By Adam Hanieh
RAMALLAH — An outcry has arisen following the arrests of several prominent Palestinians living in the West Bank. The arrests came after they had issued a public statement which criticised corruption within the Palestinian Authority, led by President Yasser Arafat, and the lack of progress for Palestinians since the Oslo Accords were signed six years ago.
The "Statement of 20" was issued on November 28 and signed by public figures within the Palestinian Legislative Council and other local leaders.
The PA moved quickly to arrest some of the signatories. Three, Ahmad Qattamesh, Dr Adel Samara and Dr Abdul Sittar Qassem, have been transferred to the Jericho Detention Centre, where it is rumoured they will face trial by the notorious State Security Court — a "midnight court" without proper legal representation that was established with the help of the CIA.
Ahmad Qattamesh was the focus of an international campaign after he spent five years and eight months in Israeli prisons under administrative detention (imprisonment without trial or charge); he was finally released in April 1998.
Adel Samara is editor of Kanaan magazine, and Abdul Sittar Qassem is a lecturer at An Najah and Birzeit universities.
The arrests sparked immediate protest rallies, including a student strike on November 29 at Birzeit University.
One of the signatories, Abdul Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told the Birzeit rally, "On behalf of the Palestinian people who fought for a homeland in which people are respected and on behalf of you all ... we will not keep silent in front of this decay and injustice, even if the price is hundreds of martyrs and wounded.
"We say to all those corrupt people: Stop! You are not doing what our people fought for. We fought, and we keep fighting, for a homeland, not for thieves and gangs of thieves. Our people were martyred for a homeland in which freedom of opinion is guaranteed.
"This protest, which came from some members of the Legislative Council and others outside, needs to be protected and you — the generation of the intifada — are the group qualified to protect it. We do not look for a civil war or to make Palestine like Lebanon; we look for a change and free elections to remove those who are corrupt from PA institutions."
The Birzeit rally later degenerated into a fight between different student groups, as the student faction associated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah sought to disrupt the action.
Fatah has condemned the statement, accusing the signatories of "incitement" and "endangering national unity".
The Palestinian Legislative Council has also voted to condemn the statement, despite the fact that some of its members signed it. In a show of support for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority ordered schools and ministries to close on December 1 and organised a demonstration in Ramallah which was attended by 4000 people, including masked members of the Palestinian Security Forces, who fired shots into the air.
A new petition opposing the arrests was issued on December 1 by prominent Palestinians living outside Palestine, including academics, doctors and journalists. The statement, reprinted below, can be accessed and signed on the internet at <http://freecenter.digiweb.com/pages/palestine>:
"We, the undersigned, condemn in the strongest terms the arrests by the Palestinian Authority of Palestinian citizens, signatories of a statement expressing their alarm about corruption in the Palestinian Authority, and the failure of the Oslo Accords to secure the minimum of the Palestinian people's rights. Those arrested should be released immediately, and all proceedings against the signatories should be halted immediately.
"The arrests are a totally unjustifiable attack on the freedom of expression, which should be guaranteed to every person. While carrying out these arrests, the Palestinian Authority is using the mantle of nationalism and the language of unity to stifle legitimate and necessary criticism and debate. Such repressive measures only harm the Palestinian people, and help their enemies, who point to the lack of democracy as evidence that Palestinians are incapable of governing themselves, and to the abuse of human rights by the Authority as an excuse for their own abuses.
"The statement rightly argues that continued widespread corruption and abuse of power threaten to stifle Palestinian civil society from within. It correctly notes that the agreements so far signed with Israel have utterly failed to secure Palestinian rights or to stop the continued assault on the Palestinian people from without.
"We affirm in conclusion that Palestinian national aspirations cannot be achieved in the absence of a fully democratic and open political system and that no agreements signed with Israel will be legitimate unless they represent a genuine, broad-based national consensus. Hence, new, free and fair elections are an urgent requirement."