The real rift in Palestinian society is between those fighting to preserve the class privileges of Oslo and their opponents who uphold the essentials of the Palestinian cause, writes Joseph Massad*
Al-Haram June 15-21, 2006

One of the most important measures that the Israeli and Palestinian architects of the Oslo agreement took in order to guarantee the structural survival of what came to be known as the Oslo “peace process” was the creation of structures, institutions, and classes, that would be directly connected to it, and that can survive the very collapse of the Oslo agreement itself while preserving the “process” that the agreement generated. This guarantee was enshrined in law and upheld by international funding predicated on the continuation of the “Oslo process”, as long as the latter continued to serve Israeli and US interests as well as the interests of the corrupt Palestinian elite that acquiesced in it.

The five main classes that the architects of Oslo created to ensure that the “process” survives are:

– A political class, divided between those elected to serve the Oslo process, whether to the Legislative Council or the executive branch (essentially the position of president of the Palestinian Authority), and those who are appointed to serve those who are elected, whether in the ministries, or in the presidential office.

– A policing class, numbering in the tens of thousands, whose function is to defend the Oslo process against all Palestinians who try to undermine it. It is divided into a number of security and intelligence bodies competing with one another, all vying to prove that they are most adept at neutralising any threat to the Oslo process. Under Arafat’s authority, members of this class inaugurated their services by shooting and killing 14 Palestinians they deemed enemies of the “process” in Gaza in 1994 — an achievement that earned them the initial respect of the Americans and the Israelis who insisted that the policing class should use more repression than it had to be most effective.

– A bureaucratic class attached to the political class and the policing class and that constitutes an administrative body of tens of thousands who execute the orders of those elected and appointed to serve the “process”.

– An NGO class: another bureaucratic and technical class whose finances fully depend on their serving the Oslo process and ensuring its success through planning and services.

– A business class composed of expatriate Palestinian businessmen as well as local businessmen — including especially members of the political, policing and bureaucratic classes — whose income is derived from financial investment in the Oslo process and from profit-making deals that the Palestinian Authority (PA) can make possible.

While the NGO class mostly does not receive money from the PA, being the beneficiary of foreign governmental and non-governmental financial largesse that is structurally connected to the Oslo process, the political, policing, and bureaucratic classes receive all their legitimate and illegitimate income from the PA directly. By linking the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Palestinians to the Oslo process, the architects had given them a crucial stake in its survivability, even, and especially, if it failed to produce any political results. For the Palestinian elite that took charge of the PA, the main task all along was to ensure that the Oslo process continues (regardless of whether it produced results or not) and that the elite remain in control of all the institutions that guarantee the survival of the “process”. What the elite did not anticipate was that they could lose control to Hamas, a public opponent of the Oslo process that in accordance with expectations had boycotted the 1994 gerrymandered and Fatah-controlled elections. The 2006 elections, which Fatah was confident it would win, constituted an earthquake that could destroy all these structural guarantees and with them the “process” they were designed to protect.

If under the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) the “cause” was that to which Palestinians were normally dedicated, under the PA it would be the “process” to which they were urged to devote themselves. It is in this context that the financial incentives of joining one of these classes would guarantee that Palestinians remain committed to the process. The recent panic that the political, policing and bureaucratic classes of the PA are manifesting is directly related to their perception that unless they reverse the Hamas victory, their very continuation as beneficiary classes will be in the balance. Indeed even intellectuals and technicians who are members of the NGO class began to explain that the “Hamas” win was not as large as first believed, providing meticulous analysis of voting districts and the like, as well as providing advice and counsel to the three PA classes on how to undermine Hamas. The Palestinian business class itself held a meeting in London, essentially urging Hamas to support the “process”.

Thus, as soon as Hamas won the elections, members of the political class began to meet openly and secretly with American and Israeli officials to plan to undermine it. These plans would soon involve neighbouring Arab countries equally as dedicated as is the PA to serving American and Israeli interests. The PA political class no longer cared if its game plan became public, hence the spectacular arrest of a Hamas official for bringing foreign donations into Gaza, an offence he would not have been arrested for had he followed the corrupt tradition of Fatah and PA officials who regularly steal Palestinian public funds and smuggle them out of Gaza, rather than into it! The policing class has been going on the rampage to reassert its power, revealing itself to be nothing less than gangs of thugs bent on repressing all Palestinians in the service of the process. The bureaucracy refused to cooperate with Hamas officials and began to threaten them and refuse them entry into their own ministerial offices. The latest attack on the prime minister’s office and the Palestinian Legislative Council building in Ramallah, setting them on fire, is clear indication that these three PA-created classes will do anything and everything to ensure continued financial benefits from Oslo.

