college professors, politicians and volunteer experts-- some of whom have not worked in their field in a quarter-century-- are trying to design a government to serve 2 million people.

"A lot of it is trial," acknowledges Dr. Nusseibeh, who is in charge of coordinating the committees.

According to critics, some of those trials are floundering. Several unusually biting articles in the Arabic press have criticized the Palestinian leadership as woefully unprepared for the self-government it is seeking at the negotiating table.

The committee approach "does not deal realistically with existing facts," Mustafa Barghouthi, a physician writing in the Arabic newspaper Al-Fajar, complained. Palestinians do have their own hospitals and doctors. But they were ignored in favor of creating "a huge bureaucratic structure."

Other critics say the planning should have been under way for years.

"We are trying to look at the future," never an easy task, said Dr. Nusseibeh.

The view often is not encouraging. Take, for example, the energy committee, on which Dr. Husni, head of the computer center at An-Najah University, sits.


Before the 1967 war, power for the municipalities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was largely supplied by local generating plants.

Dr. Husni, an electrical engineer, found all but one of those plants, a small station that provides 30 percent of the power of Nablus, have been shut down, are rusting and inoperable. Israel now supplies 98 percent of the power to the occupied territories.

"The Israelis wanted us to rely on them completely," he said. "They choked off the plants by preventing any spare parts from being imported. For a long time the people made rough spare parts to keep them going, but eventually they would need a highly technical part and they couldn't get it."

Privately, another expert familiar with the situation said the Palestinian operators of the plant are as much to blame for its low production.

If the West Bank and Gaza Strip are to get autonomy or statehood, they could not depend on Israel for power, Dr. Husni said. Jordan could provide only about 30 percent of the needed power, and Egypt very little, he said.

The Energy Committee proposes buying small diesel generators to provide some power and restoring some of the old plants. Eventually the plan calls for building a steam-driven power plant in Gaza to desalinate water and provide power to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


It is "an ambitious" program, he noted. It would also require lots of money-- $300,000 just to start, and millions later, he said.

Much of the infrastructure-- roads, housing, power and telephones -- has been virtually untouched in 25 years. Although Israel has plowed new roads and laid utility lines to Jewish settlements in the territories, Arab towns have been largely neglected.

"Everything has deteriorated: there are no roads, no industrial sites, no telephones," said Dr. Husni. "People return from abroad and they say nothing has changed. It's just been abandoned."

The committees set up by the Palestinians touch on a broad range of services: housing, health, education, police, economic development, tourism.

Palestinians have been dispatched abroad to learn to be diplomats. German broadcasters have been brought in to teach Palestinian journalists how to set up a television station. There even is a committee on antiquities.

The groups are working under handicaps. One is money. Dr. Nusseibeh had to borrow funds for a copy machine and word processor before he received $6,000 from Britain, and then $40,000 from Canada.


Another is disputes among Palestinian factions. Critics say appointments to the committees have been more political than practical. Palestinian factions opposed to the peace talks have refused to join the committees.

"The Israelis have shown no readiness to make concessions," said Dr. Barghouthi. "We may find ourselves falling into the Israeli trap: busying ourselves with the administrative details of people's affairs, while the occupation -- settlement-building and Israeli control of laws and land -- continues unchecked."

The committees also have been hampered by Israel's reluctance to surrender information. Dr. Husni's group, for example, had to collect bills from all the municipalities to estimate power usage. Israel refused to give the figures.

Nor has Israel been pleased with the results. In the peace talks, Israel suggested Palestinians ought to think about a police force. When the Palestinians then suggested 20,000 officers might be needed in the West Bank and Gaza, the figure sent shudders through Israelis.

But Arab and Israeli negotiators at economic development talks in Paris have agreed on a program to train Palestinians for self-rule.

Palestinians have many assets in planning a self-government.


They have a huge pool of educated people. More than any Arab group except perhaps Lebanese, Palestinians have valued and sought education here and abroad. There are five Palestinian Universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Furthermore, among the 300,000 Palestinians kicked out of Kuwait after the gulf war are many professionals who built and operated Kuwait's government and companies.

"We have people who have done major housing projects in Kuwait, who have run their power systems, their communications," said Dr. Husni.

And finally, they can hope to draw money from Palestinians who have earned riches abroad, from Western nations anxious to see peace in this contentious region and from other Arab nations.

Whether they will ever get a chance to try to put their plans into effect depends on the peace negotiations. Dr. Husni is not overly optimistic. But he is working on the chance the peace talks may succeed.

"We should prepare everything ahead of time," he said. "We should be ready."