ARAFAT'S RULE DASHES HOPES AND DREAMS

by Gordon Barthos, Foreign Affairs, May 30, 1997, "Opinion", The Toronto Star

Has the dream come to this?

President Yasser Arafat's police are burning detainees with cigarettes, beating them stupid, running wires up their penises, and forcing them to lick up coffee poured over excrement.

A dozen people, including political dissidents, have died in police custody.

Political cronies - ministers of the ruling Palestinian Authority - have just been accused by the auditor-general of embezzling or mismanaging $450 million in public funds last year from a feeble $1.2 billion budget and an ailing economy.

An award-winning journalist, Daoud Kuttab, was clapped in jail this past week, on Arafat's order, for televising debates by Palestinian MPs who dared to criticize the administration.

And the Palestinian Authority has encouraged the murder of Farid Bashiti and Marbi Abu Sara in recent weeks, by declaring that people who sell land to Israelis deserve to die.

Given this litany of horrors, it's no wonder Arafat's popularity has slipped in recent polls.

Palestinians, scattered to the winds since 1948, hankered for something better than rule by diktat, brutality, corruption, summary injustice and press censorship, when they voted Afafat president of the Palestinian Authority last year by a huge margin, and gave his Fatah party most of the 88 seats in the Legislative Council, or parliament.

Today the democracy they voted for is under siege. So are their hopes.

And Canada, which is giving Arafat $7.5 million worth of help in 1997-98 via the Canadian International Development Agency (half of it for human rights and good governance) shouldn't shrink from condemning these wrongs.

Even if many Palestinians are reluctant to criticize Arafat, either out of personal fear or to avoid giving others an excuse to say that Palestinians can't agree on how to run a country of their own.

"As a Palestinian, I believe that we can have a democracy, but we will have it only by practising it," warns Bassem Eid, whose Human Rights Monitoring Group published the report this week on police misconduct. He's right, and others are saying the same thing.

"We are going through a challenging period for Palestinian democracy," Kuttab told the Los Angeles Times this week. "Freedoms are never given on a silver platter. You have to fight for them. I think that's what this is all about."

Reformers complain, with reason, that Arafat spends his days closeted with his Fatah party cronies, scarcely answerable to the MPs, let alone the public, or activists of any sort. He professes ignorance of wrongdoing by officials.

Meanwhile, his police and security forces have grown to 40,000 or more. They drain almost 30 per cent of the budget, and are becoming a law unto themselves. More than 2,000 people have been held without charge. Iyad al Sarraj, another rights monitor, was arrested, jailed, beaten - and then accused of assaulting the police.

And official Palestinian radio and TV are mute on these abuses, as are the private newspapers and other media.

In his first year-and-a-half as president, Arafat has been obsessed with building central government, in difficult conditions. The Israelis are dragging their heels on the peace process; the economy is in poor shape, thanks in part to Israeli pressures; and promised foreign aid has not materialized. Arafat also is under the gun to suppress political splinter groups that may breed terrorism.

But none of this excuses suppressing the political activists, journalists, legislators and human rights advocates who are trying to build civl institutions capable of functioning independently of whatever government is in power. That means a robust judiciary, strong rights watchdogs, an unfettered press and trade unions.

The Canadian government, like others, has been walking a fine line between acknowledging that Arafat and his ministers are the only legitimate, democratic representatives of 2 million people in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and criticizing them for their shortcomings.

Canadians understand that Arafat must govern firmly, to show that a future Palestinian state will be stable. But public support for our aid program will not continue, if these abuses persist. Arafat's revolution must not be allowed to devour its children.

More than a thousand people, most of them Arabs, died during the intifadah, or uprising, against Israeli occupation. They didn't aim to trade occupation for tyranny.

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