Palestinians form rights agency for Jericho, Gaza

June 09, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Not wanting their new Palestinian entity to fall into the Mideast tradition of despots, monarchs and autocrats -- and fearful that the trend already may be showing up -- former peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi launched a watchdog group yesterday to stand up for citizens' rights.

"This is an unusual precedent in the Arab world as a whole," Ms. Ashrawi said. "People [in power] in these countries are not used to having other people looking over their shoulders."

The new organization -- the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens' Rights -- represents yet another small way in which the old realities are being turned upside down in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and Jericho.

After years of focusing all their energies on Israel as a represser, some Palestinians are now warily looking inward, wondering if their own rule will be even more stifling.

"We want to ensure that the basic rights and freedoms of our citizens are protected," Ms. Ashrawi said. "And of course we want to prevent abuse of power and misuse of funds."

Both those functions would seem to go against the grain of the track record for Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which is setting up the self-rule authority for Gaza and Jericho.

The PLO has acquired a reputation as a money-squandering outfit ruled almost single-handedly by Mr. Arafat, despite a host of opposing factions and a large body of representatives who meet and vote on PLO matters.

Mr. Arafat recently displayed his tendency to rule by fiat when he summarily declared all laws in Jericho and the Gaza Strip to be null and void. He announced that the old laws from before 1967, the year both areas were captured by Israeli forces, would now be in effect.

"It was then mentioned verbally to Arafat that this was wrong, that it was illegal even," said Mamdouh al-Aker, the deputy commissioner general of the new organization. "How can you just cancel 27 years of law?"

Such governing is not only repressive; it can get chaotic. Mr. Arafat's decree overjoyed insurance firms with customers in Jericho, which immediately reverted to pre-1967 limits on insurance claims of 5,000 Jordanian dinars (about $8,500).

Ms. Ashrawi said their organization will not shy away from telling Mr. Arafat or anyone else that they've overstepped their authority. They've had a few informal meetings, but have had only mixed success in offering advice to the would-be rulers.

Mr. Arafat, she said, has responded positively.

But for all the encouraging signs, there have been disturbing ones as well. Hani Abed, 31, a university teacher in the Gaza Strip, already is being called "the first political prisoner under autonomy" by the local Arab press.

Mr. Abed, said to have friends within the extremist Islamic Jihad organization, was arrested 16 days ago by the new Palestinian police force. He is still being held without being charged.

Some were also bothered last month, when Mr. Arafat set up a secret police force -- before he put together a government.

Earlier this week, police in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis asked local mosques to stop reading political statements over their loudspeakers and asked that any statements be taken to police for approval before broadcast.

Ms. Ashrawi and other board members of the group would only speak in vague terms about these developments yesterday, saying they have been "concerned" by "a few incidents." They declined to comment further on any current case.

The most important task for now, they said, is weaving their function into the fabric of the new government as it takes shape, making it harder to dissolve the organization later.

And if the concept works? Then who knows, Ms. Ashrawi said, maybe some other governments in the Middle East will learn by example.

"I think all states in the region can benefit," she said, pointedly broadening her statement to include Israel. "It can be a very useful and contagious precedent."

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