A Challenge We Must
By Eyad Sarraj
Sunday, June 30, 2002; Page B01
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
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 andpossibly 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
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
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 toenhance 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
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
Eyad Sarraj is director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center and a founder of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company