Palestinian Authority is hobbled and broke

The Baltimore Sun

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Palestinian parliament was scheduled to meet this week to grapple with a packed agenda, including an update on the 2006 budget, a discussion about a new contemporary affairs textbook for the public schools and a vote on supporting the marketing of Palestinian olive oil.

But with nearly one-third of their fellow members locked away in Israeli jails, lawmakers suspended the meeting, unsure whether they would be able to muster enough votes to approve even the most routine legislation.

"Our council is becoming ineffective because we can't do our normal work," said Azam al-Ahmed, parliamentary chief for the Fatah party. "The Palestinian situation is frozen."

During the two months since Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier near the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces have carried out a far-reaching and punishing military offensive against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, knocking out a power plant and bombing bridges, roads and government offices in Gaza. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.

In the West Bank, where Israeli forces move freely, Israel has taken a different approach. In sweeping raids, Israeli troops have been rounding up and jailing Hamas officials, charging them with membership in an illegal, terrorist organization.

Israel is holding five members of the Palestinian Cabinet -- including the deputy prime minister -- and more than two dozen other lawmakers. Combined with the 14 lawmakers who were already in prison, 39 of the 132 elected council members are behind bars, Palestinian officials said.

"I think Israel wants to send a message that the Authority means nothing to them," said Hasan Khreisheh, 51, who became acting speaker of the legislative council after the arrest this month of Abdel Aziz Dweik, the council speaker. "They can change the rules of the game. They want to humiliate us."

An independent who ran with Hamas during the elections, Khreisheh was arrested by Israeli police in July, when he returned from a business trip to Germany. He was released after 20 days without being charged.

Israel's tough measures against the Palestinians, however, have done far more than humiliate the Palestinian Authority. Already battered by a six-month international economic blockade, the Hamas-led government has largely stopped functioning.

Workers have not received full paychecks in six months. Hospitals warn that they are running out of even basic supplies. Most ministries lack the foreign financial grants they have long depended on to continue with their duties.

It's now one year since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, ushering in hopes of restarting the peace process, but poverty is rising, and Palestinians express little confidence that a peace agreement will be within reach anytime soon.

"The authority is a facade, basically," said Ali Jirbawi, professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah. "Society is moving by its own inertia. People for the past six months haven't got their salaries and still they go to work, but what do they deliver?"

Not much, government employees admit.

At the Palestinian Legislative Council headquarters on Wednesday, about a two dozen council staff members sat at their desks reading newspapers or surfing the Internet. Others smoked and drank tea as they lounged on sofas in the office of one of the jailed lawmakers. In an office nearby, a woman rested her head on her desk trying to sleep.

The council chambers are themselves part of a protest on behalf of the jailed lawmakers, the empty council seats crowded with photographs of the missing lawmakers.

"We can't do anything. Everything has stopped," said Aisha Naser, 35, director of the planning and development unit for the council. She spends her days studying for a graduate degree in economics, she said.

One of the few government offices that still appear busy is the Ministry of Education, where officials are preparing for the opening day of school next month. But ministry officials worry that they might not be ready to provide students with classrooms, teachers or books.

"It's really a mess," said Basri Saleh, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.

The economic boycott has meant there has been little money for school repairs during the summer or funds to pay for the 10 million textbooks on order. The printers in any case might not be able meet their orders because of paper shortages created by the economic crisis.

Hoping to ease the financial burden on students' families, the ministry slashed school fees in half to $4.50 a student for the new school year. Because the fees are used by the schools to pay for electricity and water, however, the reduction might leave many schools without money to pay utility bills.

More worrying is the threat by Palestinian teachers to join a strike on Sept. 2, the first day of school, along with all the other 165,000 Palestinian Authority employees who have not been paid.

"This will deprive 1 million students of education and also the Palestinians will not be able to receive medical treatment," said Bassam Zakarneh, head of Palestinian Authority workers union, who organized small demonstrations outside the government ministries in Ramallah this week.

"It's not our job to tell the government what to do, but they must find a solution," he said.

The shrinking role of the Palestinian Authority in public life has made the chances of restoring order even more remote. One sign of the increasing lawlessness in the Palestinian territories was the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists last week by a previously unknown militant group. It is demanding the release of all Muslims imprisoned by the United States in exchange for their captives.

Palestinian officials from all political factions have denounced the kidnappings.

Scrambling for a way out of the growing chaos, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to cobble together a new government of technocrats and independents that would be acceptable to the U.S. and Western donors. But he has made little progress in convincing Hamas to surrender control of the government.

Palestinians accuse Israel of deliberately undermining their efforts to form a new, more centrist government by Israel's jailing of lawmakers, making debates and votes all but impossible. Israeli officials, however, say the arrests are meant to prevent terrorist actions by Hamas.

Abbas' efforts to moderate Hamas have also been compromised by Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas was emboldened by Hezbollah's fierce resistance against Israel, leaving many Palestinians with the impression that resistance might be preferable to negotiations.

"Many people thought Hezbollah would collapse in three hours, but they were astonished how Hezbollah resisted the Israeli occupier," Khreisheh said.

But the war in Lebanon also highlighted the weakness of Palestinian resistance, which after five years of fighting achieved few of the successes that Hezbollah accomplished during one month of fighting.

Still, Israeli government officials and analysts say Israel is less concerned about the Palestinian threat than the possibility of conflicts with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

"The Palestinians is a problem that Israel lives with. The prospect of war with Syria and Iran, even though they might not be great, is going to address the minds of the top Israeli leadership at the expense of the Palestinian," said Hillel Frisch, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Frustrated by inability of the government to resolve this crisis or win international attention for their cause, some Palestinian leaders have proposed dissolving the Palestinian Authority.

Israel might then be forced, as an occupying power, to take control of all Palestinian hospitals, school and public institution -- powers it exercised before the 1994 Oslo Accords established the Palestinian Authority for a future Palestinian state. Such a move would place a huge financial burden on Israel.

After his detention by Israeli authorities in July, Khreisheh said he wondered why the Palestinian Authority should continue if Israel refused to recognize it.

"What is the value of the Authority? Why is Israel not respecting the authority?" he asked.

Abbas has dismissed calls for an end to the Authority, demanding instead renewed efforts to form a unity government. But some members of Abbas' Fatah party say that dissolving the government could be their best move.

Few people would notice it was gone, they say.

"The Palestinian Authority has been paralyzed for many years but now it has increased," said Azam al-Ahmed, the Fatah parliamentary chief. "During [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's era, the Palestinian Authority couldn't do anything either, but at least it was a way to pay salaries."

Now, the Palestinian Authority cannot be counted on even for that.

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