By Alan Johnston, January 5, 2005.
Campaigning is under way in the first Palestinian parliamentary election for 10
years. But the talk in Gaza is not so much of issues and policies and the
prospects for parties.
The focus is more on chronic law and order problems and whether the
polls will be held at all.
Foreigners have been kidnapped. And every day there are angry
anti-government protests. Public buildings are stormed as armed demonstrators
demand jobs, or sometimes the release of prisoners. There have been attacks
on police stations, clan feuds and clashes between militia groups.
All this has to be kept in context. Much of the upheaval has been confined to
the south, and to the town of Rafah in particular – and much of the turmoil has
about it an element of show.
There have been few casualties, and very little serious, sustained
violence. Protesting gunmen who occupy government buildings often leave as
soon as they have made their point.
Everyone now suspects that this is planned chaos… planned to disrupt the
But the disturbances are more frequent now, and they are generating a
sense of insecurity that deeply disturbs people here.
The chaos has its roots in many problems. This society has been radicalised and
traumatised by its confrontation with the Israelis, who occupied Gaza decades
ago and only evacuated their settlers and troops last summer.
Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, injured or lost their homes during
years of violence.
There are numerous armed factions that used to channel their violent energies
into attacks on the Israelis – but they now have little on which to focus.
In this broken, crowded, poverty-stricken place there is an intense struggle for
resources that can lead to lawlessness. A number of the kidnappings have been
carried out by militia groups demanding jobs in the formal security agencies.
The best of governments would struggle to run Gaza. And the Palestinian
leader, Mahmoud Abbas, does not have the best of governments.
His ruling Fatah party is riven by infighting. It is a mess of competing power
centres. And inevitably Fatah’s lack of cohesion and centralised control is
reflected in the working of the government it runs – the Palestinian Authority
“There is a disintegration in our situation here,” says the independent election
candidate, Dr Eyad El Surraj.
“There is a disintegration of the Palestinian Authority and its forces,
which is a symptom of the disintegration of Fatah itself. There is no
decision-making process. There is no leadership.”
Nowhere are the PA’s failings more painfully apparent than in the security field.
It is true that the numerous different security forces have been battered
by Israeli assaults over the years.
But the various forces have also suffered from a lack of coordination and
solid command. Rivalries between different units can be intense. In an incident
last year one force ambushed another, and there was a shoot-out in Gaza City’s
Clans and militia groups are often ready to confront the police and military, and
often the agencies of law and order back off and fail to make arrests.
Part of the problem is the degree to which the security forces and the
armed groups that they ought to be controlling actually merge into one another.
International experts studying the security sector last year concluded: “Clan and
family affiliations remain strong and challenge official loyalties. Affiliations with
militia factions also obscure loyalties and give rise to divisions.
“Many troops and officers belong simultaneously to the armed forces
and the militias originating from Fatah.”
And those links create suspicions that the current upsurge in unrest has political
Fatah’s main opponent, the Hamas organisation, suspects that elements
in the political establishment are deliberately creating tension ahead of the
Fatah is facing its first parliamentary electoral challenge from Hamas in the
current campaign. And Hamas clearly believes that some in Fatah fear they will
lose out badly and are looking for an excuse to call off the election.
“Some of the Fatah central command believe that they are losing their chance
to stay in power and they don’t want to relinquish that power to other parties –
and this is particularly evident when you see all these signs of chaos.
Everyone now suspects that this is planned chaos,” said Dr El Surraj.
“This is planned violation of the rule of law – planned to disrupt the elections.”
Fatah, however, insists that it is in fact determined to enforce the law. In his
New Year address, Mr Abbas again talked of the need to impose order in Gaza
as a priority.
And the Fatah candidate, and the PA’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has
said that people understand that his party called the election as way to restore
the rule of law.
But there is now a growing appreciation of the depth of the malaise in
Hafiz Barghouti, the editor of the newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeed, has written:
“It appears we are neither prepared to change, nor admit that we have failed in
running our own affairs. Everyone is busy calculating how to make the biggest
possible gains at the homeland’s expense.
While most Palestinians find it easy to blame the occupation for all
our ills, it is a fact that the occupation was not as bad as the lawlessness and
corruption that we are now facing.”