After the death of Yasser Arafat, it was impossible not to note the grief and sadness of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the Diaspora, an emotion echoed by leaders of other liberation struggles, such as Nelson Mandela. Most of the Jewish voices emanating from inside Israel conveyed a different perspective, one that ignores the fact that Israel is also the home of many Palestinians.
With few exceptions, the media in the Netherlands and elsewhere chose to focus on whether or not the death of Arafat posed good or bad prospects for the “peace process”. In some cases, the media produced absurd stories that Arafat had somehow managed to stow away billions of dollars, making him one of the “wealthiest heads of state in the world.” In most Western countries the media failed to convey that Palestinian reactions to Arafat’s death demonstrated he was a leader that represented the Palestinian people, under occupation and in exile.
Leader of his people
During the past few years, the Israeli government has consistently refused to accept Yasser Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people. Preferring instead to call him “an obstacle to peace”, they entirely ignored the fact that their own attitude was the real obstacle.
Yasser Arafat proved his readiness to negotiate peace by recognizing the Israeli state in 1988 and by accepting only 25% of the original Palestinian land during the Oslo Accords. He managed to agree to unprecedented, even impossible, concessions on behalf of the Palestinian people, yet still remain immensely popular amongst Palestinians.
Given the decades of forced displacement of Palestinians, and their ethnic cleansing through war and Israeli governmental policies, as well as the daily, brutal treatment meted out by the Israeli Defence Force, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian authority to govern under occupation, the Palestinian people need a leader who represents their hopes and ambitions.
Elections under occupation: mission impossible
The Palestinian Authority confronts a serious and daunting bureaucratic obstacle. The Palestinian constitution states that after the death of the president, the chairman of the Palestinian parliament will take over the presidency until the new president has been elected. Elections need to take place within 60 days. Rawi Fatouh, the interim president, truly faces a mission impossible.
Elections are virtually impossible because the area that is supposedly under the Palestinian Authority’s administrationis is not a single, contiguous territory, but rather, 55 different bantustans, surrounded by heavy military fortifications, divided and redivided by Jewish-only access roads, and monitored by a fearsome occupying army that attacks civilians and protects violent settler communities, all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. These bantustans are reinforced by an imposing Wall that snakes past people’s homes, a monstrous edifice that has not brought security to Israelis, but has annexed additional Palestinian land, creating new forms of resentment by Palestinians towards Israelis. The wall, one of the most visible and horrific expressions of the Israeli occcupation, has been deemed by the international community and the International Court of Justice at The Hague to be illegal.
Israel still refuses to describe its presence in the occupied territories as an “occupation,” for the simple reason that it does not recognize that human rights and humanitarian law apply to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This position has effectively given the Israeli military carte blanche to create a living hell for Palestinians living in these bantustans, denying any opportunity for a normal life, let alone free elections.
Life in the bantustans
Israeli settlers in Hebron, who literally surround this historic town in the southern quadrant of the West Bank, throw refuse and human excrement upon Palestinian villagers, terrorise children on their way to school, and have mercilessly beaten volunteer peacemakers whose presence represents an attempt to bring some measure of protection to the villagers.
The occupying Israeli military prohibits any possibility for free elections by prohibiting movement and routinely arresting Palestinians on orders of administrative detention for even the slightest infraction. Detention orders can be renewed indefinitely. The military need not disclose its reasons and there is virtually no opportunity for appeal.
To compound their collective misery, the families of Palestinians who are administratively detained are at constant risk of being collectively punished. The military arrives in the middle of the night, pounds on the front door and forces the family out of their sleep and onto the street, then blows up their house with incendiary devices. In Gaza the situation is even worse, with tanks, armoured bulldozers and helicopter gun ships waging war against lightly armed militias and stone-throwing youths. In these circumstances, how are the Palestinian people expected to choose a leader?
The responsibility of the international community
As the Advisory Opinion in the ICJ on the Separation Wall confirmed, there are many binding obligations that Israel and the international community are obliged to respect in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. These included human rights and humanitarian law obligations.
The Palestinian authority cannot be expected to carry out elections under the conditions of a military occupation, the international community should not insist upon this. Instead, the international community — in particular those countries part of the so-called “Quartet” (the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations) — should insist upon two main conditions that will ensure a free election and a lasting peace, namely the cessation of the occupation and the guarantee of participation of all Palestinians in a free and fair election of a new leadership of the Palestinian people.
Ending the occupation and ensuring participation
The first and principal condition for elections would be an Israeli withdrawal of all settlements occupying Palestine, universally declared to be illegal, together with the extensive military complex that supports and enables the occupation. However, ending the occupation will not be sufficient on its own.
A free election to choose a new leader must also ensure the participation of all Palestinians. This includes Palestinian refugees, not only in the occupied territories, but in the diaspora as well. A free election may also demand that Israel release thousands of Palestinian detainees, many of whom are political prisoners in administrative detention, and some of whom may indeed be future leaders.
Together, these two main conditions are crucial to the legitimacy of any election, and would form an important and deeply necessary step towards peace.
Israel must seize this opportunity
Israel is faced with an historic opportunity to ensure peace. It must not waste it. As Ali Abunimah illustrated, even Israel has acknowledged the importance of Arafat, and has used this to its rhetorical advantage. Israel has long realised how highly he was regarded by Palestinians as “Abu Ammar,” leader of his people, despite any concessions he made or might have made.
Leaders of liberation movements elsewhere also recognised Arafat’s role as a bold and tireless leader on behalf of the Palestinian people. As the African National Congress in South Africa declared this past week: “The ANC will remember Arafat as a long-standing comrade, who closely identified with the South African liberation movement.”
If Israel, and indeed the international community, are serious about peace, the Palestinians must be truly free to choose a leader who can lead them towards peace. This is the only way out of the impossible mission confronting the region.
The writers are both human rights advocates, based in The Netherlands.