PA police protest 298.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The assignment that the editors at Al Quds Educational television gave their reporter seemed simple: Go out and assess the public's reaction to the suggestion by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to hold a referendum based on the Palestinian prisoners' agreement.
Numan Kabaah, who was given this assignment, found it difficult to complete. Normally, filming brief reactions from eight-10 people in the street having different points of view takes 20 minutes. But this time, almost two hours and 20 interviews later, Numan couldn't find a single Palestinian who opposed the referendum.
Shifting from Rukab St. in Ramallah to Manara Square and closer to the El Bireh produce market, he could find no one who was against a plebiscite that can put an end to the ongoing deadlock in Palestine.
The dilemma Palestinians find themselves in results from two seemingly opposing election results in a period of one year. Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority on a pro-peace platform that called for direct talks with Israel. Ismael Haniyeh and his List for Change and Reform won the parliamentary elections on a platform that made no mention of talks with Israel.
Israel and the international community have imposed an unjust siege on the Palestinian government because of the absence in the Haniyeh administration's program of any mention of recognizing Israel, acceptance of previous agreements signed by the PLO and rejection of terrorism.
DESPITE THE fact that Haniyeh's electoral platform focused on internal issues, they have insisted that Hamas's election victory is also a vote for its external program.
Even before the referendum takes place or its results are known, simply by suggesting it, Abbas has scored in more than one political playing field.
He has weakened tremendously the attempts of the Haniyeh government to claim a mandate for their rejection of negotiations and recognition of Israel. He has also embarrassed Israel's premier, Ehud Olmert, whose unilateral plan is anchored in the idea that there is no serious Palestinian partner who recognizes it.
Immediately following the call for a public referendum, Abbas's personal popularity went up. The image of a weak, powerless president that Olmert painted before he left for Washington has evaporated.
SUPPORT FOR the referendum goes beyond reactions expressed to a television reporter in Ramallah. Scientific polls conducted within a week after the call showed that more than two-thirds of all Palestinians support the referendum.
But perhaps the most telling proof has come from Hamas itself. Different Hamas spokespersons have given contradictory positions on the idea of a referendum.
During and after the recent parliamentary elections various Hamas leaders said that if forced to decide on recognition of Israel, they would put the question to a popular vote. In his first interview after being elected speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Dr. Azziz Dweek told Lebanese TV journalist Jisel Khoury on Al Arabiyeh that he would support such a referendum.
Dweek repeated this position shortly after Abbas made the call, but later claimed that the referendum idea presented by Abbas was unconstitutional.
ABBAS'S CALL has exposed a simmering split within the Islamic resistance movement, one they have tried to keep behind the scenes. It has shown at least three different positions regarding recognizing Israel.
Ironically, it turns out that the most moderate position within Hamas belongs to those in prison. Those in the bigger prison of occupation and siege are not as moderate, and those completely free - in Syria - are the most radical.
A deeper look reveals the obvious. Everyone knows that the balance of forces is not in favor of the Palestinians. So the differences of opinion are often focused on accepting a compromise now, or waiting for the possibility of a better deal later; optimists hope the balance of forces on the Palestinian side will improve.
The more restrictive a person's life is the more he sees the need for short-term relief and not just long-term dreams. Hamas leaders in Damascus can wait for a long time because their daily lives are not restricted by occupation, siege or imprisonment.
The Arabic proverb says: "Those who are feeling the whip are not like those counting the number of lashes."
THERE IS AN even more important reason why prisoners and those under occupation have a more pragmatic point of view. A quick look at the Palestinian and Arab positions over the past half-century does not give much hope that things will be any better in 10 or 20 years. On the contrary, an honest look will show an erosion of our political program. What we will accept today (the 1967 lines) we rejected some time ago, and so on.
Therefore prisoners, whether behind bars or behind checkpoints, are not willing to waste their lives waiting five or 10 years for their leaders to accept then what they are rejecting now.
The Abbas referendum offers Palestinians in the occupied territories a platform to make their point, not on the issue of governance and corruption, but on the strategic issues of the borders of the state we want to live in, and how we want to deal with our neighbors.
By using the document of the thousands of Palestinians behind bars and offering it to the millions of Palestinians under occupation, Abbas has discovered the one issue which will, I hope, clear the air and put our people on the road to independence, democracy and freedom.
The writer is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah. www.daoudkuttab.com