As envoy of the Quartet former British prime minister Tony Blair will be faced with a number of important challenges. Because of the restrictions on his ability to work on the larger political process, I am suggesting three challenges that are within his new job description. Two have to do solely with the Palestinians and one with the Israelis.
As his job description states, Blair is supposed to work on rebuilding Palestinian institutions. For most Palestinians, the greatest problem in the past few years has been the absence of the rule of law. Rebuilding legal, judicial and local security institutions will be a major accomplishment for Palestinians. While the issue of occupation and lawlessness are often intertwined, there is no doubt that there is much that can be done internally, irrespective of the Israelis.
Without law and order, it is impossible to expect people to continue to hope and dream of a future in freedom and without occupation.
In the West Bank, the biggest problem comes from the mainstream Fateh organisation and militants connected to it. Just to give an example to this lawlessness, masked men entered the Afaq local TV station in Nablus Wednesday and shot up all the TV monitors because the station was broadcasting a news item which they felt was unfavourable to Fateh.
The media scene in general is worthy of some attention as well. Blair would do us a big favour if he could succeed in helping Palestinians reform the existing media structure. The Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, which initially was created to be a truly public broadcaster, has become a mouthpiece of the presidency of the Palestinian Authority (and more recently a representative of Fateh).
At a time Palestinians badly need a unifying instrument, Palestinian TV should be for all people. Blair will not have to go far in this area. If he can help create a BBC-like broadcasting medium, the public would certainly be grateful and Palestinians could begin the process of unifying their message, gain honest information based on which to make important decisions and get the feeling that they are part of a unified nation.
Perhaps the biggest non-political challenge Blair can tackle is the issue of movement of people and goods. Irrespective of what will eventually happen in Rafah, there is no reason whatsoever that Palestinians and their products cannot have freedom within the West Bank, as well as from the West Bank to Gaza and vice versa. Movement across the bridge should also be totally revamped as the current system is outdated.
Addressing the issue of movement of people and goods cannot be delayed any longer. The security excuse doesn’t work here. Israelis know how to screen the tiniest pin upon entering or leaving areas under their control. Therefore any delays in removing travel restrictions means that they are introduced as political instruments to punish the population.
Ever since the holding of an Israeli soldier, the Israelis have begun a system of punishment of the entire Palestinian population. Within the West Bank, there is no excuse for the continuation of travel restrictions. The movement of people and goods must quickly return to the pre-September 2000 days. This means that Palestinian police should be reposted on the King Hussein Bridge and the existing checkpoints within the West Bank removed.
Movement of Palestinians in and out of Jerusalem has also been used to punish the entire nation. Palestinians of all walks of life and faiths have a right to enter Jerusalem to see friends and relatives, as well as to visit and pray. No explanation by the Israelis can excuse this clear violation of Palestinians’ rights.
The challenges facing Palestinians are largely political and are based almost entirely on the continuation of the illegal Israeli occupation of their territories. If the international community is serious about ending this unacceptable situation, it must give Blair the mandate to carry out the negotiations needed to bring about an end to occupation. Anything less than that, while important, is only a stopgap solution.