US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice may continue to declare it possible to set out the terms for an independent Palestinian state by the end of this year, but few within the Occupied Territories share their optimism.
Palestinian politics remains in a state of flux. Since Fatah’s expulsion from Gaza by Hamas in the summer of 2007, the divide between the West Bank and Gaza has widened and the factional rivalry between the two groups has become entrenched.
MEED meets Naser al-Shaer and Samer Abu-Eisheh, in the West Bank city of Nablus. Both were senior ministers in the Hamas-led government between March 2006 and June 2007, Al-Shaer serving as deputy prime minister and education minister, while Abu-Eisheh was planning minister and acting finance minister.
Since the unity government was dissolved, both have returned to university teaching. Warm and good-humoured, they are nonetheless incredulous at the present situation in Palestinian domestic politics. “We feel the current government does not have full legitimacy because by law it should be approved by the legislative council and the council is not in to position to do this,” says Abu-Eisheh.
“We say the Israelis kidnapped around 50 of members of the legislative council, but by law the emergency government can only rule for a month without new approval so the legal position of the government is questionable.”
Voted in on a wave of public discontent at the corruption historically endemic within the PA, the Hamas government walked into a storm of international condemnation from Israel and the West followed by a financial boycott by the world’s banks. Effective rule swiftly became impossible and mistrust between the respective factions in the presidential and prime ministerial offices began to boil over.
Abu-Eisheh is candid about Hamas’ naivety ahead of acceding to government. The task of opposing a discredited regime was far easier than the reality of government, and the new administration’s task was made almost impossible by the financial restraints imposed on it. Moreover, between the election result in January and taking power in March, several cabinet ministers were seized in raids by Israel.
“Hamas was probably not ready to be in government but the circumstances changed between the election results and the formation of the government,” says Abu-Eisheh. “I was appointed acting minister of finance when the finance minister was kidnapped. He has now been in prison for about two years. In all, 12 ministers were arrested.”
The administration found itself financially crippled, leading to civil unrest.
“Even before the election, Israelis were withholding about $70m a month in taxes,” recalls Abu-Eisheh. “All the banks were forced to stop working with us. We could not pay salaries on time. We tried to co-operate with the president’s office but error followed error and there were killings in Gaza. Even here in the West Bank, the legislative council was twice set on fire.
“In that situation, you cannot plan effectively. We had occasional successes but we were constantly fire-fighting and it was intended that we were put in that position.”
While they are clear about the faults of their time in office, the two men are outraged by what has followed. Both profess personal respect for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad but feel his administration has reverted to the bad old days of the PA, when corruption and nepotism were rife, factional interests dictated which ministries were apportioned what, and money simply disappeared.
“We have good relations with Salam [Fayyad], we have worked together in the past, but we are not talking about people, we are talking about systems and institutions,” says Al-Shaer.
“Our way of life is a joke. There have been more ministerial appointments even though they said they were going to reduce these. It is a way of keeping us under control and not searching for our sovereignty. The same system continues, the same waste. We know Salam [Fayyad] and the whole government lacks legitimacy. This government needs support and finds it from foreign aid and internally from Fatah leaders. It needs to give something to these people even if it is illegal, so it is promoting hundreds to senior government level. We have more people at this level than China.”
Both are aggrieved that from their perspective, the new levels of transparency promised by Fayyad have not materialised and that it has taken the government too long to begin publishing financial information. Fayyad himself argues that steps in the right direction have been taken, and that the delay can be attributed to the disintegrated system he inherited last year.
“We were expecting Fayyad to introduce greater transparency in business,” says Abu-Eisheh. “There is no excuse at all not to tell people what the budget and expenditure of the PNA is, why you are spending so much in this field and so little in this.
“A lot of [ministers and civil servants] make up to NIS25,000 ($7,000) a month, while school teachers make NIS1,500. The public sector has not been reformed and our dependency on the West is increasing.”
Beyond the internecine squabbling, however, is the wider, apparently intractable, issue of the occupation. Al-Shaer and Abu-Eisheh were moderate members of the Hamas administration. There are no calls for Israel’s destruction, but they are clear that any peace agreement must include the Islamist group.
“I think the time for Israel to talk to Hamas is coming, but when I am not sure,” says Al-Shaer. “We know and the world knows that without Hamas there will be no peace and no agreement because they are part of the society. And without the West Bank and Gaza together, there will be no agreement.”
Abu-Eisheh is scathing about the tactics employed by Israel to sidestep negotiations of any substance. “The Israelis say ‘the Palestinians are divided, weak, we cannot make peace with them’, and at the same time say ‘if the Palestinians come together we cannot negotiate with them’. What are they doing?” he asks.
“They are happy to have us divided. If they need us to work together, let us. We will put power in place to negotiate a fair deal. Even Hamas says that.”
“If we felt they were serious, most Palestinians would go for any kind of agreement, but it should be just,” says Al-Shaer. “Believe me; more than 80 per cent of Palestinians would accept a state based on the borders of 1967. The Israelis insist on talking about a checkpoint here or there. We are talking about sovereignty, our land, borders, right of return. If they are serious, we are serious.”