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West Bank: a government in jail

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2006


Mohammed Barghouthi was coming home from a late-night meeting when he found himself at a makeshift Israeli army checkpoint. The soldiers were stopping Palestinians, checking their IDs, and telling them to strip.

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"I said no. I am a Palestinian government minister and I will not be treated like this," recalls Barghouthi, the Palestinian Authority's minister of labor. So began his arrest and detention on June 28, three days after Cpl. Gilad Shalit of the Israeli Defense Forces was kidnapped by militants.

With dozens of Palestinian officials held in Israeli jails and five cabinet ministers behind bars, the government is operating in absentia. Barely able to function, its problems are further exacerbated by severe travel restrictions and a financial crunch.

Barghouthi was one of scores of Palestinian officials arrested by Israel after Shalit's abduction, including 33 elected members of the Palestinian legislative council and five cabinet ministers. Most have been held without charges, as Israeli law permits when someone presents a security threat. Some, according to a request by the Monitor for information on their cases from the IDF, are accused of "membership in an illegal organization" – Hamas.

Barghouthi, an independent who is not a member of Hamas but was appointed to the Ministry of Labor because of his professional management credentials, was released more than six weeks later on Aug. 14. By then, he was so thin and disheveled, his family recalls, that when he came home his children cried and his mother collapsed.

Now, a few weeks after his release, he is back in his office here – an eerily empty place with no one on hand but a man doubling as receptionist and coffee runner. Barghouthi accepted the position of Labor Minister because he viewed it as an apolitical "service-oriented ministry," he says.

Few employees are around. Most have not been paid regularly in recent months, or have been paid a fraction of their usual salaries due to the Hamas-led government's financial troubles.

When it comes time to have a cabinet meeting, the challenges only grow. The work of the five cabinet members still being held by Israel must be picked up by others. The meetings are held by a video-conference due to the inaccessibility of travel for most cabinet members between the West Bank and Gaza. In Palestinian legislative council meetings, there are even bigger gaps, with at least one-quarter of the elected members held in Israeli jails, including members of parliament who were already in jail at the time of their election, such as Barghouthi's relative, West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi.

An Israeli court ruled Tuesday that the men should be released. If Israeli military and security officials do not appeal the decision and ask for an extension, the jailed Palestinian officials could be released Friday.

In the meantime, this city, usually the West Bank capital of Palestinian politics, presents a portrait of a barely operational government. Pictures of the missing men hang above the city's central meeting point, Manara Square. The party headquarters of Hamas, which had been bustling during election time and in the months afterward, is a leadership ghost town. The only person available to talk to visitors is the party's 26-year-old spokesman.

"We participated in a democratic process and all we got in return was being arrested," says Sari Orabi, who is also editor of the local Hamas newspaper. "Being in jail is their job. I feel proud of them because they're fighting for our freedom."