The Magazine

Toward Democracy in Palestine?

Amir Taheri interviews Rawya Rashad Shawa, member from Gaza of the Palestinian National Council.

Nov 4, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 08 • By AMIR TAHERI
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Editor's Note: A defender of traditional Palestinian positions on the conflict with Israel, Rawya Rashad Shawa is also an outspoken advocate of Palestinian reform and democracy. A former columnist, Shawa was elected from Gaza in 1997 to the Palestinian National Council, where she is a leader of the anti-Arafat bloc. The interview excerpted here was conducted by Amir Taheri, editor of the French quarterly Politique Internationale, in mid-October in Amman, Jordan, and translated from Arabic by Taheri.

Although much is written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the outside world knows very little about domestic Palestinian politics. Why is that?

The main reason is the impression created by Chairman Yasser Arafat that he and he alone embodies the Palestinian political will. For years his message has been: Talk to me and you will not need to take notice of anyone else! He has never bothered to consult anyone, insisting on making his decisions alone. He is one of those politicians who can operate only in the dark, in secret.

He seems to have had his way for some time.

Yes. This is because the Arab governments with whom he dealt first were also run by men of the same culture of secrecy. They too were suspicious of pluralist politics and preferred to deal with just one man. That was the age of strongmen in the Arab world. And Arafat was the Palestinian strongman. After the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, the Israelis began to feel threatened. This was because the Palestinians had fielded an alternative leadership that consisted of people who had lived and worked in Palestine all their lives, and who could put their case to the outside world, especially to the Americans, in attractive terms. The Israelis had always favored Arab leaders of the strongman type. This is because one man can always be cajoled, bought, or destroyed. That analysis led to the Oslo back channel, when the Israelis put Arafat back in orbit and began making secret deals with him.

Does this mean that Arafat did not consult the Palestinian National Council?

The council was always used as a rubber stamp. For example, when Arafat signed the Hebron accords [in 1997] we received the information from Azmi Bisharah [an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset]. This is because the Israeli government had to inform the Israeli parliament. Arafat never felt the need to come to us and seek support for his secret deals. He didn't need any advice. He was Palestine. We were never given a clue. Arafat would send us [Nabil] Shaath or someone else from time to time to mumble a few meaningless phrases, and to kiss my hand and pay compliments, before disappearing. Abu Mazen [Arafat's deputy] was supposed to brief the members of our parliament's political commission. For three years there was not a single meeting, even for tea.

Are you not a bit hard on Arafat?

God is my witness that this is not a personal matter. Arafat has the same culture of authoritarianism, not to say dictatorship, that has marked almost all Arab leaders for as long as one can remember. What I am saying is that this style of rule, this authoritarianism, can lead only to disaster for Arabs, and in our case, for the Palestinians. We all see the military strength of the Israelis, their F-16s and Apache helicopters. But we should also see the strengths of their political system in which the government is responsible to the parliament, and the parliament is accountable to the electorate. All adversaries in history learn from each other and, in some aspects, come to resemble each other. In the struggle between our nation and the Israeli nation it is important for us to be politically as strong as they are. And that means a strong parliamentary system, accountable to the people. Because we cannot have a war machine like theirs does not mean that we should not have their democracy either.

Arafat is forming a new government. Will that make a difference?

Arafat asked the previous government to resign because he knew it would receive a no-confidence vote in the parliament. He wants to be the only one who can install or dismiss a government. Arafat refused to sign our Basic Law, which means we were run on an ad hoc basis, a nation without a legal framework. Now that he has signed it under American pressure, he is trying to circumvent it as much as possible. He is not behaving like that out of ill intentions. This is his political culture. He sincerely believes that democracy is nonsense and that great and dedicated leaders like him must lead nations.

Can the new government have a smooth ride in the parliament?

It is too early to tell. In any case what we need is fresh elections, both for the parliament and the president. Whatever government Arafat concocts will have no authority beyond day-to-day measures.

Does this mean that if Arafat makes a deal with the Israelis tomorrow you will not accept it?

Yes. The larger issues have to be dealt with in a new parliament and the new government that would emerge from it. In other words power has reverted to the people, who must now decide in fresh elections.

Can one hold meaningful elections under the present circumstances?

Sure. Some conditions must be present before we can have clean and fair elections. I think we need a six-month preparation period. The first step must be an Israeli military withdrawal from our cities and villages. Next we need a protection force. The Israelis say we threaten them. We say the Israelis are threatening us. A neutral interposition force could protect both of us in the period of the election. The entire exercise must be supervised by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to make sure there is no cheating and doctoring of the results.

What if Arafat and his Fatah group win again?

I doubt that he can, provided there is a free and fair campaign in which the people can be informed of the issues and the choices on offer. What will Arafat campaign on? His record is there for all to see. As for his strategy, it simply does not exist. He is always hoping that someone will extricate him from a tight corner, that something good will happen. But hope is no strategy.

What about despair? Is that a strategy? What if Hamas wins?

