Ramallah, when I arrived, was abuzz with diplomatic activity, the likes of which it hadn’t seen in months, since the Hamas electoral victory that led much of the international community to shun the Palestinian Authority. This past week, an American congressional delegation came to visit P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by the French and German foreign ministers and, finally, by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In preparation, the presidential guard lined the streets around the Muqata’a, the presidential compound that houses Yasser Arafat’s tomb. Stores and restaurants were busy, and alcohol was readily available. The Hamas government has not dared to impose its social mores on this largely secular Fatah stronghold.
In an office on a quiet side street, I sat down for an interview with Qadora Fares, who asked if I’d like him to speak in Hebrew. He became fluent during his 14-year internment in Israeli prisons, but my Hebrew isn’t nearly as good, so we continued in English. Fares heads up two not-for-profits: the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which he founded when he was imprisoned, and the Palestinian Council for Development, Dialogue, and Democracy. Until the Hamas electoral victory, he was a Palestinian legislator, a leader of Fatah’s young guard. The group built its power around the first Palestinian intifada between 1987 and 1993, and is often in political disagreement with the older Fatah leadership that formed around Arafat and now surrounds Abbas. The camps are separated by issues of tactics, transparency and democracy.
Now 44, Fares is slight, bespectacled and soft-spoken. As a former prisoner, he is held in certain regard. (He was released along with other prisoners as part of the Cairo Agreement, which came about because of the Oslo Accords.) “There are 700,000 Palestinians who have been arrested in the last 40 years,” he said. Speaking of the Palestinians currently in prison, which number at least 9,000, he added, “They are fighters, and they are suffering in the Israeli jails.” The fate of the incarcerated Palestinians has moved front and center in the current crisis that began with the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, abducted from just inside Israel’s border with Gaza on June 25, ostensibly to be traded for Palestinian prisoners. It is believed that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who lives in protected exile in Syria, ordered the kidnapping. Egypt has been negotiating with Hamas’s Gaza leadership to achieve an indirect swap, coupled with a cease-fire and an end to rocket attacks on Israel. The deal was initially rejected by both Israel and Hamas, but lately there is said to be renewed interest, suggesting that both sides now want to separate the Gaza conflict from the more volatile Lebanese front.
But Fares had another reason for discussing Palestinian prisoners: the National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners, which sets principles for negotiating with Israel. Five inmates of Israel’s Hadarim prison signed the document in mid-May and finalized it at the end of June. They represented the five main Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Immediately after the signing, Abbas embraced the document and began a “national dialogue” aimed at winning across-the-board Palestinian support for new talks with Israel. Hamas tried to stall in Gaza, sensing a challenge to its hard-line leadership. In late June, as Abbas’s effort started bearing fruit, Meshal stole the thunder with the abduction of Shalit. After that, Hezbollah began its actions on Israel’s northern border and the document fell to the background.
Fares, however, insists that the “document has huge support from the public. It’s the first step to unite Palestinians and to prepare for a new government and new messages that the international community can live with.… The importance of this document is that Hamas said we should build a state on the 1967 borders for the first time.… The Israelis should not read this agreement by Israeli eyes. As Fatah, it took us more than 20 years to make a change; with Hamas, it takes five months.”
“The prisoners became more pragmatic than the leaders on the outside,” Fares said. “Just like those in the Diaspora are more extreme and just like former Israeli army officers feel peace and are more courageous, the prisoners are more courageous and feel they have full legitimacy.”
Fares doesn’t believe that the Hamas victory represented a turn away from negotiations with Israel. “When there is no hope, Hamas tells the Palestinians that resistance is the only way we can achieve our rights,” he said. “They tell the Palestinians we have no partner, and the Palestinians believe this idea because they feel it.”
“If you have no real promise, they say, ‘I’ll give you another promise about paradise,’” Fares said, referring to the Hamas appeal to young suicide bombers. “We have no real and serious leadership in Fatah, no think tank. There is a vacuum of leadership, and we feel it.” That’s where the Prisoners’ Document comes in.
The key organizer of the statement was Marwan Barghouti, Fares’s close ally and someone who is often discussed as a successor to Abbas, if Israel frees him from prison. “I believe that Marwan Barghouti can do a lot more than others if he is out of prison,” Fares said. “The Palestinians will be more united. He can prepare for democratic traditions in the Palestinian community and he will be aggressive in negotiations, but if he accepts something he will implement it.”
Fares himself signed another accord, the Geneva Initiative, an extra-parliamentary effort to map out a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. “I believe that within the coming two years, the Palestinians will be ready to sign Geneva,” he said. “If there is an official Israeli and Palestinian leadership who will sign it and we will take it to a referendum, there will be a majority.”
After our talk I met with Zahi Khoury, a leading Palestinian businessman and chairman of the National Beverage Company, which distributes Coca-Cola and more. In his art-filled office (with a large refrigerator packed with soda and bottled water), Khoury voiced exasperation at the lack of sustained involvement of the United States in Israeli-Palestinian mediation. He concurred with Fares that there was common ground for an agreement. “Americans are not genuine with Israel,” he said. “They are filling [Israelis] with steroids. If you are truthful with Israel, you push them to peace.… Hamas knows damn well that the 1967 border is it.”
There are two maps on a wall of his office suite — one for Gaza and one for the West Bank, with markings showing 150 Israeli checkpoints and 800 roadblocks, according to his logistics adviser. The maps help Khoury’s staff figure out how to distribute their products throughout the region. (The person accompanying me in Ramallah, also a locally based businessman, told me that every large Palestinian company has a logistics expert on payroll to deal with issues caused by the Israeli occupation.) Tacked on the wall, too, is a photograph of the company’s warehouse in Hebron. Khoury said that the Israel Defense Forces constructed, overnight, with no notice, a military installation with a watchtower in front of the warehouse on a road that leads to a Jewish settlement. “Only after three weeks could we get our materials and computers, with help from the U.S. Consulate,” he said. His logistics adviser dryly added, “The watchtower is not good for our image.”
In between fielding international calls and checking the Palestinian stock market, Khoury told me: “The Palestinian private sector is persevering and creative. Diamonds are made under pressure, and we have a lot of diamonds here. The private sector is hurt enormously. Some businesses are down 50% and closed, but my biggest worry is the brain drain. I hope this is not what Israel wants, because it will have a Somalia next door and I don’t wish this for Israel either.”