Editorial: Palestine after Arafat

Palestine after Arafat

The right of return, the right to housing and property restitution and the right to compensation will not disappear as long as refugees themselves continue to demand their basic human rights. When the late Palestinian leader Yaser Arafat spoke about the right of return he was not only speaking about human rights, he was representing what refugees themselves have demanded for more than five decades. 
 The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was established in the refugee camps in exile with a program based on return and the unity of the land and its people. It should not be surprising then to find Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected Chairman of the PLO, and the various candidates running to replace Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) all talking about the right of return. This is their democratic responsibility – to represent those who vote them into office.

A new era of democracy?

The Palestinian people have been practicing democracy for decades, through political parties, student, teacher and women's associations, professional and trade unions and through the structures of the PLO. While many political pundits pondered over who might ‘succeed’ Arafat after his death in November, Palestinians looked to the Constitution of the PLO and the Basic Law for the PA. Elections for President of the PA are scheduled for January 2005, while the Executive Committee of the PLO elected Mahmoud Abbas as Chairman of the PLO. The political vision of a two-state solution being promoted by the newly re-elected Bush administration as set forth in his June 2002 speech and the April 2004 letter of assurance to Ariel Sharon, however, raises serious questions about the administration's support for democracy. The litmus test being applied to Palestinians is not about democratic representation, especially when it comes to so-called final status issues; but rather the ability of the Palestinian leadership to neutralize popular demands for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the right of return.

There is no litmus test for Israel. For a long time the international community has taken Israel's democratic credentials for granted as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” According to the Israel Democracy Institute, however, “protection of human rights [in Israel] ... is poor; there is serious political and economic discrimination against the Arab minority; there is much less freedom of religion than in other democracies; and the socioeconomic inequality indicator is among the highest.” There are is no demand for Israel to normalize with the region even though Israeli officials readily admit Israel is not a 'normal state'.

 The wider international community continues to ignore the fact that due to restrictive conditions in many host countries in the Middle East more than half of all the Palestinian people still cannot participate in democratic elections by direct ballot for the Palestine National Council (PNC), the Palestinian parliament in exile, which is mandated to set PLO programs and policies. It is the PLO and not the Palestinian Authority that represents the entire Palestinian people and has the mandate to negotiate a future peace agreement with Israel.

“In nearly all other transition-related elections in the world in recent years – in South Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq – provision has been made to include in the vote those made refugees by the preceding years of strife and conflict. Palestine’s refugees, inside and outside the occupied territories, deserve no different. Enfranchisement would give the refugees a solid sense of political inclusion, and involve them constructively in the search for a workable solution. Excluding them – as happened throughout the Oslo process – would probably once again be a recipe for failure.”
Helena Cobban, Christian Science Monitor, 22 November 2004

A time for testing

While the death of Yaser Arafat may not be a watershed for democracy, it will nevertheless be a time of testing. Since the collapse of final status talks in 2000 Israel has repeatedly stated that there is no Palestinian partner. Many interpreted this mantra as an attempt to marginalize the role of Arafat who was physically confined to the PA compound in Ramallah. The Sharon government has said that it can do business with Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli actions on the ground should reveal how serious it is about moving forward with the political process after the January 2005 elections for PA President. Palestinians have been ready for a two-state solution since 1988 when they officially accepted a compromise based on partition with a Palestinian state in 22 percent of historic Palestine. Israel, however, has continued to take steps – e.g. settlement construction, land confiscation, and now the Wall – that threaten the viability of a Palestinian state. dumps shop realy has many distinctive features

The other question that needs to be asked is whether the international community has the political will to push for a political solution. It has yet to demonstrate that it can extract itself from the situation it has fallen into during the second intifada where foreign donors are now largely paying for the the social and economic impact of Israel's ongoing military occupation. If donors are unable to summon sufficient political will to force Israel to assume its obligation as an Occupying Power for the civilian population in the OPTs, how will they ever muster enough political will to facilitate a solution to the conflict?

And finally, the coming period will be a time of testing for Palestinian, Israel and international civil society. Can civil society actors build an effective, coordinated and inclusive grassroots effort, from education and awareness-raising through divestment, boycott and sanction campaigns, that can generate enough pressure to force political actors to take the tough decisions that need to be taken in order to reach a comprehensive and durable peace that is consistent with international law and practice? As UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the OPTs, John Dugard, observed in his December 2004 report, “This is no time for appeasement on the part of the international community.”