Mustafa Barghouti: Getting the Palestinian Legislative Council out of the freezer

Here is the full text of an interview I did yesterday in the Ramallah offices of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for the Mubadara – Independent Palestine list, and who was Palestinian Authority Minister of Information under the short-lived National Unity Government that was disbanded just about a year ago after Hamas routed Fatah security forces in Gaza.

In this interview, Dr. Barghouti answers questions about the revival — at least in a limited role, at first — of the Palestine Legislative Council, and possible moves towards healing of the split between the West Bank and Gaza by national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas:

Question: Dr. Barghouti, I wanted to ask you first of all about the Palestinian Legislative Council. It reportedly met for the first time in a long time on the 5th of June, last Thursday and welcomed the initiative of President Abbas…

Answer (interrupting the question): Not exactly, no. We did not have a meeting of the Legislative Council. And that was not the purpose of the meeting. The meeting took place as a follow-up of a previous meeting which we had had between heads of different groups in the parliament, because we are very worried about the fact that there is a concentration of all the powers in Palestine in the hands of the government – whether in Gaza or in the West Bank, and both governments practically have eliminated the role of the Legislative Council. And what we are seeing is the government practicing legislative authority in addition to executive authority, although its status, legally, is questionable. We gathered to find a way, in a situation where one-third of the members of parliament are in Israeli jails, obstructing the possibility of reconvening the Council, and with the situation of division between the West Bank and Gaza, where both people cannot reach each other. In the situation of this paralysis caused by these factors, we have to find a way to bring back the role of the Legislative Council. And what we decided was to act although informally but effectively: we had a meeting with the participation of a good number of people from different factions, and we decided to create a committee that represents all the groups, including Fatah, Hamas, Mubadara, DFLP, all the people who are in the Council, to regain the supervisory as well as legislative role of the Council.

What we are doing is that, according to the law, each member of the Legislative Council is entitled to practice his duties, even if the Council is not meeting. So what we are doing is, collectively, translating this individual right into action – which means, we will have three major committees and they will start acting next week.

Dr. Barghouthi continued his statement explaining that the moribund PLC had decided to continue to function despite an absence of quorum because 1/3 of its members were in Israeli jails: “One [of these committees] will revise (review) all the legislations that were made by the President on his own, on the recommendation of the Government, and we will express our opinions about it. We will also try to restrain this flow of laws by the President which should not be that much, because he cannot issue a decree unless it is really, really an emergency and urgent, while what is happening is that there is a flow of laws without justification. Second duty will be for a committee that will facilitate the observatory role, the control role of the Council, on the work of the government, including revising the budget and seeing what’s going on. And finally there will be a committee that will continue to look at peoples’ needs and how this can be reflected in the policies.

Practically, we are getting the Palestinian Legislative Council out of the freezer, and we are bringing it back to life, out of necessity, but mainly out of concern that the whole democratic system is jeopardized.

Q: But I understood from you last year that the reason the Council could be frozen – and I thought the reason that it was frozen – was because of President Abbas’ decision to continue the Emergency Government beyond the period stipulated in the Draft Basic Law…

A: No, the reason for its freezing is mainly the fact of Israel’s arresting one-third of the members of parliament. But the second reason is because both Fatah and Hamas could not agree to meet. And if they meet under the situation where one-third of the members are in jail, would that reflect on the voting or not? So, all these were complications. But the main factor that is preventing the council from properly working is the arrest of about 48 members of our council.

Q: The meeting that was held on the 5th of June, and then again yesterday, on the 8th of June, was it just among members in Ramallah? Or, was there a video link with Gaza?

A: No, there was no video link with Gaza, because the people in Gaza are meeting on their own. And that is also questionable. This meeting in Ramallah was the only meeting where all the groups are participating, and not just one party. In Gaza, Hamas people meet alone.

Q: Even though all the parties [who were elected] are participating, you don’t actually have any participation of people from Gaza?

A: But we have participation from Hamas?

Q: I saw a report about a week ago that the Minister of Health in Gaza had asked the Legislative Council – I assumed in Gaza, but maybe it was here in Ramallah – to arrange to have the workers in the Ministry of Health in Gaza, who are being paid their salaries by Ramallah, come back to work because they are needed in the medical institutions in Gaza. Who was he appealing to? Who was he talking to, then?

