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DAWN - Opinion; January 11, 2006

January 11, 2006

Palestine after Sharon

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


THE latest medical bulletins on Ariel Sharon’s health suggest that the Israeli prime minister will probably survive the massive stroke that he suffered a week ago but that his ability to function effectively will have been impaired beyond repair. Sharon’s successor, who will be chosen in the Israeli elections scheduled for March, will take up the burden of deciding the Israeli position on carrying forward the talks, or at least on disengagement, with the Palestinians.

The prospect is daunting not only for the Palestinians but also for the rest of the world. In Israel itself, Kadima, the new party that Sharon had formed was supposed to occupy the middle ground between the “land for peace” advocates in the Labour Party and the “give up nothing” hardliners in the rump Likud Party. The day after Sharon left the party and announced the formation of Kadima his senior strategic adviser Eyal Arad, laid out Sharon’s vision of future agreement with the Palestinians.

According to one report, “Mr Arad said the Israeli leadership had interpreted the US-led ‘road map’ for peace as laying out an alternative philosophy of ‘security for independence’, meaning a ‘total end of the terrorist war’ in return for a ‘Palestinian national home’ but not necessarily based on the 1967 borders.”

The withdrawal from Gaza was hailed by many in the West as indicative of Sharon’s desire to move towards the two-state solution promised by President Bush, even if this meant disengaging without negotiating with the Palestinians. Others are more sceptical but perhaps more realistic about Sharon’s intent. Brent Scowcroft, the former US national security adviser reportedly told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that, “For Sharon this is not the first move, this is the last move. He’s getting out of Gaza because he can’t sustain 8,000 settlers with half his army protecting them. Then, when he’s out, he will have an Israel that he can control and a Palestinian state atomized enough that it can’t be a problem.”

It is, however, significant in this context that early in December, Sharon’s close aide, Kalman Gayer, was quoted in the Newsweek as saying that “Sharon would accept a Palestinian state in Gaza and 90 per cent of the West Bank, and a compromise on Jerusalem, in exchange for peace.” Mr Gayer subsequently denied the quotes attributed to him and Sharon talked of the absurdity of giving up any part of Jerusalem but Sharon had also in 2003 talked of the absurdity of giving up Israeli settlements in Gaza.

Haim Ramon, a Kadima member of the Knesset, was quoted as saying in December that he did not know of one sane person who wanted to keep the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. He told Army Radio that it would be a mistake for Israel to retain large Palestinian areas “because it would mean Jerusalem would be the capital of a non-Jewish, non-Zionist Israel.”

Sharon was known for keeping his political cards close to his chest and not letting even his closest aides know what he intended doing. It is not, therefore, certain that these statements by his aides or associates were indicative of the direction in which Sharon was prepared to move. But it is significant that in his first major decision the acting prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, in a reversal of earlier policy, has allowed Palestinian political parties to campaign in East Jerusalem, and President Abbas has said that he has received assurances from President Bush that the 200,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would be allowed to vote in the January 25 elections for the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council.

The Israelis, of course, have insisted that Hamas, as an organization that does not recognize Israel, will not be allowed to campaign in East Jerusalem but statements from Hamas leaders suggest that they are prepared to live with this restriction and have found ways to get their message to the East Jerusalem residents.

Currently, the Kadima with Olmert at its head is easily the most popular party in Israel. A poll conducted after Sharon was hospitalized showed that it would win 36-42 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Some observers attributed this showing to a sympathy vote for the fallen leader and pointed out that once this sentiment subsides the Kadima will have to contend with the reality that it has no charismatic leader and that Sharon, the glue holding together the disparate elements in the party, is no longer with them.

Shimon Peres who joined the party after being defeated in the leadership election of the Labour Party may make a bid for leadership that would almost inevitably tear the party apart. There are also fears that in the absence of Sharon there will be a tendency on the part of former Likud and Labour members to flee to the shelter of their original parties. Both Netanyahu of the Likud and Amir Peretz of the Labour are making efforts in this direction.

