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A Challenge We Must Accept
Last uploaded : Thursday 18th Jul 2002 at 11:20
Contributed by : Eyad Sarraj


In 1998, Haidar Abdel Shafi, myself and a few others applied to register our Movement of Democracy as a political party with the Palestinian Authority. The deputy minister of interior promised prompt approval if we would agree to some minor changes in the wording of our application. I was in charge and quickly agreed to the requested alterations, which were not substantial.

Then the deputy minister became difficult to reach. Weeks, then months, of false promises followed before our request was finally rejected. We were told that the denial of our right to form a political party came from the highest office, namely Yasser Arafat's.

Three years later, it's worth recalling this frustrating episode because the prospect of elections within the Palestinian Authority raises two important questions: What sort of elections will these be? And how do those of us who have been longtime critics of human rights abuses by Arafat's administration feel about President Bush's recently discovered concern for good governance by the Palestinian Authority?

The violation of basic human rights by the Palestinian Authority is hardly a new or surprising issue. We Palestinians have known all along that our path to democracy would be long and tortuous. We have known that our Authority was in no hurry, and under no pressure to reform its ways. When my colleagues and I tried to form a political party, the Palestinian parliament was in hibernation because its members could not contemplate a confrontation with Arafat. In 1998, when 20 of them found the resolve to criticize the behavior of the regime publicly and to urge serious reform, they were harshly silenced. One member was shot at and another badly beaten. Many Palestinians were agitated, disillusioned and simmering with anger.

The countries now urging Palestinian reform were silent then. Countries providing aid were more keen on signing a peace treaty and believed they could not risk losing Arafat. Everyone wanted Arafat. Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Arabs all believed that he was the only Palestinian who could sign a permanent peace deal with Israel. And they all believed that democracy and human rights could wait. They just paid lip service to the issues of good government, separation of powers and independence of the judiciary.

One of my earliest and greatest shocks was when U.S. Vice President Al Gore, during a mid-1990s visit to Jericho, publicly approved the establishment of military courts by the Palestinian Authority. These courts have sentenced people to death in summary trials where the accused have no attorney and no right to appeal. In 1996, I dared to say that the regime was corrupt and oppressive. For this, I was arrested, beaten and thrown into solitary confinement.

Now, two years into the bloody intifada, amid the destruction, killing and deepening of hatred and revenge, the cause of Palestinian democracy has been rediscovered. Bush suddenly says he has a vision of a democratic Palestine. Laughably, the most oppressive Arab regimes agree. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is delighted, of course.

Traumatized and emotionally brutalized, Palestinians are bewildered. They are told by Bush that they are "gifted and capable," but at the same time the president is telling them whom to choose -- or more precisely whom not to choose -- as their leaders. They suspiciously ask if all this concern is genuine or whether it is just another conspiracy. Suddenly Arafat is branded a corrupt terrorist, the same Arafat who risked his life by following the Sadat example, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and for whom the White House doors were once wide open.

Those doors are closed to him now. Arafat has been refused entry to the White House since Bush assumed power. This insulting gesture of neglect has definitely enraged Arafat and possibly driven him into refusing to do anything to halt the violence. It could be that Arafat thought he was punishing Bush. In the meantime, however, the killing spree continued. Palestinians and Israelis were losing hope. Fear, pain and death have become the order of the day. Desperate Palestinians have carried out horrific suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Sharon's response has been predictable: reoccupying the West Bank, surrounding Arafat and transforming the Palestinian scene into chaos and destruction. In his besieged compound, Arafat's popularity soared. In the Arab streets, he was seen as a hero of the resistance, a symbol of defiance. Only Bush and Sharon could have had this effect on Arafat's popularity.

Still, deep down, many Palestinians harbor a sense that the destruction and suicide bombings have reached an alarming level. Today's children of Palestine are preoccupied with death and sacrifice, and they dream of becoming martyrs. A group of intellectuals and politicians took the
initiative recently to call for a halt to the atrocities of killing Israeli civilians. I was among them, and the number of signatories has grown from a few dozen to several hundred. We sounded our grave concern that killing is only strengthening the extremist elements in Israel. But the Palestinian environment is fertile with rage, indignation and defiance.

Bush seems to understand that Palestinians are suffering under a brutal form of military occupation that has adopted a system of humiliation as a matter of policy. His vision would have been perfect if it had contained a few more elements to complement his clear goal of a two-state solution. The end game should be spelled out with more details of the permanent settlement, including borders and the division of Jerusalem. Bush also should have provided more details about how a peace plan would be implemented and the precise obligations of each party. I also believe that any plan to reach a peaceful settlement should include the possibility of sanctions imposed on the party that fails to meet its obligations.

One thing the president should not have done was to implicitly call for Arafat's removal. Such a call invites a defiant reaction, not only from Arafat, but from rank and file Palestinians already incensed by the U.S. administration's unyielding support for Israel. Their defiance can mean more popularity for Arafat, even it it means more suffering. Any challenger to Arafat will be accused of being an agent of the CIA and could be killed.

I believe that the American president should now invite the United Nations and European Union to refine his vision into a workable plan that would incorporate immediate steps to enhance security for Israel and improve living conditions in Palestinian areas, with an end to the occupation figuring prominently on the schedule. Such a plan should not dictate the removal or installation of leaders. If Bush believes that Palestinians are capable and gifted, then he should allow them to decide for themselves.

The world community, however, must ensure fair and free elections. That will require freedom of movement, which is now severely restricted by Israeli forces. It is a test of Bush's resolve to get Israel to withdraw. And then, among Palestinians themselves, there must be room for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Maybe then we can have a new, independent political party.

The Bush vision of the peace plan is excellent if it is readily translated into hope for the Palestinian masses, who increasingly embrace death as a way of avenging injuries to their dignity and as an exit to a better world in heaven. If they are to root out violence and terror, Palestinians need to feel they are being treated with dignity. That is not a reward to the extremists. On the contrary, terrorists are rewarded by more violence and despair. Extremists on both sides thrive on hatred and blood. Let us then deprive them of that and send a message of hope and respect to the besieged populations of Israel and Palestine. The holy land has been taken hostage by the devil. It is time for liberation. It is time for freedom. It is time for Israelis to walk free from fear, and Palestinians to walk with dignity.

# # #

Eyad Sarraj is director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center and a
founder of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.

This article may also be read in The Washington Post, June 30, 2002

Visit the Washington Post at: http://www.washingtonpost.com

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication. JewishCommentis grateful to Common Ground News Service for this article.

e-mail: cgnews@sfcg.org
Website: http://www.sfcg.org/cgnews/middle-east.cfm


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