New Internationalist

Towards A Democratic Palestine

Issue 348

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Israel & Palestine / DEMOCRACY

Mustafa Barghouthi is a medical doctor and director of the Ramallah-based Health, Development, Information and Policy Institute. A leading Palestinian intellectual concerned with issues of civil society and democratic governance, he was interviewed by Richard Swift in Ramallah.
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Mustafa Barghouthi

What do you mean by the Third Way in Palestine?

Palestinians do not have to choose between autocracy and fundamentalism. There is a democratic alternative. Palestine could be a state that is independent and sovereign and democratic. A country that respects citizens, with rule of law, an independent judiciary. A place where people can elect their leaders not only once but again and again. I believe in that and I believe that the vast majority of people in Palestine want it.

What are the sources of strength helping a democratic political culture emerge?

We have a relatively developed civil society that is the outcome of two intifadas. People have to struggle to survive, to organize themselves. There is a strong NGO community which is a sign of self-reliance. There is also a multiparty political system. There is no room for autocracy at the moment because those in authority need the people. A fourth factor is, I think, international exposure. Palestine is one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the Arab world. Traditions in the Palestine national movement go back to the turn of the last century. There are negative factors too. The surrounding Arab countries provide poor models for democratic development. The Israeli occupation is constantly suppressing democratic forces and supporting autocracy to control the population. Yet I believe that if there is a place in the Arab world that has a chance of being a democratic model it would be Palestine. I also believe we are giving an example to other countries.

It seems to me in the current situation between Israel and Palestine that the fundamentalisms in each society have a better chance of strengthening each other than do the democratic forces.

The group that should be faced with that accusation is the Israeli Labor Party. The Labor Party never believed that Palestinians can have a democracy. There are other good forces in Israel on the Left that we co-operate with. But the Labor Party caved in. It abandoned democratic principles for the sake of being a nationalist/Zionist force. For them their Zionist principles are ahead of other principles.

People have said that this intifada is not based as much in the grassroots as the first intifada. The fact that the Israelis have withdrawn from the cities, that the weapons are more military weapons, that the Palestinian Authority is in place and performs some of the functions of government have all contributed to this. How do you read that?

Yes, partially this is true - because of the presence of the Authority and the over-militarization of the issue. But there is still a strong grassroots element. The only difference is that it comes in waves. It all depends on the period. It is not like the previous intifada which was gradually developing. It moves very fast. Sometimes you feel it is all military and at other times you feel it is totally popular. But I think it is becoming more grassroots: more people are affected, more people involved and more people organized. So I wouldn't discount its grassroots nature.

Do you think there can be fundamental change here without there being some fundamental change in Israel?

There will be no political progress until the Sharon government falls and there is an end to the idea of solving the Palestinian problem by military means. It is more than just Sharon. Sharon and Peres are alike in that sense. But that change will not happen because of internal Israeli factors alone. Probably it will be a combination. I'm sorry to say it, but Israel does not change until it has to. But there will be other factors, such as the opinion of the Jewish community in the States, the position of the US Government, and the European position. The fact is that the Palestinian issue is rising all over the world as the number-one liberation issue. For young people it is becoming like Vietnam was for our generation. Like South Africa was for the generation of the 1980s. Israel has to decide whether it wants to be a normal country or a colonialist power. It simply cannot be sustained as the last colonialist power in the world. It doesn't make sense. I know that the Israelis enjoy now the arrogance of power. But I think that this is going to change and I believe soon. Whatever Israel does it remains a small country within a sea of Arabs. And I think we as Palestinians can offer Israel a bridge to be accepted, to be normal, to have regular relationships with the world, particularly the Arab world. There is an opportunity. But they can lose it. The Israelis always speak of Palestinians losing opportunities; this time it is their chance not to lose the opportunity.

Do you feel the recent Saudi peace initiative is useful here?

It adds a certain positive dynamism to the process. It provides a paradigm. A vision. It is clear: full normalization for full withdrawal. The immediate Israeli reaction was normalization but no withdrawal. The Israelis are not mature enough even to deal with such an issue. But what should be clear is that we as Palestinians have no more to give. No more concessions to make. The historical compromise was made by us and Israel has to take a part now. Anything less than a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and in East Jerusalem will simply undermine our ability to survive as an independent country. There is no point in trying to survive with less than that.

How do you judge the importance of the international grassroots organizations coming to work with civil-society organizations in Palestine?

It is very important. It shows, by the way, how important the grassroots nature of this intifada is. Without the grassroots civil-society organizations in Palestine there would be no international protection movement. It has bypassed the Palestinian Authority and it empowers people with the ideas of non-violent struggle. It also has revitalized the international solidarity movement around the Palestinian issue.

Do you see the main danger as the fundamentalists taking over the structures of the Palestinian Authority?

Yes, because they share the same social base. They share traditionalist tendencies. Palestine is not naturally a very fundamentalist place. It is normally a secular place; that has been its history. But fundamentalism thrives not only on Israeli oppression but on the fact that the PA has many flaws - poor governance, lack of democratic structures, poor response to people's needs, corruption. It makes fundamentalism thrive. We need to be transparent and accountable; that's the only way humanity has found to guard against these tendencies. I am optimistic about a democracy in Palestine. Simply because an autocracy in Palestine means fundamentalism. Algeria is a very good example of that. One difference is it wouldn't take 30 years to happen here. It would take a much shorter time. The bureaucracy is ready-made. It is already sitting there. So it won't be the transformation of a national movement into a bureaucratic corruption. That has already happened. When you support autocracy you inevitably support the fundamentalist reaction to it. The only way for this country to safeguard itself against fundamentalism is through the evolution of democratic structures.

There seems to be a culture of violence developing that affects both societies. In Israel young soldiers are brutalized as occupiers and here there is the question of the suicide bombers and also the extrajudicial killings of people accused of informing. How do you see the long-term effects being overcome?

It's tough. But you should not be confused about the situation. The main form of violence that exists here is the oppressive power of the Israeli army. This is the form that most people have to deal with. The worst kind of feeling is when people feel totally disabled. When the Israeli army invades our cities and insults fathers in front of their children - this affects relationships in the long term. There are too many guns around the place. It promotes 'force culture'. That is why it is so important to have other models. Just before we were occupied I was asked to go to my daughter's sixth grade class to speak about democracy. They were having elections in order to understand the idea of democracy. It was a very enjoyable session that I feel I got more from than they did. I think you need to go to the grassroots level, to the very young children, to plant the idea of democracy. Palestine has not had its own government for 600 years. Israel, in my opinion, is not a democracy, at least for Palestinians. It's all oppression around here. We are ready to give everything we can, all our lives, to promote the democratic tendency above the others.

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