To sum up, there is great uncertainty in Israel about the results that will flow from the March 28 elections and even greater uncertainty about the direction in which the new government will move with regard to the negotiations with the Palestinians or the unilateral disengagement from the occupied territories. But there is reason for hope if Kadima stays together.

In Palestine, indeed in all of the Arab world and much of the Muslim world, Sharon’s exit from the political scene has generated strong emotions. He was reviled as the “butcher” responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Shatila and Sabra and then in Jenin. Little media space appeared to be devoted to what his removal would mean for the future of the roadmap and the prospects for a durable peace in Palestine.

One Arab correspondent, however, was prepared to say that “Courage and objectivity require us to admit that Ariel Sharon has lived all his life for his people’s benefit,” and that “If he were an Arab leader and behaved as he has done in Israel, he would have been the idol of the masses from the Atlantic to the Gulf.”

Whatever the Palestinian and Arab view of Sharon, the absence of leadership continues to bedevil the Palestinians. President Abbas is perhaps more pragmatic and less prone to nepotism and its attendant evils than the late Yasser Arafat but he lacks the former’s charisma and cunning and is faced with a situation far more difficult in economic and political terms.

The World Bank reported in 2004 that almost four years of conflict and Israeli restrictions on movement, resulting in disruptions to businesses, had caused average Palestinian incomes to drop by more than one-third, and a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Nearly one-half of all Palestinians live below the poverty line. More than 600,000 people (16 per cent of the population) cannot afford even basic necessities.

After a recent visit to Palestine, the UK parliamentarian Gerald Kaufman said in an article: “There are now more than 600 fixed checkpoints in the tiny Palestinian area, which, with so-called flying checkpoints, make free movement almost impossible. In Bethlehem, which used to be crammed with tourists, we saw just two groups in Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. The Old City of Nablus, which I knew for a quarter of a century as a hub of commercial activity, is also desolate. Heavily-armed Israeli troops man walls, gates and huts, all preventing Palestinians from moving about.”

The bleak economic situation has worsened the security situation over which President Abbas’ weak administration has not been able to exercise any control. In a report issued this month, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group said 51 per cent of all Palestinian deaths by violence in 2005 had been a result of gunshot wounds received from other Palestinians, up from five per cent last year. In Gaza alone, the group said, 37 per cent of the total gunfire fatalities took place after the Israeli pullout was completed in September.

Repeated warnings by Israel that the Palestinian security forces were not preparing themselves to control Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal appeared to have been borne out with almost chaotic conditions prevailing on the crossing points that had been set up on the Gaza-Egypt border where monitoring had been taken over by the EU.

The leadership of Fatah, the dominant political group in Palestine, has proved itself to be both corrupt and inept. The younger generation led by Marwan Barghouti, currently serving concurrent life sentences in an Israeli jail, has mounted a successful challenge and after a great deal of wrangling which included the threat by Barghouti to fight the elections as a separate group Fateh has put together a slate of candidates in which the younger generation is dominant. Whether this will be sufficient to enable Fatah to overcome the challenge from Hamas is open to question.

In local elections Hamas received more than 70 per cent of the vote in the city of Nablus. It has won popularity as much for its provision of social services as for its rigid stance on Israel — a stance that has led to its classification as a terrorist organization and to Israeli demands that it should not be allowed to participate in the elections. The general consensus appears to be that Hamas will do well in the elections but not well enough to oust Fatah. It is also hoped that once it is represented in the Palestinian Legislative Council it will modify its current position on Israel.

The Americans had thrown their considerable weight behind Sharon and were, to all intents and purposes, prepared to live with the fact that in the absence of an effective Palestinian leadership Sharon would proceed with unilateral disengagement rather than adhering to the roadmap. They will probably take the view that with Sharon’s exit the best alternative available is to encourage Kadima to hold together and to proceed along the path that Sharon seemed to be following.

Dennis Ross, an American expert on the Middle East who also served as President Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East talks, has summed up the probable American position that since there is complete dysfunction on the Palestinian side, “For all the talk of peace process, the United States will be with Israel on its unilateral steps and hoping that the next prime minister of Israel will do what Sharon would have done.”

