Palestinian Disillusionment (11/98)

The fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accord arrived on September 13, then passed on through history. If mentioned in the world press, it wasn’t in terms of celebration. In those areas liberated from Israeli Occupation, Palestinians find few reasons for jubilation. And they’re left with little optimism for the next five years.

If the treaty were implemented according to its principles and timetable, note critics of the peace process, all 14,000 political prisoners would be reunited with their families by now, and the Palestinian Authority would be in control of 85 percent of the West Bank, including all of Hebron. Palestinians also would have their own airport and a new sea port; these would mean thousands of new jobs created by trade and by the tourists sunning themselves on the beaches of Gaza.

According to the plan, commerce between Palestinian producers and the world, especially neighboring Arab markets, ought to be well underway, with Palestinians in place as the main brokers. And the billions in aid for the new government should have settled the hundreds of thousands of residents of refugee camps in real homes. Jerusalem Arabs ought to be the best off, economically and socially anticipating their status as capital of the Palestinian homeland.

Yet, for two million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, reality couldn’t be further from those plans. Indeed, the agenda spelled out in Oslo seems to have become a total fantasy. Most observers agree the so-called peace process stopped long ago.

A deteriorating economy, high unemployment, the inability of the Palestinians to take any real control of their future, and their increasing economic dependence on Israel make prospects even more bleak. A deeper issue is the very status of Palestinian rights. These are ultimately connected with the economic status quo, since their economy reflects the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, as well as continuing Israeli control of land, water, licenses, and commissions, residency rights, roads, and travel rights, trade, production, and law.

Before "Oslo," Palestinians were much admired, both for their endurance and demanding their legal historical rights. In the diaspora, they demonstrated economic and managerial skills, innovation, and efficiency. They worked hard and prospered. Their community leaders possessed a sense of equality and openness scarce in other Arab societies. Many observers – and their own community – expected that, once free from occupation, they would move toward democracy. Palestinian leaders promised that after "Oslo," their society would be an example of justice and openness in the region.

For a people who struggled with such determination, the total reversal of this prospect is sad indeed. In the last five years, those "enjoying self-rule" under the Palestinian Authority (PA) have watched themselves become a society with the second highest police-citizen ratio in the world. The PA now has a large prison system, a record of police torture, and secret military courts.

Lands under the Authority’s control – no longer Occupied Territories, but maybe never "Palestine"- are policed by up to 50,000 Palestinian troops and police. They’re managed by an equally bloated civil administration. Corruption by officials, including police, is widespread. The press is severely restricted and the parliament has no real power.

Perhaps the most disheartening feature of Palestinian self-rule is its bankrupt judicial system. There have been 12 recorded cases of detainees and prisoners dying due to torture while in Palestinian police custody. The murder of two Palestinians in September is widely rumored to have been an extrajudicial execution by Israeli forces with Palestinian Authority collaboration.

Other examples of new Palestinian justice were the public executions in Gaza in September. The men, who were shot by a firing squad, had been found guilty of murdering two fellow Palestinians by a secret military court. The trial and execution were over in three days! While some observers argue that such an extreme move by Yasser Arafat was necessary to thwart the tribal feud responsible for the initial murders, the episode points to the deterioration of the judicial system and inability of the PA to develop a modern, humane system that could negotiate cultural factors.

Of course, some of the blame for the PA’s messy judicial record can be assigned to the Israeli government. Israel asserts that, in order for it to move ahead with its side of the Oslo agreement, Palestinians must assure Israel’s security. Pressure from Israel undoubtedly is behind the PA’s roundup of suspected "militants." But why is it incapable of checking opposition without the use of extreme force and indiscriminate roundups that curb all dissent?

Citizens report that many men known to have no connection with opposition groups such as Hamas have been taken from their homes and imprisoned in the general sweeps conducted by Palestinian police. These actions, not to mention police harassment to extract money from victims, incur even more resentment towards PA policies. Meanwhile, Israeli troops still rule Palestinians living in villages outside PA authority; this is where continuing house demolitions and land confiscations take place.

Israel also exercises ultimate authority over all Palestinians through what’s known as their "right of hot pursuit." Whenever the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) decides, it can enter neighborhoods and homes to search for suspects, and take anyone away for interrogation and detention. In recent months, the practice has been reported in the areas around Ramallah.

In August, when an Israeli settler in Hebron was killed, Palestinians saw how forcefully the Israelis can exercise their will. Not only did IDF troops take control of inner Hebron – which is supposedly under joint supervision with the PA in this case – the entire city of over 100,000 Arabs was put under military curfew. During the siege, which amounted to blanket house arrest, Israeli troops searched through every house, shop, and factory for the suspected killer.

The PA is helpless to halt such operations. It couldn’t even take action against those responsible when two young Palestinians died during that curfew because the IDF prevented them from reaching hospitals.

There is also the continued incarceration of up to 3000 political prisoners, perhaps the most painful demonstration of the PA’s basic failure to secure the rights of its citizens. According to the Oslo treaty, these prisoners should have been released within months. Yet, they remain in jail, still punished for political actions during the intifadah. It’s a particularly embittering experience for those men, women, and their families, since they led the political struggle which eventually allowed Yasser Arafat and other exiles to return to their homeland.

Most Palestinians agree that continued imprisonment of these people is symptomatic of their general status, whether under Israeli or Palestinian authority. It invokes the axiom that came out of the South African struggle: "You are not free until I am free."

Barbara Nimri Aziz, broadcast journalist, is a regular TF contributor.