By Helga Baumgarten
Professor of Political Science and Head of M.A. Program Democracy and Human Rights, Birzeit University
Berlin, 8 March 2010
Prepared for “The Transformation of Palestine: Palestine and the Palestinians 60 Years after the ‘Nakba’, “Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Berlin, March, 2010
On the Waiting List? Democracy in Palestine
I want to start my presentation with an essential preliminary argument.
There is and there cannot be any democracy or the development of a democratic system under occupation. This point has been argued theoretically by Philipp Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl in their seminal article “What Democracy is… and is not”.
It follows, therefore, that in our discussion today we can only pose the question about the amount of freedom needed to end occupation and build a free society and, perhaps eventually, achieve the “dream” of a democratic state in Palestine.
A brief sketch of reality today in the occupied territories, i.e. West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, would seem a necessary introduction.
In Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank (of Palestine, in the eyes of the West) we are facing a structural-political reality to be located between neo-patrimonialism (Fateh still under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas), technocratic state-building financed by Western rents (US and EU, plus Norway, Japan etc.) under the direc-tion of Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, and a more a less direct Israeli system of occupation, in addi-tion to a more and more direct US security role (the so-called “Dayton Regime”) mediated by the Palestinian security agencies.
Gaza since 2006, respectively 2007, has been under the control of the specific Hamas’ version of Political Islam, i.e. Palestinian religious nationalism so-to-speak “under closure” (Israel, Egypt, West), with wide-spread destructions after a cruel “war”, with no support or chance to rebuild, but apparently with some support (?) for re-arming by Iran/Hizbullah. The whole system is functioning under a tight authoritarian system built and con-trolled by Hamas, while at the same time enabling activists and citizens to use all their imagination to enable people to survive (suffice it to point out the tunnel-economy, the use of new “old” building materials, the re-use of the debris of destroyed buildings etc).
Palestinians, and this is my first major argument, today live under a layered system of authoritarian rule
In order to grasp this system, a first question might be helpful:
What are Palestinians free to do and in what sense can they be conceived as citizens?
Let me start with students and student politics and the question of Freedom of Debate:
A relevant first question would be: is free debate possible in class and in all universities?
In my classes, at Birzeit University, this would seem to be the case, provided I haven’t overlooked someone from the mukhabarat sitting among my students (respectively one of my students being a member of the muk-habarat).
The question remains, what the situation is like in other classes in Birzeit and in other universities.
The answer will most probably be a mixed one.
In summary, it would most probably be correct to say that freedom of debate is progressively being limited, in the West Bank, just as in the Gaza Strip.
This obviously refers to the Social Sciences and the Humanities (and to the Arts), not to the Sciences and/or to Engineering or Medicine. Both, in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, we have outstanding scientists in these latter fields.
Freedom of movement:
Well, sometimes yes, more often not. This would be the case inside the West Bank. The moment, however, you would want to go to Jerusalem, your freedom of movement would be over, except you have a Jerusalem ID or, as a foreigner, a valid visa.
Moving inside the West Bank along the North-South axis has become increasingly free, but has never been reliable. Movement inside the West Bank from small villages to the regional towns is still extremely difficult, time-consuming, and never calculable.
Leaving over the bridge to Jordan, i.e. to the outside world, is more or less a calculable freedom, provided you have not been politically active in the wrong political party. Sometimes, however, even absolutely apolitical people (I have scores of examples among my students) are turned back by the Israeli security.
If you are from Gaza and still, for some reason, living, studying or working in the West Bank, well, as they say: this is your bad luck. You just should not be from Gaza, except if you are closely associated with the ruling Fateh elite in Ramallah.
Inside Gaza, people are free to move from Rafah in the South to Jabaliya in the North and even almost to Beit Hanun, still further in the North.
But you can’t go to Erez (except in very special cases, again, being associated with the ruling elite in Ramallah does help a lot. Also, increasingly people are allowed to go to Erez in order to receive medical treatment in Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and in Jordan) and you can’t go to Rafah, except in special cases, i.e. when Egypt opens – usually once a month, the border for people to leave via Egypt.
