NORTH GAZA, GAZA STRIP — Along with economic progress, helping Palestinians to lay the foundation of a stable, civil society was meant to be a cornerstone of a lasting peace with Israel.
As such, part of the overall five-year, $500-million aid package the US has promised to provide the Palestinians is being aimed at fostering democracy and representative institutions.
Projects have included seminars on democracy, fair competition, and running elections. One important program has been contracted to Burlington, Vt.-based Associates for Rural Development (ARD), which has a three-year project to shore up the Palestinian legislative council.
Council members have been given training in areas like constituency relations and legislative oversight of the presidency. Technical assistance is being provided to the council budget committee, which until very recently never received an itemized budget from President Yasser Arafat.
The obstacles to reaching some of those American-style objectives seemed to look insurmountable last month when one of ARD's pilot projects - providing a $50,000 grant to help a Palestinian university broadcast the legislative council meetings - was squelched by Mr. Arafat. First, the television transmissions were blocked during crucial debates. Then, Palestinian-American journalist Daoud Kuttab, who came up with the idea to pump democracy into Palestinian living rooms, was put it jail for more than a week without charges.
The university soon removed the cameras and canceled the broadcasts indefinitely.
American officials here were openly angry about the unexplained imprisonment of one of its citizens, but those dealing with democracy-building programs here say that was only the tip of the iceberg.
"The broadcasts are just a small part of it," says one field officer of the ARD. "It's part of the overall battle between the council and the executive." That has democracy's salesmen here feeling more than a little frustrated. Since the council's election a year-and-a-half ago, only one law has been passed. It calls for the holding of local municipal elections this fall.
But the vote will not be held as planned, Palestinian Authority officials say, because of the stalemate in the peace process and delayed Israeli transfer of land to the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the legislature's plan to pass a "basic law," which would institute a system of checks and balances and a kind of Bill of Rights, never made it past the first reading because Arafat has refused to respond to it.
"The council is the voice with which we can talk about corruption, and this smell of corruption, you can smell it everywhere," says Hussan Khader, an independent member of the council who has been critical of Arafat. "There are those who still benefit from this system, and they're trying to tie the hands of the council and keep the people from knowing what we're tying to do."
Mr. Kuttab's imprisonment, he adds, "gives new evidence that we are a military society, not a civilian society."
All involved, from Palestinians to international officials here, know that the shortcomings of democratization efforts may begin taking their toll. Congress recently warned that it might cut aid to the Palestinians in the wake of murders - apparently sanctioned by Arafat - of Palestinians accused of selling land to Jews.
That, compounded with reports of corruption, may be too much damage to control. Says Ferdinand Smit, head of donor coordination at the UN in Gaza: "There may be fallout because the image that's created is very damaging to attempts to raise additional money internationally, particularly in the US."