States normally fail when the smaller identities of individuals become more important than the larger identity. In Lebanon, when being Muslim or Christian, Druze or Shiite became more important than being Lebanese, the country was embroiled in a terrible civil war. In Iraq, when being Kurdish or Shiite, Yazidi or Sunni became more important than being Iraqi, we saw how this important and historic country began to fail.
Palestine, while still not a state, does not generally have similar sectarian problems, but some of what is happening in Palestine is slowly causing an erosion of the Palestinian national narrative that has been its main source of unity of purpose. Naturally, the existence of the Israeli occupation must be credited for unifying Palestinians, despite their many internal problems. But Israel has cleverly weeded itself out of Palestinian cities, and the quasi-state apparatus that has come is now on a retraction that does not bode well for Palestine.
An internal conflict broke out last week after a member of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s cabinet attacked protesters in Hebron, who are opposed to the national social security institute that was recently established. The protesters are opposed to the mandatory nature of the laws enacted that would force employers and employees to pay into the social security institute, which in turn would provide health, unemployment severance and retirement benefits The official complaint focuses on the fact that there is a low level of trust in the Ramallah government.
In defending the social security plan, Palestinian Minister of Municipal Affairs Hussein Al Araj attacked Hebronites opposed to the plan, saying that the Hirak Movement that is behind the protests is based in the nearby Kiryat Araba Jewish settlement. The accusation against the Hirak angered all Hebronites, including the mayor, tribal leaders and even the local Fateh leadership. Attempts by Araj to apologise failed to contain the protesters, who demanded that the minister resign. Hamdallah set up an investigative committee to look into the complaints against Araj, but most Palestinians think such committees are created to absorb the anger rather than take a strong position on any issue. The issue has taken a tribal and regional direction, threatening a blow to the unified national fiber of Palestinians.
The accusations against Hebron protesters is not much different than the statement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling the Hamas leadership in Gaza to be traitors for their position of refusing to accept the reconciliation offers and agreeing to hold elections as a way out of the split.
Regardless of the usage of words regarding Hebron or Gaza, the sense one gets in Ramallah and Bethlehem or from talking to people across Palestine is that the level of trust of the current Palestinian leadership is at an all-time low. People are looking for tribal leaders to help solve daily problems; trust in the Palestinian leadership has been deteriorating. A feeling that leaders want to stay in position for personal benefit is supported by the fact that the last national elections in Palestine were the 2006 legislative elections. Few Palestinians today expect that any real change will take place in the leadership structure, both in Gaza and the West Bank, where leaders are happy to stay on their job for life.
In the past, such internal issues were resolved within the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) structure and specifically within the Palestinian National Council. But the PLO has lost a lot of credibility, both with the rise of Hamas and with the partisan nature of its operations that are focused on select Fateh leaders monopolising power. Sure, the PLO’s executive committee meets regularly, and the Palestinian Central Council and the Palestinian National Council met earlier this year, but there is a strong feeling that these structures are nothing more than a shell directed by the ageing Palestinian president and his entourage.
While some aspects of Palestinian governance are slowly imploding, people are still going on with their lives. Tourism has been up recently, with a record 3 million tourists visiting Palestine, largely Bethlehem, and the cut back in US funding does not appear to have created a major dent in Palestinian life, as local businesses, especially in the IT sector, seem to be thriving as well.
The irony in what is happening in Palestine is that while internally the nation is imploding, the world is paying more and more attention to the Palestinian cause. Palestine has been voted as the chair of the Group of 77 plus China at the UN.
Change is badly needed in Palestine to revive people's trust and to unify their forces under a single national identity. The rate of the deterioration of trust in government is going at a high speed as evidenced by various communities solving their problems using local tribal or regional leaders and institutions.
Dissolving the Palestinian Legislative Council and conducting elections within six months, while roundly opposed by Hamas and others, could provide a big opportunity to get out of the current impasse if presidential elections are added to it.