Sharon’s departure has brought new uncertainty to the already murky Palestinian situation. And yet matters can take a hopeful turn if the Palestinian elections go well — if Fatah emerges victorious with the young guard rather than the corrupt holdovers from the Arafat era holding the balance of power, and if President Abbas can move to cleanse his administration and bring to the fore younger and honest officials.

On the other side, if Shimon Peres curbs his ambitions and as a genuine statesman helps Omert and Kadima not only to win the elections but to move from a policy of unilateral disengagement — of which Olmert was an advocate even before Sharon — towards the goal of renewal of talks with a rejuvenated Palestinian leadership a peace deal of sorts could be worked out.

This deal will not mean the dismantling of the fence; it will not mean the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank; it will not mean a return to the 1967 borders; it will not mean the granting of the right of return to the Palestinians thrown out of Israel; it will not mean a complete relinquishment of Israeli military control of parts of the West Bank. But it could mean a return to Palestinian sovereignty of a large part of the West Bank and it could mean some sort of fuzzy arrangement making East Jerusalem the capital of the new Palestinian state.

Given all the conditions that need to be fulfilled it is apparent that this is going to be no easy task and will be impossible if the Americans are not fully engaged. Whether they will be is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that now there is a greater realization in Washington and particularly in the State Department under Secretary Rice that a viable solution in Palestine is an indispensable part of the war against terrorism.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Free advice galore

TALES heard and read in childhood leave a lasting impression. Whenever there is talk about advice I am at once reminded of the story of the old man and his young son going to town with their donkey. Everyone they met on the way exhorted the man to make proper use of the donkey. Abiding by each counsel, he successively rode on the animal, put his son on its back, both sat on it together and also led it riderless. The world was never satisfied and the flow of advice did not cease.

Apart from possessing the biggest sugar mill in Asia (dinned into our ears since independence) and the dirtiest cities in the world (which we ourselves see on comparing them with abroad) and the largest network of heroin smuggling (we are reminded of it by the foreign press every day), and being No. 2 or No. 3 in corruption (we might stand first soon) Pakistan has some other distinctions too, in the field of politics specially.

If you had picked up a newspaper, particularly before October 1999, you would have seen that what appears to be a joke on my part was not far from the truth. You would find PML leaders admonishing the PPP for not taking full advantage of its hold on the masses, the PPP showing the Jamaat-i-Islami in which branches it must brush itself up if it wants to rake in the votes, the Jamaat, or one of the Jamiats, giving free advice to the Tehrik-i-Istiqlal on how to conduct itself on national issues, and the Tehrik telling all other parties to go to the blazes.

A veritable masterpiece in this regard happened some 15 years ago when a stalwart of the Jamaat-i-Islami from Karachi took the credit for playing an important role in unifying the two biggest factions of the Muslim League. This was just before the general election following the death of General Ziaul Haq. Considering that the Jamaat has never been enamoured of the League, and in fact had suffered at the hands of various PML regimes in the past, the role claimed by him deserved to be categorized as a great act of unselfish charity and altruism.

You may well ask why political parties do this. Criticizing is one thing but giving positive advice to rivals is quite another. If the path they are showing to each other was so good why didn’t they adopt it themselves? Is it simply sportsmanship? Or are they so secure in the knowledge of their own position that they don’t mind giving an advantage or two to the other parties. Actually, it is none of these.

The real reason is that, as a people, we Pakistanis are so prone to giving advice to one another that we will never miss a chance of doing so, even though the advice may recoil on ourselves. It is an addiction. And we are so completely unselfish in the matter that we cannot bear to see anyone — not even an enemy — suffering for lack of it. I have yet to come across anything cheaper than gratuitous advice. So we give it freely, and for free, but are careful, at the same time, not to listen to advice from others. We do not acknowledge anyone else to be wiser than us.

Look at what everybody is doing. The government is dishing out advice to various sections of the public every day, including Sundays and gazetted holidays. The public on its part thinks it is its democratic duty to advise the government, although the government wisely ignores all advice. There are teachers giving advice to parents of students, and the whole country advising the teachers how not to teach. Self-styled patriots pompously advise alleged traitors, and even alleged traitors have the cheek to reciprocate with homilies to self-styled patriots. Big business advises small business to get out of the way, while small business tells big business on how to lose money and join its ranks.

