Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Movement Controls Stunt Palestinian Lives - and Democracy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Movement Controls Stunt Palestinian Lives - and Democracy

Article excerpt

President Bush says some great things about wanting democracy to spread to the peoples of the Middle East. But in the West Bank and Gaza, 3.5 million Palestinians are deeply skeptical of the sincerity of these declarations.

One of the main reasons for their skepticism - Yasser Arafat, the longtime leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement - sits in an upstairs room in the ruins of his compound here. In January 1996 elections sponsored and supported by the US government, he was elected rais (president) of the Palestinian Authority by a huge majority of Palestinian voters.

Five years later, the newly elected prime minister in neighboring Israel, Ariel Sharon, stated that he no longer wanted to deal with Mr. Arafat in the continuing peace diplomacy between their two nations. Since then, both Mr. Sharon and Mr. Bush have sought to sideline Arafat from any effective leadership role.

In recent years, many Palestinians have clamored to be able to hold new elections. Many - but no one can tell how many - are deeply critical of Arafat. All are eager to have a leadership responsive to their needs rather than to the dictates of outsiders. But in Palestine, as anywhere, holding credible elections requires the assurance of freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, and general security of the voting public.

In late 2002, I was part of a multinational group that explored just those issues for the Palestinians. But our work got nowhere. Israel, as occupying power, seemed quite unwilling to provide the conditions for credible elections in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Small wonder, then, if both Arafat and the vast majority of other Palestinians see Bush's call for democratization as meaningless for them.

Freedom of movement is essential not just to conduct elections, but also for normal life. Israel has severely curtailed this freedom for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza since the outbreak of the current intifada in September 2000 - and even for some years before then, too. As I've traveled in and around this city, I've seen for myself how the tight "movement controls" that Israel has maintained on the Palestinians have stunted the Palestinians' ability to lead normal lives. People are often, unpredictably, prevented from going to other towns to attend business or medical appointments, school, or family gatherings. Sometimes, they're "locked down" in their own homes for days or weeks. No vehicles can carry goods from one city to another. Instead, each truckload has to be unpacked and carried to another truck at each city's limits.

I made two roundtrips here last month from Jerusalem, which is about 10 miles away. Ramallah is almost entirely enclosed within a high fence topped with razor wire. On one of my trips, I drove with an international worker: by making a broad detour to the north, we could enter Ramallah through a special "international" entrance that most Palestinians are forbidden to use. …

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