One year ago, as a consequence of the failed coup d'état attempted by the Fatah MP Mohammad Dahlan, the Palestinian President Abu Mazen decreed a State of Emergency, appointing in place of the Hamas-dominated government, a new cabinet run by Salam Fayyad.
Fayyad's party had received only 2 seats out of 132 in the January 2006 legislative elections, but Fayyad, a high ranking officer of the World Bank and of the International Monetary Fund, was the Prime Minister that the United States and the European Union wanted. The blackmail of withholding financial assistance and tax receipts since Hamas was elected easily overcame Abu Mazen's minor objections to this "choice." Fayyad began in his new position in mid-June 2007 and started undertaking a series of reforms in the West Bank Palestinian Territories. One year later, it is relatively easy to understand the job assigned to Fayyad: to disarm the resistance and move the centre of attraction of the Palestinian question from political to economic, by normalizing relations with Israel. It consists in imposing what I call a "Silence-for-Food Program," the objective of which is to stabilize the West Bank by improving the living standards of part of the population without fulfilling the national demands of the Palestinian people.
"Imposing Law and Order" and... Disarming the Resistance
This is one of the two priorities set by the Salam Fayyad cabinet: the "return to security" in the Palestinian territories. This has four components:
* A reform of the security services, with several leaders forced to retire and their replacement with individuals known to be close to the US (such as Hazem Atallah, named in charge of the West Bank police forces, in place of Kamal Sheikh, a Fatah member but considered too kind to Hamas). * A reinforcement of the security services through training of hundreds of new recruits in education camps in Jordan and Jericho. * Spectacular "order restoration" security operations involving a large number of policemen and soldiers, especially in Nablus and Jenin. * The multiplication of arrests of Hamas members and their sympathizers.
It is the articulation of these four tasks that gives the "security" policy of Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad all its coherence. Most of these new security service officers (local and national) have no history as Intifada leaders or members of Fatah's military wing. They are especially efficient "security professionals," chosen without political considerations. In addition, according to information I was able to gather, the new recruits that trained in Jordan and that were involved in the Nablus and Jenin operations were selected from the poorest, the less educated, and the less politicized sectors of the Palestinian population, not from the Hamas activists. They are more inclined to obey orders, even when they have to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or members of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Brigades, with whom they don't share any common activist past.
The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was able to exploit the security chaos in certain West Bank towns that prevailed since Israel's dismantling of the Palestinian security forces during the years 2002-2003. In Nablus and Jenin armed gangs multiplied, kidnapping shopkeepers for ransom, stealing cars, or offering their services to whomever needed mercenaries for executing some dirty jobs. The PNA claimed that it was only in order to end this chaos that the "order restoration" security operations were conducted. Actually, the massive deployment of hundreds of armed men did put a halt to gang activities.
But, disarming the last groups of the resistance, the second objective of these operations performed in coordination with Israel and the US , did not happen without a series of incidents: in Nablus and Jenin violent confrontations took place against the security clampdown on Al-Aqsa Brigades and Islamic Jihad activists. There were dead and wounded; even passer-bys got shot by these young recruits, who are clearly poorly trained by the Jordanians. The Nablus governor, in charge of supervising the operation, was himself targeted by snipers during a visit to the Balata camp.
It is clear to me that these incidents conclude the period of armed resistance in the West Bank which started in October 2000. This is a new era.
These incidents were the last sign of opposition by the fighters themselves to the disarming policy initiated by the PNA. This led several hundred Al-Aqsa members (e.g., 250, just in the Nablus district) to publicly renounce armed struggle in exchange for an Israeli amnesty, and also led to hundreds of Hamas members laying down their arms under pressure from the security forces.1 It is difficult to obtain reliable data for the past year, with the numbers varying greatly among different sources. But one can estimate that approximately 200 Hamas members or sympathizers have been arrested by the PNA in the last two months.
It is also important to notice that there were relatively few armed incidents during these clampdowns, in contrast to what happened with Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Brigades, which seems to confirm that Hamas has decided to avoid a confrontation with the PNA in the West Bank and a useless battle for "autonomous zones" which are in reality anyway controlled by Israel.