A: I don’t know. I didn’t receive any appeal from his side. So, I don’t know about it. What I know is that the Legislative Council itself cannot become a reason for division or part of the division. It should try to be part of unity efforts. And that’s what we are trying to do. What I know is that we have two governments, in West Bank and in Gaza, and both are illegal. What I know is that the meetings in Gaza that are taking place are not consistent with the law. The difference between the meetings we’re having in Ramallah and the meetings in Gaza is that in Ramallah we are not claiming that we’re meeting as Legislative Council. We’re meeting as members of the Legislative Council, trying to make some effort to save the democratic structure, to prevent the collapse of the democratic structure, to prevent the situation where all the principle of separation of authority is vanishing because of this situation, this unusual situation.

Q: Is there any thought of linking up with the Legislative Council members in Gaza?

A: We could do that, we could do that – if they agree on the method that we are using now, yes, why not? The day before yesterday we spoke with the President of the Council in Gaza, Mr. Ahmad Bahr, who’s acting President, actually. And we are discussing. They have some ideas about how to regain the role of the Council. We’ll see. This is part of the national dialog about regaining the unity. But that is possible.

Q: The revival of the meetings of the members of the Legislative Council here coincides with the announcement last week by President Abbas…

A (interrupting the question): No, it started before. You have to remember that we started this effort three months ago, when we initiated a committee on our own to investigate the death of Majd al-Barghouthi, in Ramallah prison. After that, we also initiated another committee to investigate the death of Abu Khattar (sp???) from Gaza. In both cases, we acted on our own. We have the right to do so. We appointed a committee to investigate both cases. The first committee finished its job and presented a very important report that was published, about the torture in prisons that should stop. And now the second committee is finishing its work, and hopefully within one week it will be out. So the efforts to start to reactivate the Palestinian Legislative Council started a long time before the new initiative of the President, and it’s independent of it.

Q: Is the investigation into the death of Abu Khattar (sp???) in Gaza, is that being done in coordination with people in Gaza? With people in the Legislative Council in Gaza?

A: Yes, and with the government there. They both are cooperative.

Q. And the results of the investigation into the death of Majd al-Barghouti, here, show that he was tortured in prison, and you asked for improvements…

A: We asked the President to issue immediate decrees, or immediate orders, to suspend any form of torture in prisons, which he promised to do. We asked him to present to the courts, or present to justice, anybody who participated, covered up, or initiated, or ordered acts of torture – and we also reported that the autopsy report that was presented to us was inconsistent with professional approach, and that they have to make some actions in this regard in order to make sure that the autopsy structure, which is under the government, should function in a professional way. And the report was published, and it received very good appreciation, I think. The question is, how far were the recommendations that were made, implemented? We are not sure yet – we have to examine that.

Q: You said that the main reason for the members of the Legislative Council deciding to meet was to counter the flood of legislation that is being made by the Executive. Does the Executive appreciate your initiative?

A: When we first met with the President, we demanded that no new decrees would be issued without us first reviewing them, and we demanded to review the already-issued legislation. Because, anyhow, all existing laws that were issued as decrees by the President would have to be revised (reviewed) by the Council the moment it meets. And the Council could dismiss these decrees, if it wants, or change them. So, he promised that he will convene us when any new decree is being prepared. This did not happen. That’s why we are meeting now, and initiating the new committee, which will make sure that what we agreed about with the President will be implemented.

Q: Could you explain what you think the status is of the government in Ramallah and of the government in Gaza? And why are they illegal?

A: If we follow the basic law strictly, both of them are illegal, because neither of them have the approval of the Legislative Council. One of them was dismissed by the President, which is his right – I mean the government which is now acting in Gaza – so it shouldn’t exist. The other one in Ramallah was initiated as an Emergency Government, but the right to have that Emergency Government is limited only to one month – but it exceeded one month, and it’s lasted almost one year now. So, in both cases, there is a legal problem, and there is a strange reality. Of course Israel carries a big share in that, by destroying the democratic system here. But we cannot say that it is Israel only – it’s also the Palestinian division, internally, especially the behavior of Fatah and Hamas. The behavior of both of them has violated the rule of law, it’s violated democratic principles, and it is quite factional. That’s why what we see here is an effort from the Legislative Council, with the participation of members from all parties, to prevent a deterioration to the level that Palestine, again, becomes an autocracy, instead of sustaining or keeping what we have achieved of a democratic system, in anticipation that, hopefully, sometime soon we will be able to go to elections again. We don’t want the system to be destroyed in the process of division. That’s why we are doing what we are doing today. But what we say is that executive authority, executive government cannot continue to function without control (checks and balances), cannot take on itself the responsibility of legislation, and substitute itself for the Legislative Council, and cannot continue to act without being accountable to the Legislative Council.

Q: What would it take for the Legislative Council to meet again?

