The only way out
Dr. Mustafa Barghouti - Al-Ahram
May 17, 2006

It is the time of decision. Mustafa Barghouti* makes an impassioned call for national unity and the end to internal Palestinian conflicts

The Palestinians are facing one of the most vicious assaults in their history against their right to self-determination, their economic livelihood and their very future as an independent people.

Israel, with the active backing of international powers and the tacit backing of other countries, is inexorably tightening its military, political and economic blockade against the Palestinian people. But the hundreds of roadblocks, the ongoing construction of the separation wall and the withholding of millions of dollars of Palestinian Authority (PA) funds and humanitarian assistance are not only Israel's way of turning the screws. They are an integral part of its drive to secure international blessing for its next phase of unilateral action, by means of which it intends to confiscate about half of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, and to simultaneously pre-empt the possibility of creating an independent Palestinian state, thereby destroying the prospect of peace on the basis of a two-state solution.

Even if Mother Theresa were brought back to life and made president of the Palestinian people Israel would still refuse to recognise a Palestinian negotiating partner. Such recognition would mean that Israel would have to negotiate, which is the last thing it wants as long as there exists the possibility to impose the realities it wants unilaterally. Meanwhile, the regrettable internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah is only one of any number of excuses the occupation throws out as a smokescreen as it forges ahead with its plans. Indeed, if anything Israel is working to fuel the conflict so that it flares into full-fledged civil war. To Israel, that would perfectly cap its current intensification of incursions, arrests and bombardments in what amounts to nothing less than the final phases of the Zionist project, now modified to grabbing the largest amount of land possible and forcing the Palestinians into prisons and cantons.

Israel has unleashed a relentless war upon the Palestinians, a war being fought on all political, economic and military fronts. When a people finds itself beleaguered in this manner its only choice is to pour its concerted energies into a single goal, which is to thwart the attacker's designs. The very future of the Palestinian people is at stake, and we must defend the fate of our children and ourselves, defend our right to freedom, our right to a just peace and true security and our right to a dignified life.

In such a situation as this, partisan interests and factional differences dwindle in importance and parliamentary rivalries and electoral campaigns lose their spark, since the winners ultimately face the same fate as the losers: imprisonment behind the high-security walls constructed by the occupying power and the constant threat of attack by its tanks and machinery of war.

This is the bitter truth, which the 13 years since Oslo have failed to hide. We are still under occupation. Gaza is still the biggest prison in the world and the PA and the Palestinian government, and whatever political and economic agreements it tries to conclude, are as subject to the control of the wardens as everyone else.

I do not deny that the Palestinians have succeeded in enhancing their autonomous capacities through the exercise of democratic practices in the election of their municipal and legislative representatives. This unique democratic experience has put an end, once and for all, to the possibility of the occupation imposing a puppet regime upon the Palestinian people. That the legitimacy of every leadership position is now founded solely upon the will of the people as demonstrated through the ballot box is an achievement that must never be relinquished. That this achievement has also largely precluded the possibility of imposing prejudicial solutions upon the Palestinian people is one of the main reasons why Israel has adopted the strategic option of imposing its solutions unilaterally.

If the Palestinians are to safeguard their democratic breakthroughs and break the Israeli blockade, they must launch a counter-offensive against Israeli designs at the regional and international levels, at least part of which entails constantly driving home the point that the practices of the occupying power violate international laws and conventions and all humanitarian values.

Towards this end, we need to bear in mind that we are waging a single struggle that requires a unified strategy and a unified agenda. No Palestinian faction or party can take this task on alone. Six years ago I called for the creation of a unified national leadership. Today we are paying a horrendous price for having neglected the importance of such a leadership. A unified strategy must first focus on the achievement of four immediate aims: unifying our energies and activities within the framework of a single agreed upon set of rules and standards; cracking open the doors of international isolation and financial deprivation that the people on the other side are too afraid to lock securely but are also unwilling to reopen; breaking the cycle of economic hardship by remobilising the energies of Palestinians abroad on behalf of their nation and their fellow countrymen; and thwarting Israel's unilateral disengagement plan by means of a sustained international campaign stressing the injustice of that plan and presenting a convincing alternative founded upon international resolutions supporting Palestinian rights.

The first step towards the realisation of these aims is to bring the three Palestinian forces that are still outside the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) -- Hamas, the Palestinian National Initiative and the Islamic Jihad -- into the PLO framework and to create a unified national leadership that will collectively determine the political positions and actions the Palestinians will take in their struggle. Once this mechanism is in place, no party will have the right to act against the national consensus or take decisions unilaterally. Simultaneously, of course, work will continue to reform the PLO and enhance its dynamism by ensuring that Palestinians in the Diaspora can participate in the election of its various bodies.

The second step is to create a unified national government representative of all parliamentary blocs. The core of this government will take the form of a ministerial council consisting of representatives of all participating parliamentary blocs and empowered to take the executive political and social decisions of government.

In all its actions and stances, this government must remain fully consistent with the right of the Palestinians to establish an independent state on all territory occupied in 1967, inclusive of Jerusalem, the need to safeguard the rights of Palestinian refugees, and stand in adamant opposition to the separation wall and Israeli settlement construction. One of its first actions should be to call for an international conference for resolving all final status issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of international resolutions and the Arab initiative.

Finally, in order for this mechanism to remain strong and coherent, its constituent forces must remain committed to democratic rules and procedures, to the resolution of all differences through national dialogue and to the ongoing process of comprehensive reform.

Obviously, a national unity programme will not be the preserve of any one faction. While the various factions have the right to their own views and platforms, they must simultaneously acknowledge that it is the duty of all parties to abide by national consensus. After all, this is the only way to ensure both unity of purpose and effectiveness.

A national unity government cannot be dismissed. A unified national leadership cannot be defeated. Consider, alone, how these achievements will lift the morale of the Palestinian people and inspire them to action and how they will open the doors to perhaps the broadest and strongest solidarity movement the region and the world have ever seen.

Every faction has tried its own way in accordance with its individual calculations. There is only one path left: the way of unity beneath a unified national leadership.

* The writer is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative.