RAMALLAH, West Bank – Political squabbling, too many junkets and Israel's arrest of dozens of lawmakers have effectively shut down the Palestinian parliament.
Tuesday's session was to have been the first in four months. It was canceled because a dozen Hamas legislators preferred to go on a trip to Indonesia instead, and the deputy speaker believed he wouldn't get a quorum of at least 67 out of 132 lawmakers.
The extended break has largely gone unnoticed by a jaded public. Polls indicate that after years of inaction by the lawmakers, Palestinians don't have much faith in parliament.
"The public doesn't feel the absence of the legislative council because ... it didn't do its job," said political scientist Ali Jerbawi.
But some lawmakers warned that the shutdown of parliament removes what little oversight of the government remains in an area already plagued by lawlessness and corruption.
"The executive feels it is not being held accountable," said Hanan Ashrawi, an independent lawmaker.
Parliament was formed in 1996 as part of the interim peace deals with Israel. For the first 10 years, it was controlled by the Fatah movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat, predecessor of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
A year ago, the Islamic militant Hamas swept parliament elections, winning 74 seats, compared to 45 for Fatah, and enabling Hamas to form a government without needing a coalition partner.
Today, 41 legislators are in Israeli lockups, including 37 from Hamas. Israel has rounded up dozens of Hamas officials in recent months on charges of membership in an outlawed organization.
The detentions have weakened Hamas' control of parliament, since those in prison cannot cast a vote.
Initially, Fatah promised Hamas it wouldn't exploit the sudden advantage. However, with the power struggle between the rival movements intensifying — 35 people were killed in Hamas-Fatah fighting in the past month — such promises no longer hold.
"At the beginning, ... we said we will not play into the hand of the occupation," said Fatah lawmaker Abdullah Abdullah, referring to the Israeli arrests. "But if something comes up for a vote, we will vote. If something bad is affecting our nation, we will do our duty."
Abdullah said he believes his party's numerical advantage is the main reason behind what he portrayed as Hamas' reluctance to convene parliament. The legislature hasn't passed any laws since Hamas' election, and the last full session was held in September.
Hamas accused Fatah of playing into Israel's hands, saying the lawmakers' arrests were meant to weaken parliament. "They (Fatah lawmakers) want to help the Zionists remove Hamas from power," said Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri.
Deputy Speaker Ahmed Bahar of Hamas, filling in for the imprisoned speaker, denied politics played a part in his decision to call off the last two sessions, including Tuesday's.
He said legislators were either sick or abroad, and that the technician who operates the video hookup between simultaneous parliament sessions in the West Bank and Gaza — a device to get around Israeli travel restrictions — didn't show up for work because of alleged threats.
The main reason, he said, was the trip to Indonesia, which is being funded in part by the Indonesian hosts.
"This time, there is a big delegation that has to leave," Bahar said. "They've been planning this trip for more than two months, and it just so happened that they had to leave at the same time that the session was called."
Pollster Nader Said of the West Bank's Bir Zeit University said most Palestinians did not have high expectations of the legislature to begin with, and that the long recess hasn't changed that view. Parliament is one the least regarded institutions, he said, on par only with the Cabinet.
"It's not one of the priorities to activate the legislative council," Said said of the public's concerns. "They are more concerned about internal fighting."
The previous, Fatah-controlled legislature, was widely seen as a rubber stamp for Arafat, the autocratic ruler who died two years ago. However, lawmakers did pass a forerunner to a constitution and were able exercise some oversight over the government.