Industrialists do their best to tell everyone that nothing is more important than production and high prices of manufactured goods, and agriculturists respond by advising industrialists to shut off their machines and pick up the plough for the sake of the country. To top it all, you will see the head of state and all other government leaders doling out advice night and day on every conceivable subject under the sun, forgetting that the public is burdened with thorny issues for which these gentlemen have yet to find solutions.

In their solicitude for the people these leaders spare them a recital of heart-breaking national problems and concentrate on advice on all manner of subjects, whether they know anything about them or not. A minister whom you wouldn’t hire to paint a chicken coop advises famous artists on what to paint, while his colleague who can’t tell a gazelle from a buffalo, has the gumption to harangue poets on what sort of verses the common man needs to forget his troubles.

At the same time, another minister is telling writers what to write and journalists what to report. As for newspapers, press advice or rather advice to the press, became an established institution long time ago, with every regime claiming on oath that it never subscribed to it. As a common feature, all advisers are careful to ensure that, in whatever they say, Islam is mentioned somewhere, whether it is relevant to the subject or not.

Imagine the plight of a helpless nation so persistently bombarded with advice from all sides, and that too from people who have neither morals nor principles, nor are they sincere in their religious beliefs. Naturally, all these wise counsels and guidance fall on deaf ears, even when the speaker is a person of integrity.

What next in Balochistan?

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE situation in Balochistan is going from bad to worse. Every day the newspapers carry reports of rocket attacks by unknown people and shelling and firing by the security forces. The government has now openly declared that it will take recourse to force to restore law and order in the province. This is a dangerous approach because when the army decides to use military means, it inevitably turns a crisis into a do or die issue.

We have been through this before in 1971 when the army was at the helm in Islamabad and refused to sort out the constitutional crisis in East Pakistan through a political dialogue. Regrettably, a similar story is being repeated in Balochistan. As we have learnt from past experience, a military crackdown of the kind we see today will not resolve the problem in this turbulent province.

The sense of déjà vu is disturbing. The government appears to have reverted to its conventional approach that it had employed in 1971 and its old paranoia has also been revived. Now we once again have the government denying that army action is taking place in the province. Next we are told about the ‘miscreants’ firing rockets in Balochistan and the army declaring its firm resolve to allow no letup in its crackdown on the fraris (fugitives). There have also been allegations of a foreign hand (a euphemism for India) attempting to take advantage of the turmoil in the province.

It may be recalled that initially when the situation in Balochistan began to turn ugly towards the latter part of 2004, the government — at that time led by the interim prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain — had considered it wiser to tackle the issue politically. In September 2004, the Senate adopted a resolution for the constitution of a committee to “deal with Balochistan and inter-provincial harmony.” The terms of reference of the committee were “to examine the current situation in Balochistan and make recommendations thereon.” Headed by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the committee was formed on September 29, 2004, comprising 29 members — later, another nine were added. Twenty-six of these were senators and 12 of them will be retiring in March 2006 as per the lots drawn as required by the Constitution.

The committee was divided into two subcommittees, one led by Wasim Sajjad and the other by Mushahid Hussein Sayed. The first body was mandated to address the question of inter-provincial harmony, which was understood to be the provincial autonomy issue. Given its sensitive nature, the subcommittee initially could not reach a consensus.

In June it formulated its proposals which included the removal of 27 items from the concurrent list in order to reduce this list to 20 items with the view to it being abolished altogether. It was also suggested that the federal list should be restricted to some core function of the federation such as defence, security, foreign relations, federal finance, communication and inter-provincial harmony. The Council of Common Interest was to be put into operation and it was recommended that it should be made mandatory for the council to meet every six months so that it could play its role in promoting provincial autonomy. Nothing has come of these recommendations which call for a constitutional amendment taking all this into account.

