May 10 2002

Democracy yes, but not on Israel’s terms

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

Discussions among Palestinians, concerning democracy, transparency and reform of the way the Palestinian National Authority conducts itself, are very refreshing.

Minister of Legislative Affairs Nabil Amer, who resigned in protest over the delay in implementing such reform, is to be commended for his courage.

I have been involved for years in trying to create a vibrant, independent media in the Palestinian areas, and have, at times, suffered for my media activism. In 1997, the attempts by Al Quds Educational Television, which I established, to broadcast live Palestinian Legislative Council sessions that dealt with corruption landed me in a Palestinian jail for seven days.

Recently, the efforts of human rights activists and democrats to reform the Palestinian body politic were dealt a fatal blow not by the Palestinians but by the invading Israelis.

The cruel Israeli siege of Palestinian areas has restricted the movement of three million Palestinians. Even elected legislature, entitled to parliamentary immunity, was not exempted from this travel restriction. For over a year and a half, the Palestinian Legislative Council, a body comprising 88 elected Palestinians, was paralyzed by this illegal collective punishment.

Even after the siege of the Ramallah offices of the elected Palestinian president was lifted, the Israeli authorities refused to allow Palestinians to re-establish parliamentary life. Ramallah district elected representative Dr Azmi Shu’ibi’s request to hold a session of the Palestinian parliament was rejected by the Israelis. Shu’ibi told me Wednesday that he and a number of his colleagues wanted to introduce to the Legislative Council a law for a national Palestinian plebiscite. The sitting legislature’s term ran out nearly two years ago and has been automatically extended.

As agreed in the Oslo Accords, presidential and parliamentary elections took place in 1995. International observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, declared those elections free and fair. The term of the elections was meant to coincide with the end of the five-year interim phase. Palestinians were expecting that a Palestinian state would have been established before the end of the millennium.

The dream of Palestinian statehood was turned into a nightmare. Hope has turned into despair. Expected Israeli withdrawals were replaced by repeated Israeli invasions. The promise of ending Jewish settlement building has never materialized and successive Israeli governments continued to build exclusive apartments for Jews on expropriated Palestinian lands that were meant to be part of this new independent state.

In the Palestinian society, two schools of thought had been competing. One insisted that talk of democracy, transparency and human rights is not practical before there is real independence, another, which I am proud to have been part of, wanted the struggle for independence and democracy to go hand in hand.

The Israelis’ hesitations, continued settlement activities and general anti-independence actions and policies dealt a blow to the second school of thought. For most, the fight for national independence became an existential issue and the democracy issue became a luxury that could wait till after statehood is arrived at. Public opinion, which was divided on the issue, shifted completely in favor of those calling for all efforts to be channeled towards resistance to the Israeli occupation and collective struggle for freedom.

With Israel and its occupation being the main obstacle to the Palestinian struggle for independence, it was strange to hear the leader of this occupation force calling for Palestinian democracy on the steps of the White House. An occupier whose military presence denies basic freedom to the occupied should be the last authority on earth to ask the people under the barrel of its gun for democratic change. This particular occupier has been notorious for his anti-democratic activities concerning Palestinians, not the least of which last month’s destruction.

I am speaking from personal experience. The educational television station mentioned above, that was meant to be a voice for democracy, was occupied by Israeli soldiers between April 3 and 22. During this time, not only were we prevented from continuing broadcasting, but by the time the invading soldiers withdrew, they left behind a destroyed building, broken equipment, valuable cameras stolen and precious data irreversibly destroyed. Our TV station had espoused a mission of democracy, moderation and tolerance, and was actively involved in peaceful projects with the Israelis.

If democracy is the rule of the people, then the road to democracy in the Middle East must go through one of two directions: either Israel annexes the Palestinian areas and grants Palestinians rights equal to the Israelis or Israeli troops withdraw from Palestinian areas occupied in 1967 in order to allow the people to elect their own government and rule. Choosing the leaders of your enemy will never work. Nor can the conflict be solved by military means. A peaceful solution to the conflict demands that the chosen leaders of our peoples sit down and negotiate a settlement that can provide Palestinians with an independent and democratic state and Israelis with a safe and recognized state.

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