“Israel won’t let us reform”

Israel Won’t Let Us Reform

By Yasser Abed Rabbo
Tuesday, January 14, 2003; Page A19

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel’s most recent excuse for why it cannot negotiate peace with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians have been unable to develop a fully democratic society while living under Israeli occupation. This excuse is better known as “reform.” And yet, when Palestinians are invited to go to London to further the reform process, the government of Israel prevents us from doing so.

Yes, Palestinians are expected to reform, but no, we are not supposed to succeed at it. The truth is that Israel’s purported interest in reform is merely an attempt to divert the world’s attention from the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel’s 35-year occupation of Palestinian territory and the denial of Palestinian freedom.

Never mind the occupation. Never mind the assassinations, the home demolitions, the continuing theft of Palestinian land and water resources and the “curfews” under which entire populations are held hostage in their homes by the threat of a bullet should they go in search of food or medicine. Never mind the sadistic Israeli soldiers ordering civilians at gunpoint to strip naked or to beat their friends or to pick their fate from a “lottery” with tickets labeled “broken arm” or “broken leg.” None of this is relevant to Middle East peace, goes the new Israeli narrative. All that is relevant is that the Palestinians reform their political institutions.

Reform is indeed needed and has been underway for some time. Reform is also popular among the Palestinian population — 85 percent of Palestinians support fundamental political reform — and Palestinian support for it predates the sudden interest in the matter by Israel and the United States. Despite Israel’s effort to use it as a diversion, reform is nevertheless good for the Palestinians. And, remarkably, progress has been made.

Drafting of the Palestinian constitution has continued unabated. The draft constitution would establish basic human rights and strive to achieve the delicate balance of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. In the area of financial accountability, the new Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, has earned the praise and trust of Palestinians, Europeans and even Israelis for his new transparent budgets and measures to ensure greater accountability for the use of public funds.

But there are limits to how much Palestinians can reform while living under Israeli occupation, and Israel has done its best to simultaneously make reform the issue du jour while systematically undermining Palestinian reform efforts. A major Israeli obstacle to Palestinian reform is Israel’s collective punishment policy of closures, checkpoints and curfews that restrict the freedom of movement of more than 3 million Palestinians under Israel’s occupation. Visitors to the occupied Palestinian territories routinely witness elderly couples climbing over muddy hills to reach their homes or buy food. Palestinians in need of medical assistance are prevented from reaching hospitals — to date 18 infants have died as a result of being born at home or at Israeli checkpoints, and 76 Palestinians have died from lack of medical access. Whether to go to the corner store for milk has for some Palestinians become a life-or-death decision.

But in addition to the human suffering, Israel’s closure policy adversely affects Palestinian reform efforts. An inability to travel prevents effective meetings of the elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council — thereby thwarting any meaningful democratic process with respect to debate and the adoption of reform laws or the annual budget. Palestinian elections, originally planned to be held this month, were postponed. How does a candidate campaign for election if she cannot leave her home? How does a voter vote if the polling stations are behind Israeli tanks and trigger-happy occupation forces?

Another obstacle to Palestinian reform is Israel’s self-declared right to withhold tax revenue owed to the Palestinians — nearly $600 million. The withholding of Palestinian funds not only deprives the Palestinian Authority of the critical financial resources needed to implement reform, it also destroys the Authority’s ability to pay its civil servants. This ultimately leads to impoverishment and financial desperation — two factors that foster corruption.

Successful Palestinian reform needs Israeli cooperation. First, Israel must end its system of closures and curfews, illegal under international law. Second, Israel must finally transfer all Palestinian tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority.

Many Palestinians are skeptical of reform, justifiably asking, “What good are democratic reforms while Palestinians have no freedom? What good are elections when Israel has demonstrated that it will not respect democratically elected leaders or even allow democratically elected parliaments to convene?” That is why, for reform to truly succeed, Palestinians must know they will eventually be free. Stated simply, Israel must end its occupation.

Yes, the Palestinian Authority is committed to reform. But no, Palestinian reform will not bring peace to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The problem in the Middle East is, and has been for the past 35 years, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. And no Palestinian budget, no Palestinian law and no Palestinian constitution is going to change that fact.

The writer is the Palestinian Authority’s minister of culture and information. He was to have headed the Palestinian delegation to the London talks today.