The Mushahid subcommittee that had been asked to address the immediate crisis in the province proved to be more successful in drawing up its report, though it was rejected by the nationalist parties. It describes the socio-economic situation in Balochistan, especially its backwardness, that lies at the root of the discontent. It also reports honestly the point of view of the Baloch leaders.

For instance, one learns from the horse’s mouth that Balochistan is a resource-starved province. Its own revenue receipts equal only one month’s salary of 150,000 employees of the provincial government. Poverty level is 47 per cent in Balochistan which is much higher than the national average. The literacy ratio is 26.6 per cent (the female literacy rate is 15 per cent) which is much below the national average of 51 per cent.

From the section on “Views of the Political Parties” one learns of the grievances and demands of some of the parties which are generally not adequately ventilated in the media. The key issues on which resentment exists are the plan to establish new cantonments in the province and the army action taking place there, the mega projects that are in the hands of the federal government and that provide jobs to outsiders, allotment of land for these projects to people from outside the province, inadequate representation of the Baloch in the federal government, the move to amalgamate the levies (community police) with the police force, and insufficient income from gas royalties.

The Mushahid subcommittee has drawn up recommendations which seek to meet many of these grievances. Classified under five heads, it suggests:

Increase in gas royalty and surcharge; maximum representation to the province on the boards of the oil and gas companies operating in the province; implementation of the job quota of the Baloch; shifting of the Gwadar Port Authority head office to Balochistan; seven per cent of the gross port revenue to go to the province; training of local youth for jobs; probing of allotment of lands by a judicial body; construction of highways; announcement of NFC; taking of CBMs such as keeping the visibility of the armed forces low; not disbanding the levy forces; holding in abeyance the construction of cantonments at Gwadar, Dera Bugti and Kohlu; harnessing water resources; maintaining Baloch-Pakhtoon parity in every respect — in terms of population and the regions.

Although this report is a sensible one, it has not succeeded in easing the crisis. It seems the government was uncomfortable with the recommendations. Although the report should have been finalized within three months (before the given deadline of January 7), it was in May that the report was adopted by the committee and November 2005 — the date on the document — when it was published. Meanwhile, the political approach appeared to recede into the background and army action picked up momentum.

Will the recommendations of the subcommittee be actually implemented? Will they appease the nationalists and the militants? As it is the committee has soft-pedalled on some basic issues that lie at the heart of the Baloch discontent, namely the military’s presence and the outside control of resources. In March 2005 when the parliamentary committee was preparing the report it visited the troubled province and met many leaders. Since Dera Bugti was the theatre of operation then and Nawab Akbar Bugti is a key leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Mushahid Hussain met him and an agreement was reached between them. A monitoring team was set up to oversee the implementation of the accord, the Bugti-Sui road was to be reopened and the Frontier Corps pulled out of 15 trenches in Dera Bugti. Some of these measures were implemented, albeit temporarily, and now the army has reoccupied 45 trenches.

The parliamentary committee exists no more and the two sides are heading for a confrontation. The government forgets that it cannot adopt a similar approach vis-à-vis Balochistan as it did in 1971 in East Pakistan. What happened then could be concealed to a certain extent from the people of West Pakistan because of the geographical distance of the affected areas. That is not possible today. Balochistan shares common borders with the other provinces and the media is free today. There are independent civil society organizations which visit areas of conflict and report independently to expose the government’s false claims. The attack on the HRCP delegation’s motorcade on its way to Dera Bugti to investigate the situation shows how uncomfortable some elements can be if the truth is known.

The problem with the government’s approach is that its emphasis has shifted to the use of military force that will not resolve the problem. It has alienated the people of Balochistan and has paradoxically caused them to identify with their sardars, whose oppressive policies, exploitation and tyranny are legendary. They have lined up behind the sardars when confronting the army. The government believes that if it pumps money into the province for its development Islamabad will be able to win the hearts and minds of the people and thus sideline the sardars.

But what the Baloch want is control over their resources and not just funds for development. Thus the scams in the allocation of land in Gwadar — some of which were challenged in court — have created considerable unrest. By acquiring large tracts — the army has taken nearly 4,000 acres and the navy has asked for 50,000 acres — the armed forces have worsened the crisis.