The Palestinians Already Have a Democratic Constitution

By Pearlman, Wendy | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2002 | Go to article overview

The Palestinians Already Have a Democratic Constitution


Pearlman, Wendy, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Wendy Pearlman is earning a Ph.D. in Government at Harvard University. She has lived in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and is currently preparing a book of interviews with Palestinians about their experiences during the second intifada. She has published op-eds in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Jordan Times.

President Bush's recent speech calling for Palestinian reforms included several astute observations. The president was right to note that the "Palestinian Legislature has no authority and power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few." Palestinian legislators, after all, are trapped in their homes under military curfew. Power over all aspects of life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is concentrated in the hands of the Israeli Cabinet and army, which are unaccountable to international law and the United Nations, no less to the three million Palestinian civilians who suffer under an unrelenting siege.

And the president was also right to remark that "today the Palestinian people lack effective courts of law and have no means to defend and vindicate their rights." The Israeli army, after all, has rounded up thousands of Palestinians without charge, trial, or access to legal counsel. They endure inhumane conditions and languish in Israeli prisons indefinitely.

Thus, Bush's analysis was incisive in many ways. But there was one key point on which he was misinformed. Twice in his speech the president told the Palestinians that they must draft a democratic constitution. Someone should have told the president that the Palestinians already have such a constitution. I know, because I translated it.

Yasser Arafat established a Palestinian Constitution Committee back in 1999, long before either George Bush or Ariel Sharon came to power and assumed the right to tell Palestinians how to choose their leaders and run their internal affairs. After months of comparative research, specialized workshops, and debates on various drafts, the Committee completed the first final draft in September 2000. Two friends and I, the three of us students of Arabic sharing an apartment in Cairo at the time, were offered the job of translating the draft. We eagerly accepted.

For days on end, we hovered around my laptop, encircled by legal dictionaries and guavas bought from the fruit market on the noisy street below. Feeling as if we, too, were participating in the development of Palestinian democracy, we were meticulous in considering the linguistic accuracy and legal implications of every word we translated. Furthermore, as modern 20-something women, we made the Palestinian constitution even more democratic than the American one by rendering the English translation gender-neutral. Not unlike male politicians and academics everywhere, however, the members of the Palestinian Constitution Committee eventually reinserted all the "he's" that we had taken such pains to circumvent.

So I've reviewed every "for," "of," and "to" of the Draft Palestinian Constitution, and I can say that it's not too bad, as far as democratic constitutions go. It provides for free and regular elections, specifies the separate powers and duties of the three branches of government, outlines qualifications for public officials, and details the civil and political rights of all citizens. It addresses the democratic aspirations of Palestinian refugees both within and outside of the Palestinian territories, and it pledges religious tolerance. …

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