Filed under: Middle East
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06 October 2008
Fathiya Barghouti, the mayor of Qarawat Bani Zeid, north of Ramallah in the West Bank, has to lie every time she submits the draft budget to the ministry for local government – under the law, it cannot be approved if it shows a deficit. She is not the only one: not a single local council has managed to avoid a chronic deficit, especially since 2006, when the international boycott of the Hamas government began and the impact of the Israeli siege hit more severely than ever. “They promised us they would change the law and make it correspond to reality,” says Barghouti. “But they can’t, because the Legislative Council [parliament] isn’t functioning.”
Palestinian politics has bigger problems than these. Neither of the two governments is constitutionally legal: one has been dissolved, but continues to govern; the other is provisional, and should have organised elections a long time ago. But parliament is not completely paralysed: its Gaza half, made up mainly of Hamas members, regularly meets and drafts bills.
In theory the Legislative Council – which has 132 MPs, of whom 74 are from Hamas – has authority over both Gaza and the West Bank. In order to fulfil quorum requirements, it uses its power of attorney over the votes of the 40 or so Hamas MPs resident in the West Bank who were arrested by Israel over the past two years.
In Ramallah, parliament does not meet. The government of Salam Fayyad set up its own special department for legislating, and President Mahmoud Abbas issues presidential decrees, which serve as laws. According to Reuters, 406 laws and presidential decrees have been produced in this way since June 2007 (1). Palestinian legal experts and members of the Legislative Council warn of the risk of a dictatorial regime as a result of the non-separation between legislative and executive powers. Officials respond that it is not possible to govern without legislating, and say the laws can be annulled when the crisis is over.
Things may be set to get a lot worse. The mandate of Abbas, who was elected in January 2005, runs out next January. Hamas has made it known that it will not recognise his presidency beyond that date. It says Palestinian basic law takes precedence over an electoral law adopted by the Legislative Council in 2005. According to that law, elections to the council and to the presidency should take place at the same time, which would mean Abbas’ mandate being extended to January 2010. Meanwhile, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Fatah have not even managed to hold their own internal elections.
When you strip away the legalistic jargon, the core message is the same: for most people, the role of the two governments comes down to the provision of basic services and the payment of salaries. It is only when people fear their salaries aren’t going to be paid that they return to the question of the dual regime. Both Fatah and Hamas have shown they are only interested in clinging onto power. They do so selfishly, people here say, not caring about the growing divisions (this year Gaza put its clock back three days earlier than the West Bank) nor the threat to the entire national struggle for Palestinian independence.
Hamas has shown itself to be no better than Fatah. Many Palestinians – even some from within the Fatah movement – voted for Hamas because they hoped it would act differently. But as one legal expert in Ramallah put it, Hamas is merely “Fatah with a beard”. Those who thought it would be different complain of nepotism, corruption and impunity for armed groups and their leaders.
But even worse charges are levelled at the government in Ramallah: it acts as a subcontractor to the Israeli security service, and takes part in endless “peace talks”, while Israeli settlement building carries on unabated. It gets its sense of legitimacy from western support, not from the people. The government in Gaza also clings to power at all costs, to prove that Islamic rule is possible even in such a small, cut-off enclave.
“What has been done to us?” asked one friend in the West Bank, a fervent opponent of Hamas. That was when she heard the details of how badly the strike called by Ramallah is affecting the lives of the people of Gaza.
(1) “Palestinian laws get overhaul with little oversight”, Reuters, 29 August 2008.
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