Guns Versus Butter in the Palestinian Authority

Jerusalem -- Talk about stepping on a news story. The new Palestinian Authority, now cloistered in Ramallah, was expecting a big television press hit on July 4, not to celebrate American Independence Day (perhaps one day they will be able to celebrate independence of their own from America, but that is still a ways off), but the first day in 15 months when the Authority was able to pay thousands of public sector salaries in full throughout the West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Unfortunately, Hamas stole the nightly TV headlines, relegating the salaries to item two or at the very least, a split screen, by releasing the kidnapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who had been held captive in Gaza for nearly four months, on the same day as payday.

Indeed, this was unfortunate for the Fatah-supported Palestinian government, but it was certainly no accident -- and it also underscores the dilemma facing the technocratic emergency government of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Palestine, a government without a country, has its own domestic and foreign policy concerns to weigh against each other just as any country does. For the Fayyad government, the two top priorities are now personal safety and economic security.

While Israelis have been rightly focused on their own safety from terror attacks inside Israel, what often goes unnoticed is the criminal and unsafe situation inside the Palestinian areas. Not simply the violence as displayed between rival militias recently in Gaza, but played out every night on the streets of Palestinian cities throughout the West Bank, too. Much of this activity is politically motivated; much of it is committed by rival gangs and clans, but all of it has to be stopped along with the terror attacks against Israel if the Palestinians are ever to provide a credible governing alternative for their own people and for Israel and the world to embrace.

"Our priority to people is to pay salaries, safety and security, and for Gaza, meeting human needs," Dr. Riad al-Malki, the new Palestinian Minister of Information and Justice, told me when I visited him in his Ramallah offices on July 3. Malki has a Ph.D. in civil engineering and recently ran the nongovernmental organization Panorama (which promotes transparency, good governance and attention to youth in Palestine). He told me he is hopeful that for Fatah -- and for those like him who represent the younger independent political thinkers seeking change -- "losing Gaza militarily is offering us great opportunities to see how we can reshuffle, rebuild in the right ways."

The plan for the current Palestinian government is to aid the domestic needs of their population, thus showing the Gazans that support for Hamas is counterproductive. Hamas did not feed the hungry, after all, due to the international boycott. But Hamas, no slouch at grabbing headlines even if they don't consider the next-day story, set out immediately to send a different message: We are the security folks. And indeed, They have reportedly calmed Gaza, with many of the militias and clan struggles quiet for now, and people feel safer in the streets.

Hamas is sending this message not only to the Palestinians themselves, but also to Israel and the world. They are trying to convince the world that without Hamas, there will be no security inside the Palestinian areas or outside of them, even as they challenge the emerging government from the outside.

Indeed, the fragility of the current Palestinian emergency government is evident in Ramallah, even as life goes on normally during the day. The shops and restaurants are full and business people are making global deals, including with businesses in Tel Aviv and elsewhere in Israel. But the newly armed presidential guards were visible lingering in the sun along all the streets surrounding the Mukata, the presidential headquarters, where Arafat's tomb is being finished and a new Mosque is being built alongside it.

As it happens, the Ministry of Information building, where I met Malki, is situated on a residential street that also houses Mahmoud Abbas's home -- right next to it, in fact. Security is heavy on that street, but especially so at the top, near the gate to Abbas's house. As I waited outside the Ministry for my ride to arrive, I happened to wander into the street at the same time that a black Jeep filled with guards and a rather ferocious-looking dog (my driver told me new guard dogs were purchased from Russia) was exiting the presidential gravel driveway.

Two young guards shooed me back to the sidelines and as the gate was pulled open, I heard their guns cock, a hollow sound that echoed into the mild, sunny Ramallah afternoon. Surely I was not the threat, nor did I feel nervous. But those guards were certainly schooled in the dangers of Hamas against Fatah, and the constant threat to Abbas's personal safety. The fear of Hamas rushing the opened gate was surely on their minds, even amid the tranquility of a lovely and seemingly quiet summer day.

"Military power will not bring back Fatah," Malki reflected to me. "It will be public pressure in Gaza." But for the public to pressure Hamas in Gaza, the victory of butter over guns must really be complete. It's critical that the Fayyad government succeed in taking military control of the West Bank and Gaza even as they also have to move away from the bad habit, inherited from Arafat, of offering bread at the barrel of a gun. They must also make certain that a unified military command brings personal security to Palestinian citizens even as they control terror infiltrations inside Israel. This is no small order.

But they are trying to do just that: Transform old habits. Fayyad, Malki, and the other ministers are representative of a new generation that is struggling to move beyond the old ways. Whether this new government can succeed is a very big question mark, but if it fails, the story that will be written is one that will make few people inside (or outside) Palestine safe, secure or well fed.

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