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Effective Mideast Policy Needs to Hear the Voices of the Street

We live in an age where we have more instantaneous news than we need, from the Internet to the tube; our cell phones to our radios and yes, the struggling print papers which sharpen our skills and understanding.


We are wired, but we are not informed: contextually or globally, especially, but not limited to the Middle East.


It wasn’t the lack of traffic lights or police presence on the streets of Ramallah that signaled the root of the problem facing the Palestinian people. It was the darkened Justice Ministry – symbolic of a non-functioning government that brought the lack of perspective Americans have that day en route to the Palestinian Authorities headquarters, the Muqata.


To put things into simple context following the death of Yassir Arafat:


Mahmoud ‘Abbas was elected to succeed Arafat, this with America’s blessing. A corrupt Palestinian Authority lost the confidence of its people while Hamas built its base of support through the provision of social services. New elections were set in motion. President ‘Abbas unsuccessfully pleaded with the United States to help forestall the vote which, in his opinion, would result in Hamas victory. When that became reality, the U.S. and western donor nations cut off support to the P.A. until three conditions are met: renouncing violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of agreements with Israel signed by previous governments.


Internecine warfare began and grew under the new regime until ‘Abbas issued a call for new elections – a power he insists inures to the presidency while Hamas rejects his reading. While calls for a unity government become more emphatic from voices within and outside of the P.A. itself, assassinations, kidnappings and street-fighting became increasingly commonplace. During this time, alternative avenues for funding the Palestinians sprung up. International donor nations channeled support directly to the office of ‘Abbas while Hamas ministers would leave the Palestinian Authority and return with millions of cash dollars in suitcases.


During a recent visit to the Muqata, anomalies between public statements of support and realities on the ground became apparent. One official speaking under assurances of anonymity, bitterly decried American claims that it is training thousands of Presidential Guard troops loyal to ‘Abbas in preparation for an armed showdown with Hamas. The source insisted while estimates of the force ranged from 20,000 to 40,000, there were no more than 400 fighters being trained at the time. Talk in the Muqata at the time was of an inevitable clash and Hamas victory.


Enter two summits of note:  Mecca and Rice. Taken together, the back-to-back events illustrate the weakness of U.S. policy. While the American administration made clear its interest in seeing a  Palestinian unity government that opts for the much ballyhooed international conditions of renunciation of violence; recognition of Israel and acceptance of agreements signed by previous governments, Mecca was about Palestinian needs: utmost, the need to head-off civil war. So Palestinians were as upset with the White House’s statements of disappointment with ‘Abbas as the Americans were disappointed.


But the outcome of Mecca had more to do with the Palestinian street than with international policy. The mayor of Gaza City, Dr. Maged Awni Abu Ramadan, told me before the Mecca conference that, “the majority of people in Gaza City [70% by his estimate] were hiding in their homes while those in the streets are masked militiamen.”  Abu Ramadan also explained the logic and ease of a short-termed agreement coming from a high-profile intercession by the Saudi king. “Every family in Gaza has one family member in Hamas, one in Fatah, one in Islamic Jihad, and so on. And yet, at night, they all come home and eat dinner together.”


The U.S. and Israel based their lack of expectations of success at the February 19th summit on ‘Abbas’s “failure” to leave Mecca with the western demands attended to. Against that background, it surprised no one that a photo-op was all that emerged from the Bush administration’s highly touted launch of its new “hands-on, get down-and-dirty on the Israeli-Palestinian track. In effect, the quagmire that stuck 13 months ago remains unchanged.


Critics of the administration argue that in order to effect change, priority must be given to understanding the needs of the people on the streets of the conflicted nations rather than inflicting the political assessments of policy-wonks thousands of miles away. It may not be what the administration wants to hear, but it might also lead to some more imaginative policy-making that has a chance of moving forward.


Felice Friedson is President and CEO of The Media Line News Agency, an American organization specializing in Middle East coverage. She is founder of The Mideast Press Club, and can be reached at Felice@themedialine.org