Political freedom in the two parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, i.e. the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (East Jerusalem, this at least seems to be Israel’s policy today, is already considered part and parcel of Israel, increasingly off-limits for any free and secure Palestinian living) is determined by party politics:
There is no freedom for Hamas in the West Bank, and there is no freedom for Fateh in the Gaza Strip. The argument, who has less freedom where seems to be rather futile if not altogether irrelevant.
After this brief and, admittedly, very subjective tour d’horizon, let me move to my central question:
How do these political systems, which I have briefly introduced at the beginning, impact on the question of freedom for people living under their rule, and on their potential to strive for democracy?
I can only sketch the interrelationship between the amount of freedom granted or more precisely possible, as well as the amount of involvement in the struggle for democracy to be observed.
Personalist rule, clientelist structures, system of waste, systemic corruption: not citizens, but rather ruler, neo-patrimonial elite, or clients.
Real, i.e. meaningful and relevant freedom (to opt for change) systemically impossible
If the neo-patrimonial system is enjoying a constant flow of rents, its rule over its clients becomes almost im-possible to break. This would seem to be the case in the West Bank, as all economic reports reflect quite clearly. In this sense, it is first and foremost the West which keeps the neo-patrimonial system in place, thereby preventing any meaningful movement towards freedom, political participation, and the building of insti-tutions which, once the occupation has ended, would make the building of a democratic state at least a realis-tic possibility.
3. Technocratic state-building
The interesting development today in the West Bank, is the simultaneous existence of a neo-patrimonial sys-tem, as personified, so to speak, by Fateh and by Mahmoud Abbas, and a system of technocratic state-building, as personified quite clearly by Salam Fayyad, the economist turned politician, the Palestinian Ben Gurion, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz likes to call him (quoting Israeli president Shimon Peres).
The problem with this system of technocratic state-building is its total dependency on external financial sup-port, i.e. external rents, while lacking what a neo-patrimonial system still enjoys, i.e. support in society based on the clientelist structure and the neo-patrimonial relationship as best exemplified by Arafat, perceived the “father” of the Palestinians.
The percentage of votes for Salam Fayyad in 2006 and the percentage points of support in the regular opinion polls would support this argument.
The open question is, if the co-existence of both systems can continue, if it will be possible to survive, and finally how the lack of political progress will effect it.
4. Political Islam and the Hamas government
The most interesting experiment in recent Palestinian political developments was the electoral success of the Hamas. Both, Hamas’ election campaign, as well as its first weeks in government, was very promising in the sense that an “indigenous” movement was working for free political debate, increased participation of citizens, irrespective of which political background, and the move towards political and economic reform (not least a move towards more self-dependence economically).
Unfortunately, this process was undermined and in the end cut short by the Western initiated boycott of Hamas, the pressure of the West on Fateh not to cooperate with Hamas, and finally the failure of Hamas to withstand this assault from both the outside (West, above all USA) and the inside (Western aligned Fateh elites).
Hamas today is heading a second authoritarian system in the occupied Palestinian territories (next to the West Bank), without corruption (at least so far), but with increasingly clientelist features, and with no freedom granted for its political opponents, i.e. first and foremost Fateh.
It would seem, that it is not political Islam and/or Hamas per se, which led to this outcome, but rather the tre-mendous amount of pressure from the outside (West, Egypt, Fateh).
However, this pressure let to changes in the balance of power inside Hamas, giving more control to the au-thoritarian oriented forces, and less control to the more “freedom” oriented groups.
Both, the PA/Fateh and Hamas today control Palestinians living under their respective governments in an increasingly authoritarian way, very much similar to other Arab governments and ruling elites, and very differ-ent from the period 2005/2006 with its tremendous promises for change.
I should argue that the major responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with the West (USA, Europe), whereas both, democratic forces in the West Bank and democratic forces inside Hamas have shown them-selves unable to reach Palestinian society, win it over, and based on this strength push authoritarian Palestin-ian elites to the side. This latter part of the argument could very well be called overly optimistic, if not utopian.
For any move in this direction would surely have been stopped by Western intervention, the moment it would have endangered the absolute rule and control of the Israeli occupation.
The major contradiction today is therefore not the one between authoritarian and democratic Palestinian forces, but rather between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation.
The major difference between Palestinians would be along the axis of relationship to external forces, i.e. ex-pecting the USA to help end the Israeli occupation, or rather, based on past experience, not expecting any support from these quarters, looking for alternative sources of support.