Palestinians are crying out for order and progress towards statehood, yet their Parliament has failed to pass a single law in over a year, paralysed by factional fighting and, some say, Israeli tactics.
In the 15 months since voters rallied behind the Hamas Islamist group, the 11-year-old Palestinian Legislative Council has rarely managed to gather the 67 members, a simple majority, to form a quorum for decisions. It has yet to pass a Bill.
Hamas points out that Israel arrested nearly half its 74 legislators last year — among 41 members of Parliament now in Israeli jails.
But analysts also say deliberate absences by lawmakers from Hamas and its bitter rival, the secular and long dominant Fatah movement, have entrenched the paralysis.
Palestinians have been hard hit by the economic embargo and other sanctions imposed on Hamas for its refusal to renounce violence or to recognise Israel. Hopes of a Palestinian state raised by the Oslo peace accords in the mid-1990s have turned to despair as Hamas and Fatah militants have fought in the streets.
Frustrated independent lawmakers have accused both blocs of deliberately sabotaging the Parliament and members of both main movements accept things need to change.
”Both factions are afraid the other will present Bills that are against the interests of the other,” said Hassan Khreisheh, the independent member who is deputy speaker.
When there is a will, such as the need to confirm in office in March a new unity government comprising both Hamas and Fatah ministers, there was a good turnout and a big vote, he noted.
Even when there has been a quorum, little has been done.
When deputy speaker Khreisheh announced a quorum at one recent session, there were sighs and applause from lawmakers in the chamber in Ramallah in the West Bank and those, mainly from Hamas, participating via video link from the Gaza Strip, a feature imposed on the assembly by Israeli travel restrictions.
”It’s like a miracle we reached a quorum,” Azzam al-Ahmad, head of Fatah’s parliamentary bloc, told Reuters.
But the session found no breakthrough on legislation politicians say would benefit Palestinians suffering from violence and from the economic sanctions imposed by Israel and Western powers a year ago after Hamas’s election victory.
Even the formation of a Hamas-Fatah unity government has not perceptibly fostered cooperation, analysts say, though there have been occasional successful votes — on largely non-binding issues such as condemning Israeli detention policy or building work near holy sites.
”Hamas believes that there is a conspiracy that the council is a territory in which they are supposed to fail, especially after the arrests,” said Azmi al-Shuaibi, a former lawmaker from a small, left-wing party who advises on parliamentary affairs.
”They have realised that the council provides a mechanism for judging the government and that any criticism of the government threatens their interests. There is this constant feeling of insecurity on the part of Hamas,” said Shuaibi.
He was equally critical of Fatah: ”They mainly disrupt sessions because they lack the parliamentary leadership.”
Hamas for its part blames the absences of so many of its members on Israeli action and accuses Fatah of exploiting that.
Israel says it suspects those it detains of involvement in violence. Commentators believe Israel’s aim of keeping them behind bars was to put more pressure on Palestinians to free an Israeli soldier abducted by Palestinian militants last year.
Hamas boycotts of previous parliamentary elections since the council was formed in 1996 had given Fatah members largely free rein. Scores of Bills were passed in that period, some even in the face of hostility from Yasser Arafat, the Fatah leader.
”The previous Parliament was a domain for change but we do not see this happening in today’s Parliament,” said Shuaibi.
Some commentators say Hamas’s key concern is that the council could be used by Fatah, taking advantage of the jailing of Hamas members and backed by smaller parties, to change the electoral process that brought Hamas to power last year.
”The absence [of the detained Hamas lawmakers] is politically motivated. For sure it is not an innocent absence,” said Qais Abdel-Karim, a lawmaker from a small Marxist group.
Other critics also note that some of the absences from the chamber are not the result of Israeli detentions but a fondness among members for foreign travel: Fatah lawmaker Najat Abu Bakr said her colleagues should stop ”parliamentary tourism”.
There are areas where, it seems, legislators on both sides can agree — Hamas lawmaker Hamed al-Bitawi said both major parties were at fault: ”We do not escape responsibility. We and Fatah shoulder the blame.” — Reuters