"Boosting the Palestinian Economy" and ... Normalizing the Occupation
Economic issues are at the heart of Salam Fayyad's project, not surprising when one knows his resume. One of the major milestones of the past year was the Paris Donor Country Conference in December. The Ramallah government presented a 58-page report titled "Building a Palestinian State," which contained its economic plan for 2008-2010, and for which it was requesting "exceptional" financial grants. The major part of the report is dedicated to economic and fiscal questions; the document itself is subtitled "Toward Peace and Prosperity." Salam Fayyad and Abu Mazen have obviously succeeded in convincing the donor countries, since the latter actually promised to donate some $7.7 billion, even though the PNA was asking "only" for $5.6 billion, a 37.5 percent increase.
The sponsors were seduced by the program elaborated by the ex-World Bank leader: reduce the public deficit by decreasing the number of civil servants, freeze salaries, and start collecting debts from the population, open the Palestinian economy to foreign investments, and make the private sector the main economic driver of growth . Security issues were not missing: Fayyad offered to keep the security force budget at more than one third of the total PNA budget. One can learn this way that, for the year 2008, the program "Transformation and Reform of the Security Sector" has a budget equivalent to the total of the programs "Access to Education" and "Improvement of Health Service Quality."
This will sound familiar to those who studied the Structural Adjustment Programs designed for Sub-Saharan Africa countries during the 80's and the 90's by the Bretton Woods Institutions ( IMF and World Bank).
Another remarkable element of the report is the following: neither in the foreword nor in the conclusion is it written that the end of the occupation is a necessary condition for the success of the projects supported in the report. One can read only about "a vision that can be implemented if reinforcing steps are quickly taken in the spirit of the understandings reached at Annapolis" and the fact that the "occupation regime" must not stay as a "status quo."
In other words, at the Paris Conference as well as in his many declarations regarding the "Palestinian Reform and Development Plan for 2008-2010," Salam Fayyad believes that under the military occupation regime a series of reforms and projects are supposed to change the economic and social conditions in the Palestinian territories and bring them peace and prosperity. This is what one can call normalization of the occupation and of the relationships with the occupier, a fortiori when several of these projects (tourism, industrial areas, especially in Jenin, in the shadow of the Wall) are considered as joint developments by the PNA and Israel.
A new milestone of this economic orientation of neo-liberal recipes and normalization was reached during the Palestinian Investment Conference (PIC), organised in Bethlehem at the end of May. Initiated by the Palestinian private sector and widely supported by the PNA with, among others, the presence of Abbas and Fayyad, PIC was the opportunity for more than 1,000 private group representatives or executives to formalize investment projects in the Palestinian territories. Approximately $1.5 billion were thus "promised," to the pride of the conference organisers.
The PIC itself took place amidst the signs of normalization. At the entrance of Bethlehem, a Palestinian city, there were billboards such as: "The Israeli Civil Administration and the Israeli Defence Forces welcome the participants to the Conference." One may say this is just symbolic, but at the same time it is deeply meaningful: usually one welcomes people coming to one's home, not to the homes of one's neighbours. There were also representatives of the Israeli private sector and discussions about Israeli-Palestinian economic projects, with the military occupation as a given. There was, finally, an omnipresent idea, hammered by interveners and organizers: the problem of the Palestinians is before all else an economic problem. The only demand made of Israel was to lighten its grip over Palestinian towns and ease the transportation of goods.
A "Silence-for-Food Program"... Doomed to Failure
The conditions imposed on Fayyad, who is nothing more than the Palestinian political representative, for obtaining economic aid, either from foreign investors or from donor countries, are very clear: a "return to order" which includes the end of the armed resistance and a stronger normalization with the Israeli occupier. The PNA, for whom foreign support is a matter of political survival, did not protest. Things are far more complex for the population.
The residents of the West Bank Palestinian territories, suffering from military strangulation and economic asphyxia, disillusioned by a military "Intifada" which ended in defeat, by violent repression, by thousands of dead and arrested, and often exasperated by the multiplication of gangs, who exploit the chaos to develop their Mafia-style businesses, did not rise up against the policy conducted by the Fayyad cabinet.
But the management team in power is far removed from the popular mood. Gallup polls show that the Ramallah government is less popular in the West Bank than the government of Ismaïl Haniyah. In addition, certain rulings by Salam Fayyad have been widely disputed, like the obligation to pay all debts before obtaining any administrative document, or the salary freeze of the civil servants. In the first case, the ruling had to be revoked. In the latter, a powerful strike forced the government to open negotiations, while trying to punish the strikers at the same time.
