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Violence, it seems, has become endemic to the Palestinian mind-set and political culture. Gaza Palestinians - but not only them - have ceased to respect the traditions that once comprised the clan system. Instead they now more closely identify with the ideologies of the political movements to which they are affiliated.
The chaos surrounding Palestinian social and political life is indicative of our having the wrong priorities. Internal power struggles have replaced resistance to Israel's occupation and - in practice - the desire for Palestinian independence.
Years ago, I expressed the opinion that the Aksa intifada had lost direction. This has become all the more evident in the chaos now surrounding us.
Palestinians face an uncertain and disquieting future. Successive Palestinian leaderships have failed to take control of the Palestinian polity. After Mahmoud Abbas's election as president in January 2005, he told an American media outlet that he was ready to fight the culture of violence permeating Palestinian society. Yet Abbas actually encouraged that culture, while at the same time failing to run our nation's affairs properly.
Abbas has failed both in his domestic policies and in his diplomacy. And his intention to hold early elections will probably only worsen the situation.
The residents of the Palestinian territories appear anyway ready to reelect Hamas because people don't believe that Fatah has really recovered from its chronic disease: corruption. Beyond that problem, the movement needs a real platform and strategy that can show the people a better way.
Right now they don't have them.
And Fatah would be right, in any campaign, to emphasize that Hamas has accomplished nothing to realize the "Reform and Change" platform it ran on.
The large amount of money pouring in for Hamas from all directions is another clue to its own corruption. Hamas's failure to disclose its budget makes it twice as corrupt.
If you were to read the Palestinian newspapers these days you'd be appalled by the sinister headlines: killings, kidnappings, arsons, shootings, revenge attacks and Kassam launchings. Then you read calls for a "national unity government" - as though Palestinians were already living in two different countries, one in Gaza (under Hamas) and the other in the West Bank (under Fatah).
The people's sense of defeat is caused by our leaders' ineptitude; the violence is fed by poverty, oppression and deprivation.
FREEDOM CAN arise only where there is unity and integrity. The current Palestinian leadership behaves as if the internal violence were happening elsewhere, and seems indifferent to the possibility that the spreading violence will become uncontrollable.
The current intifada has ceased to be a popular uprising. It has been replaced by civil war. But the world looks at the intifada as nothing more than Palestinian violence - sometimes against other Palestinians, sometimes against Israel.
The conditions prevailing in Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal further indicate the Palestinian inability to achieve self-governance. Not a single greenhouse has been constructed - and we've destroyed those Israel left behind.
The hideous slaying of three young brothers and their driver on December 11 was the responsibility of all Palestinians without differentiating between Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad or any other party (or faction). The hands of all Palestinians are stained with the blood of those children. We seem to have lost the ability to dialogue with each other, and there is no horizon of hope to break our despair.
During December, Israeli soldiers killed 11 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, whereas Palestinians killed 17 Palestinians during the same period.
The Palestinian issue has ceased to be what it was in the early 1970s, '80s, or '90s; the Palestinian people have outdone the Israeli occupation in opposing our own rights.
THE QUESTION now is where do we go from here? As a people, we have lost confidence and become shattered by depression and fear. Our former steadfastness has been replaced by apathy and indifference.
We have lost the ability to run our own municipal affairs, let alone address security. Forming a national unity or technocratic government will do nothing to improve the situation.
Egypt is actively involved in Palestinian affairs in Gaza, while Jordan is playing a similar role in the West Bank. This interference has become acceptable - indeed we need the outside input - and is no cause for shame. It may be the only way to provide a modicum of security and control.
Palestinian society suffers not only from chaotic security but also from an ethical chaos that no one dares address. Robberies, burglaries and worse have become part of the fabric of our lives. This victimization collectively threatens to undermine our society in the very near term.
There are those calling for greater pluralism and those calling for greater authoritarianism; some people even want to see more militias, an approach that would lead us into an abyss.
But what is really needed - and what more and more Palestinians are saying - is that the national interest requires a leadership and a government that is honorable and can lead our people out of the crisis and away from catastrophe.
Unfortunately, many of our current leaders have lost sight of just what the national interest is. Everyone is pursuing individual interests.
Palestinians need to realize that this may be our last chance for self-determination. If lost, it could be lost forever. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past; we cannot afford another series of missed opportunities.
The writer is founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG), based in east Jerusalem.
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