Fledgling Palestinian Government Faces Internal, External Challenges

The government was formed in mid-March in an attempt to end factional fighting between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah supporters, which had killed more than 130 people and was escalating toward civil war.

The unity government is led by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Cabinet positions are split between Hamas and Fatah, with a few representatives of smaller parties.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind that initially the unity government was formed for a very specific reason — to end the fighting,” said Rafi Dajani, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “And it did. … There’s still low-level fighting, but not the wide-scale fighting that people feared might degenerate into civil war.”

Many of the government’s other goals, however, have remained unmet.

Palestinians had hoped that the government would be able to negotiate the end of the economic sanctions in place since Hamas won legislative elections in March 2006, taking power from a once-dominant Fatah. Israel and many Western countries were dismayed by the outcome of those elections, and the United States and European Union vowed to impose economic sanctions until the Hamas-led government recognized Israel and renounced violence.

Six weeks on, though, those sanctions remain in place, and Palestinians are increasingly frustrated with their effects. Teachers held a one-day strike Monday over unpaid wages, and tried to push their way into education ministry offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Tens of thousands of other civil workers declared a one-day strike Wednesday, to protest the government’s plan to pay half-salaries to government workers until the embargo is lifted.

Meanwhile, factional fissures that were clear six weeks ago have remained.

“Quite clearly this is a coalition government rather than a unity government,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst with the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think any of the parties have reconciled themselves to working for a common platform. … Basically this is rival movements agreeing to disagree.”

Those fissures were highlighted April 23, when Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmi attempted to resign his post, but Haniyeh convinced him to stay. Qawasmi, a relatively unknown bureaucrat, had been a compromise choice for the sensitive post, which is responsible for overseeing Palestinian security forces.

However, Abbas appointed a Fatah loyalist, Mohammad Dahlan, to serve as national security adviser, and Qawasmi blamed his resignation on lack of cooperation among various security forces, particularly those loyal to Fatah.

“The interior ministry was probably the most sensitive and bargained-over post, because it involves getting a handle on the many militias on the scene,” said Dajani. “So the person given the position was a relative unknown, and it was recognized that he wouldn’t come in with an iron rule. … Basically he realized the limits of his own empowerment, and said he wasn’t going to be a figurehead.”

On Tuesday, Qawasmi renewed his threat, saying he plans to resign unless given full authority over security forces.

Meanwhile, there have been signs also of intra-party disagreement. On April 24, Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel, breaking a five-month cease-fire in response to Israeli forces killing eight Palestinians during a military operation. Hamas’ armed wing declared the cease-fire over, but the more moderate Hamas members of the unity government said they were working to restore it.

Amidst these developments, Palestinians are growing increasingly unhappy with the government, according to an April poll by the independent polling company Neareast Consulting. Fifty-three percent of respondents said that they don’t expect the government to be able to lift the international sanctions. Half said that they feel less secure than in the past, while only 14 percent said that they feel more secure.

“My general impression is that this government has disappointed Palestinians,” said Rabbani. “Especially as you get farther away from the catastrophe that was narrowly averted. … The problem is that the average citizen is not going to consider the absence of catastrophe success.”

Nor are many Palestinians happy with the individual parties. Forty-one percent of respondents said that they do not trust any of the political parties — up from 35 percent in December. Hamas is faring worse than Fatah — 31 percent of respondents said that they supported Mahmoud Abbas, the same as in December. But only 22 percent of respondents said they supported Hamas, a 5 percent drop over the past four months.

On Monday, the deputy prime minister, Azzam al-Ahmad, told the striking teachers that the government should be disbanded if the Western embargo is not lifted in three months — the first such statement by a unity government leader.