A: A majority (a quorum) of votes. We need a meeting where there is a majority of votes. The President should call for that meeting. There should be a majority of votes. And during that meeting there should be elections for the new presidium of that Council. The problem is that you cannot get a majority of votes because Hamas lost its majority, due to the fact that many of their members are in jail. Fatah does not have a majority alone. So, neither of them can convene, alone, the Council — you see? And we, the independents would not go to any Council that is not unified, anyhow. So, that is the problem – the absence of majority. If Fatah comes, Hamas does not come. If Hamas comes, Fatah does not come. What we need is an agreement. Of course, if the people are out of jail, Hamas automatically have a majority, and then the Council can meet. But, the fact that one-third of Hamas (parliamentary) members are in jail is preventing the normal procedure, and requires an agreement between the two factions to have the Council meet. That is why it is not able to meet.

Q: Once it does meet, what impact would that have on the legitimacy of the current government in Ramallah?

A: It depends on what the members of the Council want. They can dismiss it, automatically. Immediately after the Legislative Council meets, it has the right to dismiss or accept or approve the Government.

Q: And what impact do you think it might have on the government in Gaza?

A: The same, the same. I mean, the government in Gaza cannot act, legally speaking, as a caretaker government because it was dismissed. That’s why I did not stay as a Minister of Information [of the National Unity Government], because I think I was dismissed. I can’t stay in that position. Some others are continuing to function in Gaza, because there is a new arrangement. But in both cases there is violation of the Basic Law. And the cause of that is the division between Fatah and Hamas.

Q: What do you think is going on in Gaza, now – and my question includes the attacks on the crossings from Gaza, the attacks on Israel ….

A: What you see in Gaza is a terrible situation of humanitarian crisis which is unprecedented, where people are stuck in practically a jail, with 1.4 million people living in less than 360 square kilometers, with lack of supply of everything – food, oil, medicines, everything. It’s a disaster. More than 120 people have died already because of this situation. And what we need is lifting the siege. The military actions that take place from time to time, which are sporadic, can be immediately finished if Israel accepts the several offers that were made for complete cease-fire. Up till now, the Palestinians have made the offer and the Israelis are not responding. This is what’s happening.

Q: There are reports, and analysis, that the attacks are being made in order to provoke an Israeli military attack on Gaza.

A: No, I think Israel is not responding to the offers for a cease-fire, because it is preparing a military attack on Gaza, and it seeks reasons or excuses for conducting such a huge military attack which could lead to a disaster.

Q: It also looks as though if Israel does nothing – but continues the siege – it almost accomplishes the same objective, by allowing the situation to continue …

A: No, Israel can do something better than these two options, which is to accept cease-fire.

Q: And the various initiatives to bring about Fatah-Hamas rapprochement – I don’t know, Senegal, and Cairo, and Damascus and I don’t know what – these efforts to reestablish Palestinian unity, do you think any of them are serious, and could be productive?

A: We still don’t know. It’s early to say. But we welcome the initiatives, we welcome any efforts to end this internal conflict. We think that Palestinians, united, are better partners in every aspect, including for making real peace in this region. And that’s why we will not stop working as hard as we can to regain Palestinian unity, and not only regain Palestinian unity but regain Palestinian democracy. At the end of the day, when we get to the point of unifying everything together, immediately we will have to go to elections, because people have the right to choose, and we have to accept the democratic opinion of the people. So, I think the new developments are promising, the fact that the President made an initiative is useful and very, very encouraging. Hamas responded positively but that‘s not enough. What we need is real dialog that is fast, quick, and productive – and a strong will on both sides to be able to sustain and prevent the effect of external pressures that could be exercised, as has been the case in previous times, to prevent the establishment of national unity again.

Q: In your opinion, was President Abbas’ initiative really an initiative? Because afterwards it was said, oh well, he meant exactly what he meant before, and he meant that the Yemeni initiative should be implemented as understood before, which meant that as a precondition the Hamas takeover of Gaza has to be rescinded …

A: It doesn’t matter what you call it, it matters that before he was saying ‘You retreat first, and then I’ll have dialog’, while now he said ‘I’m ready to have dialog’. That’s a change.

Q: But it is being said that he did mean (to say to Hamas): ‘You have to retreat first’ …

A: There are different explanations. I will not accept explanations from people around him. I want explanations only from him. And from him, what we heard is an opening, a serious opening, positive opening for dialog.

Q: And the elections – are you talking about new Legislative Council elections, or new Presidential elections?

A. Both. When we speak about elections, we speak about both – Presidential, and Legislative Council elections.

Q: There are reports that Fatah will support Mahmoud Abbas again as it’s (presidential) candidate…

A: They have the right to choose whoever they want … President Abbas has the right to two terms.

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