Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Jailed Professor Talks about Palestinian Authority's Intolerance of Criticism

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Jailed Professor Talks about Palestinian Authority's Intolerance of Criticism

Article excerpt

Jailed Professor Talks About Palestinian Authority's Intolerance of Criticism

Dr. Abdul Sattar Qassem, a 56-year-old professor of political science at Al Najah University in Nablus, Palestine was in the news recently when he was arrested, along with 10 Palestinian community leaders, for distributing a leaflet that criticized the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president, Yasser Arafat. I was quite shocked when I learned of the news, for only three months earlier I was sitting in his classroom learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I studied in the Palestine and Arabic Studies (PAS) program for international students last summer at Birzeit University, where Qassem, a guest professor, was teaching a course titled "The Palestine Question." His candor was refreshing. He would always speak what he felt was the truth, no matter what the implications were. He was never shy in expressing his dissatisfaction with the PA or the faltering peace process to the class. Who knew that those same views he expressed in class would send him to jail? I decided to call him on Feb. 12 and give him an opportunity to tell Washington Report readers what happened to him. But first, a little background.

Abdul Sattar Qassem was about to enter adulthood when Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. His chances for getting a good education inside Palestine were now gone. So he decided to go to Cairo, where he received a B.A. from the American University. From Cairo he traveled to the United States, where he earned his master's degree in political science from Kansas State University in 1974. He went on to the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he received his Ph.D. in political science.

Dr. Qassem then went to Amman, where he taught at the Jordanian University from 1977 to 1979. He was fired for what he calls "intolerance of independent thought" by the Jordanian authorities. In 1980 he was hired to teach political science at Al Najah University, a position he has held for nearly 20 years.

The professor was very active in the community. He played a key role early in the intifada when he wrote a book for Palestinians on effective methods of civil disobedience. Publication of that book landed him in an Israeli jail for six months. It was not the last time that occupation forces would arrest him. Professor Qassem spent a total of two years in Israeli detention, and an additional six months under house arrest. He was not allowed to leave Palestine until 1996, when he spoke in Chicago at the annual convention of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP). He was allowed to depart Palestine again in 1997, but since then he has been unable to obtain permission to leave.

His relationship with the Palestinian Authority has been almost as rocky. In 1995, he was hit by four bullets in an attack that was meant to silence him. Surviving the attack, which he charges was committed by members of one of President Yasser Arafat's security forces, has only made him more determined to speak out against what he sees as the rapid surrender of Palestine. In 1996, he was detained for several days on suspicion of libeling Arafat. None of this has inhibited his determination to speak his mind. He has published 15 books. The most recent one, The Road to Defeat, lashes out against the PA and its policies under Arafat.

THE PETITION

Qassem and seven other Palestinian intellectuals got together in October of 1999 to discuss the worsening political situation in Palestine. They were unanimous in their dissatisfaction with the internal policies of the PA. They charged that it was tolerating widespread corruption, abuse of power, misuse of resources, human rights violations, and a dysfunctional political process. They felt that Israel was imposing a humiliating defeat upon the Palestinians. Their frustration was increased by what they felt was the lack of an effective opposition.

Something had to be done, they agreed. Some suggested the creation of a new political movement, but that idea was dismissed since the Palestinian people, it was argued, would not be interested in yet another political party. …

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