“Democracy” under Occupation

A Palestinian woman crosses (with relative and exceptional ease) through the Kalandia checkpoint on election day. (Photo: Rob Maguire)

Perhaps you saw images of flag-waving youth in Ramallah. Or maybe you heard the optimistic words of George W Bush and other world leaders about new opportunities for peace. Yet from where I was sitting in the West Bank city of Nablus, one thing was clear: voting for a president in a state that does not actually exist will not change much in the lives of the people here.

It is clear how much the Palestinians want peace and good government, but after hearing the glowing, yet often patronising, cliches about ‘Arab democracy’ that have been bandied about in the media recently, the fact remains that Palestine can never experience true democracy while it remains under occupation.

Sunday’s vote is an example of that. It was a relatively smooth election for the politically aware Palestinian population. The only problems stemmed from unwelcome Israeli interference: military roadblocks hindered people in getting to polling booths and in East Jerusalem Israeli officials did not allow many registered voters to actually cast a vote.

Despite the upbeat rhetoric from the outside world, Palestinians understand the reality that newly elected Mahmoud Abbas will not be able to deliver miracles: the real power for peace still lies with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his number one supporter, US president George W Bush.

Nothing changed

When Palestinians woke up the morning after the election, they might have had a new leader, but the cold, hard realities of occupation remained unchanged.

Today Palestinians are still not free to move within their own land. At military checkpoints they still have to queue for hours, walk through turnstiles like cattle and present an ID card to a 19-year old Israeli soldier who will then decide whether or not they may continue the journey to work, school or wherever else they may be heading.

The family I stay with still have two young sons in prison on 20-year sentences, although it has never been made clear why they have been imprisoned.

Gaza residents still have to look at the rubble of their neighbour’s houses that were bulldozed by Israeli soldiers last month and they still mourn the deaths of seven children blown to pieces by an Israeli tank shell just last week. Deaths of Palestinian children have become so common in recent years that they barely make the news.

The farmer in Jayyous still has to deal with the fact that his 100-year old olive trees have been uprooted to build a concrete apartheid wall in the middle of his farm.

In Hebron, Palestinian families still have to cope with extreme and violent Israeli squatter families who have moved in on top of them in government-sanctioned settlements and who throw boiling water on their children as they walk to school.

An end to violence

Israel has imposed state-sanctioned violence on Palestinians that makes life an unbearable and humiliating hell that has resulted in radicalised segments of the population.

If the goal of all the Israeli government brutality is security, as claimed, and if it is really to end Palestinian violence against Israel that has killed more than 900 Israelis since 2000, then there might be an easier way to go about it; a way that might curb the violence rather than encourage more of it.

If the Israeli government could see the violence from another perspective, that is, as resistance to occupation and not simply as unprovoked attacks on Israel, then a solution would be easier to see. Change the culture of occupation to a culture of co-existence, halt the settlements, allow the Palestinians to live in an independent state and do it all sooner rather than later. If all this sounds too hard, start by easing a few of the harsh dehumanising measures that make life such a misery and only serve to fuel militancy.

For Palestinian violence towards Israel to end, which is the hope of Mahmoud Abbas, the majority of Palestinians, Israel and indeed most of the world, Abbas will need a lot of support. Abbas will only be able to get the militia’s support to end the violent resistance to the occupation if Israel restrains its heavy hand that has killed more than 3,400 Palestinians in four years and injured thousands more.

The new president’s plan to use non-violent means to resist the occupation of Palestine has been warmly received by Palestinians and world leaders, as it should be. But to be successful in his goal, Abbas will need help. Real help, not rhetoric, from the international community and from Israel’s government. He cannot do it alone.

Some positive action, soon, on the part of the Israeli government, which can empower Abbas to gain a mandate for change, will go a long way in seeing the hopes for peace realised.

The Palestinian election has not changed anything today, but there is an opportunity to bring change for tomorrow if everyone takes responsibility.

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