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Israel's measures paralyze Palestinian rule

Nearly a third of lawmakers in Israeli jails

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Palestinian parliament was scheduled to meet this week to grapple with a packed agenda, including an update on the 2006 budget, a discussion about a new contemporary-affairs textbook for public schools, and a vote on supporting the marketing of Palestinian olive oil.

But with nearly one-third of their fellow members in Israeli jails, lawmakers suspended the meeting, unsure whether they would be able to muster enough votes to approve even routine legislation.

``Our council is becoming ineffective because we can't do our normal work," said Azam al-Ahmed, parliamentary chief for the Fatah party. ``The Palestinian situation is frozen."

During the two months since Palestinian militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier near the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces have carried out a far-reaching and punishing military offensive against the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, knocking out a power plant and bombing bridges, roads, and government offices in Gaza. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.

In the West Bank, where Israeli forces move freely, Israel has taken a different approach. In sweeping raids, Israeli troops have rounded up and jailed Hamas officials, charging them with membership in an illegal terrorist organization.

Israel is holding five members of the Palestinian Cabinet -- including the deputy prime minister -- and more than two dozen other lawmakers. Combined with the 14 lawmakers who were already in prison, 39 of the 132 elected council members are behind bars, Palestinian officials said.

``I think Israel wants to send a message that the authority means nothing to them," said Hasan Khreisheh, 51, who became acting speaker of the legislative council after the arrest in August of Aziz Dweik, the council speaker. ``They can change the rules of the game. They want to humiliate us."

An independent who ran with Hamas during the elections, Khreisheh was arrested by Israeli police in July, when he returned from a business trip to Germany. He was released after 20 days without being charged.

Israel's tough measures against the Palestinians, however, have done more than humiliate the Palestinian Authority. Already battered by a six -month-old international economic blockade, the Hamas-led government has largely stopped functioning.

Workers have not received full paychecks in six months. Hospitals are running out of basic supplies. Most ministries lack the foreign financial grants they have long depended on to continue with their duties.

It's now one year since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, ushering in hopes of restarting the peace process, but poverty is rising, and Palestinians express little confidence that a peace agreement will be reached any time soon.

``The authority is a facade, basically," said Ali Jirbawi, professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah. ``Society is moving by its own inertia. People for the past six months haven't got their salaries and still they go to work, but what do they deliver?"

At the Palestinian Legislative Council headquarters on Wednesday, about two dozen council staff members sat at their desks reading newspapers or surfing the Internet. Others smoked and drank tea in the office of one of the jailed lawmakers.

The council chambers are themselves a protest on behalf of the jailed lawmakers, the empty council seats crowded with photographs of the missing lawmakers.

``We can't do anything. Everything has stopped," said Aisha Naser, 35, director of the planning and development unit for the council. She spends her days studying for a graduate degree in economics, she said.

One of the few government offices that still appears busy is the Ministry of Education, where officials are preparing for the opening day of school in September. But ministry officials worry that they might not be ready to provide students with classrooms, teachers, or books.

``It's really a mess," said Basri Saleh, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.

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