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Democracy Remains on Trial In Palestine

Daud Abdullah

Two words explain the Palestinian democratic experience during the past year – disappointing and frustrating. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories [OT] feel this way not because their elections were flawed. Rather it was because of their inability to gain universal recognition for the result of those polls. Today the chickens hatched by the international sanctions are coming home to roost. They are witnessed in the complete paralysis that has grounded the Palestinian economy, the attendant political confusion and declining social security.

For the first time in living memory an Occupied [Protected] People have been subjected to an international economic blockade of this magnitude. These punitive measures were taken in support of the Occupying Power, which after six decades still refuses either to define its international borders or recognize an independent Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967, (a mere 22% of historic Palestine). Hence the sanctions imposed on the Occupied Territories since the parliamentary elections of 26th January 2006 amount to no less than a dreadful violation of Article 54 of the Fourth Geneva Convention:

The Occupying Power may not alter the status of public officials or judges in the occupied territories, or in any way apply sanctions to or take any measures of coercion or discrimination against them, should they abstain from fulfilling their functions for reasons of conscience.

Only those blinded by prejudice and narrow interests could not have foreseen the consequences of these sanctions on the Palestinian people. One individual who did not jump on the bandwagon was former US president Jimmy Carter. One month after the elections he warned that any tacit or formal collusion between Israel and the international community to subvert the elected Hamas government by punishing the Palestinian people could well result in their alienation and an increase in the domestic and international standing of Hamas.

Subsequently, on the eve of the first anniversary of the elections Carter reasserted his dismay in a more dramatic manner. This was done with the launch of his latest book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land, he pointed out, have been the main obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.

Without mincing words Carter wrote, ‘The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.’ [2006:216]

Jimmy Carter is no anti-Semite. He belongs to a prominent group of American presidents who made more important contributions toward the advancement of the Zionist project than the Zionists themselves. Apart from Woodrow Wilson who helped deliver the Balfour declaration, Harry Truman who recognized the State of Israel ten minutes after it was created and Bill Clinton who ushered the Oslo accords, no other US president has served Israel more. Lest it be forgotten, it was Carter who engineered the 1978 Camp David Accords that neutralised Egypt in the Middle East and tipped the regional balance of power in Israel’s favour.

Two years prior, during the 1976 presidential campaign Carter told a gathering at the Synagogue of Elizabeth in New Jersey, “I honour the same God as you. We (Baptists) study the same Bible as you”. And as such, he continued, “The survival of Israel does not come down to politics. It is a moral duty.” [Time, 21 June 1976]. Even after declaring his moral commitment to Israel, Carter was apparently not blinded to the reality of it injustices and inequities.

Naturally, the apologists would claim there is no apartheid here. They ignore the fact that since its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel has exercised almost total control and denial of the Palestinians’ right to their fair share of the water in accord with the Oslo II Interim Agreement (Annex III, Appendix 1, Article 40).

The average renewable quantity of freshwater available in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories per year is just over 2.4 billion cubic meters. Israel designates about 90% of this amount to itself, leaving the Palestinian population with just over 10%. If these water resources were divided into equal per capita shares, the Palestinians would receive about 45%.

Relatedly, Israel’s apartheid policies have considerably impeded the Palestinians’ ability to build on 70% of the West Bank and 80% of East Jerusalem. Yet while restricting Palestinian development, Israel continues to build settlements for its citizens in the illegally occupied territories.

Similar discriminatory policies are also manifested in the dual criminal justice system. While the Occupying Power continues to remove Palestinians from the territories without charge and tries them before military courts, no such measures are taken against Jews. As the later have the privilege of separate courts so too they enjoy Jewish-only highways that cut through the West Bank.

Persona Non Grata

With such visible elements of apartheid entrenched throughout the OT it is no wonder the upholders of this system have debarred Archbishop Desmond Tutu from entering Palestine to investigate the killing of 19 civilians in Bayt Hanun in November 2006. Rev Tutu was appointed by the UN to lead the fact-finding mission. Describing Israel’s action as “very distressing”, Tutu told reporters, “This is a time in our history that neither allows for indifference to the plight of those suffering, nor a refusal to search for a solution to the present crisis in the region.”

In so far as the events leading up to the shelling at Bayt Hanun were concerned the Noble Peace Laureate had no doubt about the facts. What concerned him more according to his own admission was the broader context and his intent to meet with senior members of the Israeli Government.

Given his renowned candour and human kindness one could almost anticipate what his message would be if such an audience is granted. It would be the same as that which he wrote in The Guardian on 29th April 2002 under the title ‘Apartheid in the Holy Land.’ That, “Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice.”

Jimmy Carter endorses this view. “The bottom line is this: Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law…”[p.216]

From the analyses of both elder statesmen it is clear that the issue in Palestine today is less about extremism and moderation. It is, instead, more about oppression and justice, freedom and occupation, and legality and illegality. One year after the Hamas victory Palestine is still occupied. Its politicians are not allowed to make independent decisions. The failure of the Palestinians to form a government of national unity was not for want of trying. They made several attempts but each was aborted after claims that it was unacceptable to America. The mere presence of Hamas representation in government was reason enough for American objection.

Despite repeated overtures of a long-term truce with Israel and acceptance of a state in the 1967 territories Hamas has made zero progress toward a government of national unity. Though entitled to at least 16 of the 24 ministries based on their 60% membership of the parliament Hamas accepted 9 ministerial posts in order to break the deadlock. With their backs against the wall they even agreed to the resignations of prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, foreign minister Mahmud Zahar and minister of interior, Saeed Siyam. All three are seen as the figureheads of the movement. None of these proposals were accepted.

This inflexibility and disproportion has been a distinguishing feature of the Fatah led National Authority. In 1999 the Oslo group that now opposes Hamas had a security budget that was larger than the health, social services and education budgets combined. Protests by parliamentarians, academicians and civil society leaders in November 1999 failed to gain the attention let alone intervention of the US Congress. The lesson from this episode remains the same today. In order to be an acceptable partner, the Palestinian leadership must be prepared to use “undemocratic and illegal measures against its people.” [Bishara: 2001]

One year after their comprehensive defeat in the 2006 parliamentary elections president Abbas announced that his Fateh movement have run out of patience in their effort to form a government of national unity. Strange the movement that had the patience to negotiate with Israel for 15 years for empty promises should become irreversibly impatient with their own compatriots after one year.

Aided and abetted by Israel, the US and Britain, the defeated Fateh have left no stone unturned to disrupt, destabilise and topple the elected government in the Occupied Territories. Thus the question remains one year on, is there any value in a democracy that does not recognize the will of the people? One can easily understand the view of those Palestinians who believe that instead of maintaining this charade of autonomy Palestinians might make faster progress if it was scrapped altogether and Israel assumes direct legal and economic responsibility for the territories it occupies.

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