Democracy: a precondition for Palestinian survival

Issue 

By Mustafa Barghuthi

Nobody today questions the absolute need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. There is, however, a growing awareness that the current peace process fails to meet the needs of the Palestinian people for a just, durable and lasting peace.

Even among those who signed the Gaza-Jericho agreement, few are prepared to defend it. The restrictions the agreement imposes on Palestinian autonomy will prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state and undermine foundations for peace.

The deep flaws in the Gaza-Jericho agreement can be traced to the subordination of Palestinian needs for self-determination to Israeli security needs. Four problems stand out as major threats to future stability.

First, dialogue about the future of Jerusalem has been postponed for three years, while each day the Israelis deepen the separation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the occupied territories with a view to consolidating the city's illegal annexation. Existing Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem are being expanded and new settlements being built. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is preventing any Palestinian institutions from organising meetings in East Jerusalem and restricting economic support from the European Union and other international bodies to Gaza and Jericho.

Second, the issue of Israeli settlements is unresolved. Direct discussion of this issue has been postponed, yet each day settlements throughout the territories are being expanded. Through their settlement activities and Jerusalem policy, the Israelis are creating new facts on the ground while preventing Palestinians from doing so. Israel's actions cast doubt on the viability of a future Palestinian state. But the lack of resistance to such measures by the Palestinian authority also casts doubt on its ability to safeguard Palestinians' interests.

Third, the degree of Palestinian autonomy guaranteed in the Gaza-Jericho agreement is limited. The Israeli government remains in control of 94% of the territories, including at least 40% of the territory of Gaza. It has also retained the right to veto Palestinian legislation, which requires Israeli approval before it can become law. Moreover, Israeli control of Palestinian life in the autonomous areas remains extensive. All borders remain firmly under Israeli control. Even in civil areas such as health and education, Palestinian authority is restricted.

Finally, Palestinian authority is restricted to the populated areas of Jericho town and the neighbouring village of al-Auja, while the road between these two areas remains under Israeli control. In the future, the Palestinian authority may find itself with jurisdiction only over populations, rather than land or natural resources. This is inconsistent with the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity upon which statehood rests.

Missed opportunities

Many more problems could be listed. However, the central question is whether Palestinian negotiators could have achieved a better agreement if they had used the strength and support of the Palestinian people. It was, after all, the resistance of ordinary people during the intifada that initiated the political process that led to the negotiating table. Coordination with other Arab countries would also have helped strengthen the Palestinian hand.

Many other opportunities were missed. For example, during the fifth round of negotiations, the Israelis offered to withdraw from Gaza, including the removal of all Israeli settlements within its territory.

It is hardly surprising that many people have lost hope and are unable to see ways to improve the situation. Reversing this descent into pessimism is vital. But while there is room for change, there is also a need for realism and a clear strategy for achieving a better state of affairs.

If the agreements are to be improved and the mistakes committed by the Palestinian negotiators rectified, two things are vital. First, systems of true accountability must be established, giving an effective voice to the people. Second, the mistakes of the past — such as the policy failures in Lebanon and Jordan — must be learnt from; and the opportunities of the present must be grasped. The positive factors that serve the Palestinian interest can still be utilised, but with every new agreement between Israel and Arab countries, it will become increasingly difficult for Palestinians to insist on their national and human rights.

Real accountability requires effective political representation. The signing of the unjust and restrictive Gaza-Jericho agreement has undermined that representation. Before signing there was a sense of national unity which was enhanced greatly during the intifada. However, the agreement has become a source of division among the people, who are forced to take a position either for or against it.

There is a sense that we need to restore our common political identity and aspirations. The role of the PLO, as a body that should reflect the common national goals of the people, has been severely harmed by the decision of its leadership, or parts of that leadership, to appoint itself as a self-governing authority. The drift towards autocracy has undermined the claim of the PLO leadership to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Gaza-Jericho agreement itself, which, paradoxically, has not been ratified by any legitimate Palestinian body or PLO structure. This underlines the inherent tensions between the different roles the PLO leadership is now attempting to play.

On the one hand, the terms of the agreement reflect Israeli efforts to coopt the PLO into overseeing a new political entity designed to safeguard Israeli interests. On the other hand, there is pressure from below for the PLO to represent the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people. It is impossible to play both of these roles at the same time. The PLO cannot both defend the content of this agreement and lead the struggle against the injustice it embodies.

This conflict becomes evident whenever the Palestinian community raises concerns about prisoners, settlements and the closures of borders. The normal response from the Palestine National Authority is an assurance that the issue will be taken to the Israelis.

Surely the Palestinian leadership should be organising the struggle for people's rights, instead of submissively attending endless rounds of "high level" meetings which produce little in the way of tangible results. If the authority continues to act in this way, the Israelis will have transformed the Palestinian leadership into its mediator between the occupier and the occupied.

Accountable leadership

Whether one is for or against the agreement, attention should now be focused on organising the relationship between the Palestinian authority and the people. The democratisation of Palestinian society will be increased by the development and promotion of the infrastructure of resistance.

This is especially true of the non-governmental sector, which has a vital role to play in protesting about the worsening daily situation. But since the agreement many NGOs have come to the point of financial collapse as resources are diverted to the PNA [Palestine National Authority]. Since September 1993, 53% of NGO health clinics have closed.

The PNA should treat the NGO sector as an ally in building civil society. Instead it is marginalising it. This reflects a wider tendency for the authority to control all aspects of Palestinian life.

While we are witnessing the emergence of a Palestinian authority over a small part of Palestinian territory, the realities of occupation remain. The most effective way of changing this reality is not through "top-down" politics, but through democratisation. Palestinians need to be empowered.

A precondition for empowerment is the organisation of democratic legislative elections in the occupied territories, yet the Gaza-Jericho agreement allows only for the election of a small executive body with limited legislative powers. This restriction pre-empts comprehensive general elections in three ways: by not allowing Palestinians to elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf; by not allowing the separation of legislative, executive and judiciary powers; and, perhaps most seriously, by the exclusion of people from the process of peace and development.

Without a democratically elected body responsible for legislation, it is impossible to expect suitable agencies to develop that can support economic growth. Without democratic elections it is impossible to meet Palestinian aspirations for representative and effective institutions. The success of future negotiations about the final status of the territories, including complex issues like Jerusalem, depends on having democratically elected representatives.

Democracy is no longer a luxury, it is an absolute precondition for the very survival of the Palestinian nation.
[Mustafa Barghuthi is president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees and a former member of the Palestinian delegation. This article is abridged from Middle East International, 21 Collingham Road, London SW5 ONU.]