Palestinians worry that new autonomy may bring own forms of oppression

May 08, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JABALIA REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- For Ziyad Matar, the prospects of making a democracy out of the new Palestinian government are about as good as hurrying evolution.

"In 100 years, maybe, we will learn to be a donkey. In 1,000, perhaps, we can learn to be a horse," said the manager of a recreation center in the Gaza Strip.

Less colorful but equally heartfelt reservations are emerging from others about the likely democratic nature of the new Palestinian autonomy being born in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Palestinians are glad to shuck the Israeli military occupation. But some are worried that the self-government that will replace it may bring its own forms of oppression.

"We all have legitimate concerns," said Hanan Ashrawi, who resigned as spokeswoman for the Palestinian negotiating team to monitor human rights.

"This period of transition is a very difficult period. It's a minefield," she said.

The agreement signed Wednesday between Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin clears the way for a new experiment in Palestinian society.

Under the successive rule of Turkey, Britain, Jordan and then Israel, Palestinians have never had their own government. No one is certain what it will be like.

The accord signed last September in Washington under the auspices of President Clinton included only a broad description of an elected Palestinian Council to run the government. It included no reference to uniform laws, civil rights, separation of powers or judicial protections, for example.

Concerns about Arafat

Those who are hoping to see the birth of a Palestinian democracy are worried by some of the early signals coming from Mr. Arafat, the patriarch of this new creation.

Mr. Arafat has begun issuing appointments of municipal councils and mayors and this week is expected to select the "temporary" members of the Palestinian Council, to serve until elections.

"How temporary they are going to be is another question," said George Giacaman, a professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University.

"My fear is the appointments may become a matter of norm."

The elections were supposed to be held July 13, but they already have been delayed until at least mid-October. Some wonder if they will be held at all.

Mr. Arafat's appointments have been stocked heavily with those who have personal or political allegiance to him. A preliminary list of his selections for the Palestinian Council was published in the Arabic press Friday; of the 24 members, all but three or four are from his Fatah faction of the PLO.

Some of the new PLO officials appointed in the occupied territories have shown little regard for democratic concepts.

Arab journalists, for example, are worried about comments from these leaders that suggest journalists will be censored.

Freedom of expression is allowed "within the movement, not the media," the Fatah leader in Gaza, Zakaria Agha, said recently.

"The PLO must control the way the media talks to people," declared Ghassan Masri, a member of the PLO political department.

Israel's impact

Ironically, those most optimistic about democracy point to the 27 years that Palestinians have been under Israeli occupation. Although they were denied the most basic rights by the military rule, Palestinians witnessed, close-up, the hurly-burly exercise of Israeli political freedoms.

"I think we learned democracy very well. We saw the Israeli Knesset [parliament] work," said Suhair el-Toluly, a Fatah member who spent 11 years in prison and was released Wednesday to his home in the Jabalia Refugee Camp. "Why not learn from your enemies?"

The Israeli occupation also had the unexpected consequence of fostering Palestinian pluralism. Since there was no government, Palestinians of all political stripe became accustomed to expressing their views without fear. Internal elections for groups such as student councils and trade associations became spirited democratic contests.

Palestinians are unlikely to willingly surrender those habits, even to a government of their own, some predict.

The Palestinians may adopt an electoral system similar to Israel's, said Saeb Erakat, the PLO official in charge of setting up the election.

Mr. Erakat, a political science professor, returned Friday from London, where he signed a contract with the European Community to help organize and run the Palestinians' first national election. He bristles at those who question the commitment of the PLO to democracy.

"We have unanimous consensus on this election," he said.

"It will really provide the internal structure. . . . It will be very hard for anyone around us to undermine a freely elected council."

But Mr. Arafat is a veteran guerrilla leader, not a democrat. Those who have worked with him describe him as autocratic, impatient with dissent and unwilling to voluntarily share his power.

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