But it would be an exaggeration to claim that West Bankers are on the verge of a rebellion against Fayyad's cabinet. The latter has more to fear from parts of the Fatah leadership relegated to the sidelines by Fayyad. . The population has other worries, not necessarily less material, but far more urgent: inflation (the prices of flour and rice have doubled in one year), unemployment, and the difficulty for many youths to manage their studies and paid work.
This is why, while many assert that the government will never change their living conditions, others, who have no illusion about the long term effects of Fayyad's policy, and are not expecting anything from him regarding his negotiations with Israel, have a wait-and-see attitude toward Fayyad, who promises "return of the international grants," job creation, and a lighter blockade. This is a rather utilitarian vision of a cabinet which was put in place at a time when, because of the cut off of the grants, the economic crisis had reached new heights.
Thus, the current situation is actually very unstable: Fayyad's political survival depends upon a significant improvement in the living conditions of the West Bank population, which may have -- in case of failure -- no other choice than rising up again. Such is the fragile basis of the "Silence-for-Food Program" plan. One can better understand the insistence of Tony Blair, chief supervisor of the plan, that Israel lighten travel restrictions. If a significant number of checkpoints are not dismantled , there will be no economic improvement and the whole edifice will collapse.
One can also try to think about the middle-term future and, without trying to play Cassandra, try to cautiously forecast the Blair-Fayyad plan's chances of success. Palestinian security forces are more and more criticised: even if they were able to disband the armed gangs -- to the great relief of the population -- they still often have a very hostile attitude towards ordinary people, either on a daily basis or during special events like the PIC in Bethlehem. A report severely criticizing interrogation and detention conditions in the Palestinian jails was recently submitted to Abbas; Palestinian security services' coordination with the Israelis is widely condemned, all the more so with the Israeli army continuing their operations.
People know that the security plan for Jenin includes a "joint monitoring" of the city from midnight to 6am. They also know that on last May 28, while a coordination meeting with Brigadier General Noam Tibon, commander of forces in the occupied West Bank, and Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, the head of the civil administration, was held in the PNA buildings in Ramallah, the Israeli army was bombing Gaza, killing two civilians.
These are elements and events which do not predict a serene future regarding Palestinians and "their own" security forces, which are a major pillar of Abu Mazen and Fayyad's policy.
In addition, one can seriously question the assurance of a Palestinian economic upturn with sustained growth that could benefit the entire population. The ever stronger submission to the "rules" of neoliberalist capitalism of an economy destroyed by sixty years of Israeli occupation and dependency can only lead to scepticism, especially when one adds to these considerations the disastrous balance-sheet of the various Structural Adjustment Plans that have mandated these same types of "reforms." Far from raising the standard of living of people, they made it fall instead; in addition they favoured the development of well known phenomena in the Palestinian territories: clientelism and bribery.
On the security side as well as on the economic side, Israel has not demonstrated any will for any real cooperation with Fayyad and Abu Mazen. Recurrent incursions into cities theoretically managed by the PNA discredit the security forces even more, as do arrests of fighters "amnestied" and under control of the PNA. Assurances of lightening blockages have so far been translated, according to the UN, into an increase of check points and blockades.
Beyond these reservations for the short and medium terms resides a major obstacle, which is the main weakness of the "Silence-for-Food Program": colonization and land seizures continue at a frantic pace (Israel recently announced the building of 800 new houses in two West Bank settlements) and no realization of Palestinian national rights is in view. The major omission of the plan is the Gaza Strip, unless it is no longer regarded as part of the Palestinian territories: who can seriously think that the catastrophic consequences of the Gaza blockade imposed on its 1.5 million inhabitants cannot be the cause for an explosion tomorrow?
The neutralization of armed gangs and the resumption of international grants enable Fayyad and his cabinet to stay in place in relative calm. But the fragility of the situation, the clear limitations of the Blair-Fayyad plan, and its inherent weaknesses indicate major future disappointments for anyone who thinks that the Palestinians will give up their national demands. The current stage is temporary and everyone here knows that in a society in which 50 percent of the population is under 15 years old it is not promises of "lendemain qui chantent" (a bright future) and a few thousand Palestinian uniforms that will prevent a new generation with nothing to lose from revolting and resisting in its turn.