Talk of the tens of thousands of PA employees not receiving their salaries for two months would have been more moving to a Palestinian population that had a regular income. Since the majority of Palestinians have had minuscule income, if at all, since the second Intifada began, the situation of PA employees was rightly seen as not unique or more tragic than that of the rest of the Palestinians. Indeed, it is the equalisation of the Oslo- benefiting classes with the majority of the Palestinian population (who are in fact Oslo-losing classes) that seems to gall the PA classes. They are therefore determined to prevent their loss of class privilege at any cost.

Hamas’s electoral victory is indeed helping to unify Fatah, which was rent with divisions and internecine fighting before the elections, so much so that as late as January there was talk among Fatah elements that if Mahmoud Abbas postponed the elections they would assassinate him. Abbas, who unlike Arafat has no popular or Fatah-based constituency, has a freer hand than the late leader in pandering to the Americans and Israelis if they would ensure the continuation of the “process”. Fatah is now rallying to Abbas, just as he is rallying to Fatah. Indeed Abbas recently made peace with what is left of the PLO — which he, like Arafat before him, had continued to dismantle — by mending fences with Farouq Qaddumi and Suha Arafat after months of rancour. It remains unclear, however, if the PA will resume paying Suha and her daughter multi- million dollar cheques. Even the mutinous Mohamed Dahlan, who wants the whole pie to himself, is coming to the aid of Abbas.

Indeed, as he is consolidating and centralising authority in his own hands for the first time since he came to power, Abbas has recently created a Praetorian guard to ensure his safety as supreme guardian (or is it godfather?) of the “process”. Israel rushed to allow weapons to enter the occupied territories to outfit the new repressive force. As is clear from Abbas’s public statements, the only time he speaks out against the Israelis is when Ariel Sharon and later Ehud Olmert threaten to end the “process” with unilateral action. Otherwise, Abbas has been quite amenable to any and all Israeli and US proposals.

Hamas, on its part, is playing a game reminiscent of Salvador Allende. Like, Allende, Hamas continues to insist on the democratic game, as its thuggish and gangster opponents observe no limits on their conspiratorial and treasonous actions. It is true that the attack on Ismail Haniyeh’s office is not of the magnitude of the assault on La Moneda on 11 September 1973, but the thugs are demonstrating that they are ready to go as far as Pinochet had in serving Fatah and Israeli interests. Despite all this, Hamas seems to have shown curious restraint. Hamas could, for example, arrest the entire top (and many of the mid- level) leadership of Fatah and the PA on corruption and national treason charges for which it has ample documentary proof, bringing them to open and fair trial. It could mobilise the population against these corrupt figures through demonstrations and the media. That it has not done so testifies to its commitment to preserving a semblance of the peace and not responding to the instigation of a civil war that the defeated PA elite wants to bring about as a possible way of restoring the “process”.

While the PA and its benefiting classes are fighting a battle to keep the “process” alive, the Israelis have shown every indication that the “process” ended for them a long time ago. For them, the Oslo process was a necessary but historically finite step designed to co-opt the Palestinian leadership, solidify Israel’s grip on stolen Palestinian lands, and normalise Israel’s diplomatic status in the Arab world as well as globally. As the Israelis have achieved all these goals, the process no longer serves any purpose for them. At the moment, their continuing campaign to bomb and assassinate Palestinian civilians and pro- and anti-“process” politicians in the West Bank and Gaza has shown no sign of abating. As the Oslo process has brought calamity after calamity on the Palestinian people, its only reason for continuing is the survival of the PA classes that are its main and only beneficiaries.

Make no mistake about it, this is what the ongoing battle in the West Bank and Gaza is all about. What lies in the balance is the fate of nine million Palestinians.

* The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. His book, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, was recently published by Routledge.