[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

February 21, 2006

 

This week in Palestine….. Behind the news with Hanna Siniora

 

 

This Week in Palestine …behind the news with Hanna Siniora

 

New Era

 

The first session of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was held in Ramallah and Gaza through video conferencing. The PLC elected the new speaker, a Hamas educator with an American PhD, Dr. Aziz Dweik and his two deputies Al-Bahar from Gaza, and Hasan Khreisheh from Tulkarem. President Mahmoud Abbas, delivered the speech opening the first session of the PLC elaborating the President’s program including adherence of the PA to all the signed agreements, a policy of negotiating according to the road map process, a call for non-violent resistance, and asking the Hamas controlled government to recognize and negotiate with the government of Israel.

 

Immediately many Hamas spokespersons rejected the call to recognize Israel and indicated that they will govern based on their platform that led to their elections. At the same time they clarified their willingness to work with President Abbas on points of convergence of the Hamas and President’s platforms: reform, good governance, providing better services, creating jobs and improving the economy and seeking national unity through dialogue to surmount differences.

 

The Israeli government took decisions for immediate sanctions, the freezing of revenues that are transferred monthly to the PA, close to NIS 250 million from VAT and customs. It seems that although the transfer for the month of February will be allowed – but perhaps late due to Israeli elections, as Hamas has not yet formed the new cabinet to be headed by Ismail Haniya. Also the Israeli government closed two passageways, Keren Shalom (which has not yet been opened) and Sufa and declared Karni and Erez as International crossings on the borders of Israel-Gaza. The only crossing with Egypt, Rafah passageway, remained under Palestinian administration with EU monitoring.

 

Economic Repercussions

 

As a result of the Israeli decisions, the Paris Economic protocol that survived the Oslo process and the unilateral disengagement from Gaza is likely to be unilaterally abrogated and a vacuum will develop as no other economic protocol exists to replace the former arrangements. Gaza exports, mainly fresh produce and flowers have no possibility to leave Gaza for export to Europe through any other place than Karni. Israel has announced that it will refuse to deal bilaterally with a Hamas dominated PA and thus for the immediate short term, it is likely that a main source of income of Gaza will vanish.

 

An anomaly is developing, contacts between Gaza and the West Bank are cut and Gaza is left with no new economic arrangements, while in the West Bank, until the separation wall is finished by the end of 2006, the Paris economic protocol will continue to be valid. The revenues will be collected by Israel but no transfer of these funds to the PA. Unemployment, fall in GDP, a rise in the number of families under the poverty line will ensue. The PA after February will be unable to pay the salaries of some 130,000 civil servants and the million beneficiaries that are supported by the PA.

 

Hamas Cabinet

 

The Hamas movement has announced that the new Prime Minister (PM) is the head of the Hamas list in the PLC Ismail Haniyya. Presidernt Abbas will be consulting with Haniya in Gaza, as Israel will not allow Hamas members even the PM from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank. Even if the new PM will try to travel through Egypt then Jordan to arrive to the West Bank, Israeli border police who control the Jordan-Palestine passageways would not allow the PM to enter the West Bank. The seat of the cabinet will be in Gaza city.

 

PM Haniya has not indicated the composition of his cabinet, key positions like the new Interior Minister who controls security has not yet been named although the job will go to a member of the Hamas movement, the door is still wide open for a coalition between the two big parties, Hamas and Fatah, though Fatah until this moment shows reluctance in joining such a coalition. The next few days in negotiations between Abbas and Haniya, a breakthrough might develop which is the best possible outcome for the Palestinian people under the present difficult circumstances. The USA not only stopped economic support for the PA, but asked Mahmoud Abbas to return $ 50 million of funding which he did immediately for approved infrastructure projects.

 

 

 

PA and Hamas Priorities

 

The Hamas cabinet will face its responsibilities sometime in March. The Government will have to tackle two immediate issues, payment of salaries and creating jobs. To pay salaries they have to find new resources to cover close to a hundred million dollars a month to cover the existing monthly deficit. The Arab League announced that it will seek to provide fifty million dollars a month, no-body knows for how many months. Still the other fifty million will be hard to find as EU funding is tied to good governance, solid security arrangements and complying to EU reform and slim the civil servants body, and radical changes in the Hamas platform.

 

Hamas can tackle the job creation factor by doing what the USA did during the depression era. The PA in the Gaza Strip has to provide enormous work in infrastructure, roads, schools, hospitals and housing. In housing, starting immediately to build 100,000 housing units respectively in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank would provide more than a hundred thousand new jobs, half in Gaza and the other in the West Bank. Construction is labor intensive it will be used to jumpstart the Palestinian Economy. Hamas has to adopt such a program immediately and seek funds from Arab and international sources, maybe ask private investors to lead such projects.

 

Hamas in return must provide exemplary security internally for its people and toward Israel. Hamas has declared on several instances that it is offering a long term truce for Israel. Deeds are more important than promises if Hamas can effectively control security, in a few months after the March 28 elections in Israel, any Israeli future government, and it seems that the new Kadima party has the best chance to form such government, will have to review its attitude toward Hamas.

 

 

International Assistance, Hamas Role

 

The EU economic assistance is needed more than ever for the short term. With Israeli elections on the horizon, the Olmert cabinet was forced to act the way it did. The USA eventually will review its position as Israel adjusts its reaction. It is unfortunate that a great power like the USA which advocated democracy and reform for the region, is upset at the results of the Palestinian elections. It should have played a similar role to that of the EU and not taken an aggressive role. Yet foremost, it’s the actions of the Hamas that will make the difference. Hamas has to concentrate its efforts on the reasons behind their election – people want change, new faces, reform and good governance. The Palestinian people did not elect them to continue the military struggle; the Hamas platform was for change and reform. Part of the change is not only the new faces, but new methods of conducting the struggle to reach independence. It would be a revolutionary step if Hamas changed tactics and like the IRA adopt non-violence as the instrument and tools to achieve independence. Can they and will they? Only time will tell.