Jul 23 2003

Goodwill is badly needed to move the road map

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

East Jerusalem- The road map for peace in the Middle East is off to a good start now that the Palestinian militant groups have adhered to their self-declared hudna. More than a month of quite from the Palestinian side has been registered since that truce declaration. But for this hudna or truce to take root and become the basis for successful peace talks, much more work is still needed. While commitment to carry the various clauses of the road map are essential, what is also needed is a strong measure of goodwill in order to win over public support.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has met four times with his Israeli counterpart and will soon meet with President Bush yet little change has taken place on the ground. Jewish settlement suspension has not materialized, dismantlement of outposts has become a joke, the Wall continues to be built on the precious little left of Palestinian land and the promises of the Israeli army returning to its pre September 2000 locations has been slow.

The most important aspect of the road map to peace should be the changes in people’s minds towards peace. For the Israeli public traumatized and terrorized by the suicide bombings, the need to end this sad chapter in Palestinian-Israeli relations is extremely important. The hudna is holding up and negotiations are underway to extend it from three months to six months and senior Israeli officials have publicly praised the Palestinians for their commitment to stop the anti Israeli attacks. A few renegade splinter groups have tried to ruin this truce but the Palestinian Authority has reacted very forcefully against such groups.

For Palestinians, however, little has changed in their daily lives. Israel’s military chokes on all aspects of life make it impossible for the Palestinian public to become excited about the prospects of peace. External and internal restrictions on movement are still the rule, with more than three million Palestinians living in a large prison. A modern day pass law system is in effect even for movement within the West Bank. Gaza is still virtually unreachable for Palestinians and even foreigners while Gazans Palestinians can easier reach Japan than travel to see relatives or go to University in the West Bank. Jewish settlers are able to travel in and out of Gaza and the West Bank without any restrictions or permits.

A peace process means a change in the political atmosphere. Such a change needs a strong dose of public support. With over 6,000 Palestinian political prisoners locked up in prisons most without charge or trial the issue of releasing prisoners becomes more than a token gesture. Among the prisoners are 350 children who are held without charge or on politically motivated claims. For over two years most of the prisoners have been detained in prisons that don’t meet international standards and at the same time denied family visits for a variety of procedural and security-related excuses.

Much as the release of prisoners in South Africa became the breakthrough for dramatic progress releasing Palestinian political prisoners will be an important step in rebuilding the fragile Palestinian public opinion. Unlike the Israeli conditions, the difficulties in South Africa were in clearly specifying the definition of political prisoners so as not to include convicted rapist or common criminals. The idea to eliminate prisoners who were involved in violent activities, as the Israelis wish, runs contrary to the spirit of reconciliation that is the basis for any genuine peace. Such an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation is badly needed in order to allow Palestinian negotiators to make the difficult decisions and concessions that any peace agreement will require.

Again similarly to the South African case regarding Mandela, wishing for positive public support is unlikely while the Palestinian national leader continues to be the subject of constant incitement and ridicule as well as virtual house arrest. The elected Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, must be credited not punished for his unreserved and public support for the road map to peace. Long before the hudna was declared and the road map was officially announced, Yasser Arafat signed into law the Palestinian Basic Law, which provided constitution-like legal guarantees for Palestinian civil rights. Arafat set into motion far reaching fiscal and administrative reforms. He agreed to the appointment of an empowered minister of finance, Salam Fayad, who has introduced a transparent financial process that includes making the budget and all other financial transactions available to the public in the press and on the internet. Finally, in an unprecedented move for the Arab region, Arafat agreed to the establishment of a prime minister, conceded important powers to him and agreed that the Palestinian parliament (and not the office of the president) has the power to vote for or against confidence in the premier and his cabinet.

During every Christmas season, people the world over repeat what the angels said to shepherds in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem. Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all people. There is a clear connection between the success of peace and the need to plant the seeds of goodwill. If our prayers and those of the rest of the world, is for the US-led peace efforts to be successful, much more concrete acts of goodwill are needed to get the Palestinian public to embrace the process rather than continue in the present apathetic atmosphere towards it.

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