No, despair is not a strategy either. As for the possibility of Hamas winning, my answer is: Why not? If the people so decide, we have to respect their view. At present, however, there is no such possibility because Hamas boycotts general elections, participating only in local elections. Local elections, of course, have been postponed since 1999 for fear that Hamas might win in 400 municipalities. What I am saying is that we need a national strategy, not the personal strategy of one man. And the only way to develop a national strategy is to inform the nation and then ask it to decide.

Would such a national strategy be based on the two-states principle?

Yes. In 1972 my late father [Rashad Shawa, former mayor of Gaza] proposed a confederation of Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Since then, however, that option has virtually disappeared. The two-state solution has been accepted, at least in principle, by a majority of our people. The Israelis, of course, love to go around the world and spread the lie that we want to throw them into the sea, when it is they who are forcing us out of our homes.

Would the national strategy that you talk about be based on the so-called Clinton Plan as presented in Taba late in 2000?

The so-called Clinton Plan was a craftier version of the so-called Barak Plan. Much of it was window dressing, designed to confuse the Palestinians and then blame them for not wanting peace. I think that by rejecting the plan outright, Arafat acted childishly. He cast us in the role of villains and Barak, one of the most unprincipled of Israeli leaders, as a man of peace. He should have adopted a "yes-but" position, accepting the plan in principle but seeking further negotiations on aspects that we could not accept. Above all, he should have referred the whole thing to our parliament so that we could think together and decide together.

There are more than a dozen peace plans named after Arab, Israeli, and Western leaders, but none from Palestine. Does this mean you have no strategy?

Of course we have a strategy. As I have already mentioned, we accept the two-state formula. What is needed is negotiations on the modalities of achieving that goal with constant reference to key United Nations resolutions, notably 242 and 338. We have to agree on the status of East Jerusalem, which is a Palestinian city and must be the capital of a Palestinian state. We must also agree on borders and the sharing of waters. Last but not least, there is the question of the right of return.

Barak has said that accepting the right of return could produce a "flood" of Palestinian returnees who would change the nature of Israel as a Jewish state.

This is another sign of Barak's bad faith. The fact is that no state can reject the principle of the right of return because it is enshrined in international law and recognized by all states, including Israel. In other words, Israel is already committed by law to the right of return. Obviously, the time frame within which that right is exercised in practice and other modalities for such a major enterprise will have to be worked out through negotiations. The image of 4 or 5 million Palestinians suddenly appearing in Israel on the same day is nothing but a propaganda ploy designed to avoid a very serious and vital issue.

A top European Union official recently told us that the Palestinian Authority is one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Is that the case?

Yes. You have not heard the half of it! We have seen people who came with just one shirt a few years ago and are now multi-millionaires. Billions of dollars of aid have poured into the Palestinian areas without anyone having a clear idea of where they went. The parliament never received any report on where the money went. Nor was the parliament allowed to exercise its right of oversight. Who knows how many secret bank accounts have grown fatter and fatter. You can see foodstuffs donated to us by the European Union sold in Tel Aviv! The Authority's obsession with controlling everything has weakened and in some cases destroyed our civil society. Many non-governmental organizations that were active before the Oslo accords have either disappeared or become empty shells. It is a shameful situation. While the Israelis are stealing our land, some of our own people are picking our pockets.

I must ask if you approve of the suicide bombings?

I cannot tackle the question in those terms. The view from the outside is one thing, and what we experience each day quite another. Let me tell you my own experience of the past few days. In order to come to Amman I had to start seeking the necessary Israeli permits two weeks ago. I then had to go to Khan Yunus, where I was held up by the Israelis for hours before I could go to Egypt. From Cairo I had to take a plane to Amman. And I am supposed to be a member of a parliament recognized by all parliaments throughout the world. At any time, an Israeli soldier could have stopped or even arrested me. No one is safe. There is no guarantee that a missile will not kill you in your car or that a demolition squad will not raze your home to the ground. There is no guarantee that your home will not be raided at night, or that your water and electricity supplies will not be cut off. Day in and day out. Year in and year out. It is a miracle that more people are not driven to the edge of desperation. Look at me. I am a normal woman, a mother, a politician, and a good-natured individual. But even I could go absolutely mad under the pressure of occupation. When a house is on fire, some people may jump out of the window. Some may push others aside to save themselves. Would any sane person approve? Of course not. But you cannot drive human beings beyond the context of human life and still hold them to the highest ethical standard. There is one way to understand the depths of our misery: Come and live among us for some time.

But who is responsible for suicide bombings?

I think one-third is organized by Hamas and another third by Islamic Jihad. The remaining one-third must be regarded as individual acts.

What is the source of Hamas's strength?

The main source of Hamas's strength is the weakness of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has a clear strategy, where the Authority has none. Hamas speaks clearly, while the Authority has a forked tongue. You may disagree with Hamas, but at least you know what it is saying. Hamas does not have as much money as the Authority. But it still has loads of money. Thus it can provide many of the services that are normally provided by the state: schools, social security, health services, and so on. In the context of our present politics, there is plenty of room for Hamas. Change the context, and Hamas will shrink to its natural constituency, which is much smaller.

Will you run if there is a presidential election?

Believe me, this is not about personal ambition. I am calling for a parliamentary system, not a presidential one, for collective decision-making in constant consultation with the Palestinian people. I am calling for an end to one-man rule. The way to our future is democracy.