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Issue Date:  January 21, 2005

Palestinians, democracy and peace


Palestinians elected Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority Jan. 9, but though important, the election of Abbas may be less significant than is generally supposed. More depends on Israel than on Abbas, and much of the talk surrounding the election has been misleading, particularly President Bush’s remark that the election of a Palestinian president is “historic.” This and President Bush’s statement that the Palestinian administration must “develop the structures necessary for a democracy to emerge” merit further comment for they reflect a general misunderstanding of democratic development within Palestinian society.

For three decades I have witnessed and marveled at Palestinian democracy in action, sitting in on meetings of nongovernmental organizations, ecumenical religious groups and women’s cooperatives in the West Bank and Gaza. Within their limited sphere of activity, I saw grass-roots democracy under daunting conditions.

President Bush did not initiate the recent Palestinian presidential election. It was the Palestinian constitution that mandated the election. It was not the first election within the Palestinian territories. On Jan. 20, 1996, Palestinian elections took place to select a president and 88 members of the Legislative Council. Yasser Arafat won 90 percent while his sole opponent, Samia Khalil, a woman of great talent, courage and accomplishment whom I was privileged to know, won 10 percent, a surprisingly high percentage considering that Arafat was the symbol of the Palestinian struggle for independence.

In 1976, Palestinian municipal elections were held, only to have Israel depose the elected mayors because they refused to serve as Israeli collaborators. Israel replaced these mayors with the Village Leagues, thus setting a pattern of Israel’s rejecting any leader who held fast to Palestinian aspirations for self-determination, including, eventually, Arafat.

One might ask why 62 percent of the Palestinian vote in the Jan. 9 election went to Mahmoud Abbas, the candidate favored by Israel and the United States. My reading is that Palestinians, like most Israelis, are desperate for peace, and so opted for the candidate Israel could “talk to.”

Abbas’ rejection of violence as a way of achieving Palestinian political ends is encouraging. Violence has, indeed, been nonproductive for the Palestinian cause, as Abbas has said. The challenge for Abbas is whether he can persuade Hamas and Islamic Jihad to cease activity and wait for some positive actions from Israel. Will those actions be forthcoming? Much more hinges on Israel than on the president of the Palestinian Authority at this point, and the picture is less than hopeful.

Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi, a presidential candidate and a prominent physician with whom I have worked for many years, was detained, humiliated and beaten at checkpoints while campaigning. On Jan. 4, he was not allowed to leave Gaza to return home to the West Bank. This denial of freedom of movement for presidential candidates by Israeli military hardly translates into building democratic structures. The entire political process was flawed in that only one candidate could move freely to give his stump speeches.

Gila Svirsky, an Israeli human rights activist, described for me the humiliating situation in East Jerusalem. “Only 6,000 out of 125,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem were allowed to vote in Jerusalem. The rest were dispatched to voting places outside Jerusalem,” she said. The East Jerusalem post office served as a voting place. There was no privacy, and the circumstances gave the appearance of an absentee ballot cast in Jerusalem for mailing to a Palestinian state that was “somewhere else.” Observers reported that the presence of young settlers with video cameras at the Jaffa Street Post Office in Jerusalem intimidated Palestinians from voting.

Some young Palestinians reported that they felt empowered by the ability to be proactive rather than reactive and to vote for the candidate of their choosing. Mustafa Barghouthi offered Palestinians a viable alternative to Mahmoud Abbas, and that was positive. But Palestinians recognize that their situation is not tied to a specific president nor to the admitted need for internal reform. (I have not met one Palestinian who has not agreed that corruption within the Palestinian Authority is a problem that needs to be addressed.) The root cause, the heart of the issue, remains the occupation and its systemic entrapments: control of Palestinians through checkpoints, roadblocks, closures, permits and the Wall, while expanding Israeli settlements and roads on Palestinian land.

According to Jamal Juma, the Palestinian leader of Stop the Wall, the Wall is intricately woven into the plan of settlements and roads for Israelis only, so that behind the disengagement plan from Gaza lies an insidious final solution for the Palestinians: a bunch of apartheid Bantustans, Palestinian villages cut off from one another, the northern West Bank from the southern, East Jerusalem forever under closure to Palestinians.

Palestinians have demonstrated a political maturity and culture ripe for full democracy. Elections and reform, however, are meaningless without sovereignty. What will the new president govern? Some would argue that the whole process of electing a president under a military occupation is a contradiction in terms. After all, Israel controls every movement of Palestinians even between their own towns. Israel controls the water resources. Israel dictates which roads Palestinians can use and cannot use. Israel sets the terms for living in Jerusalem. Israel decides who can and cannot get a permit to build a home.

Adding insult to injury, the United States gives tacit if not outright approval to what Israel wants and does.

As one Palestinian professor said, “Ours is a simulation of democracy, not a real one, and even this [election] would not have happened had it not been for the international observers. Are the Israelis going to continue to play games, saying one thing for the international media while establishing more facts on the ground?”

It will be interesting to see whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moves the settlers from Gaza to Israel proper or to the West Bank. To end the violence, what is needed from Israel is a real freeze on settlements and an end to the construction of the Wall. That, more than the election of any particular Palestinian leader, will determine relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Miriam Ward is a Sister of Mercy who has conducted some 27 pilgrimage/study tours to biblical lands and has held fellowships in Israel, the West Bank, Syria and Tunisia.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2005

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