Palestinians in the West Bank chafe under `early empowerment'

Many worry that Israeli agreement to hand over limited responsibilities in five areas only underscores Palestinian subservience

THE red, black, and white flags fluttering over school roofs is the only outward manifestation of the recent Israeli transfer of limited civil administration to Palestinians in the West Bank.

Once the flag was a symbol of Palestinian defiance of Israeli occupation. But two weeks after the Aug. 29 signing of an ``early empowerment'' agreement with Israel to extend Palestinian self-rule to the rest of the West Bank, the raising of the flag no longer symbolizes that resistance.

The early-empowerment agreement transferred some limited responsibilities to the Palestinians in the areas of education, tourism, health, social welfare, and taxation. And it is intended to pave the way for a redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank and the holding of Palestinian general elections.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath has described the agreement as a landmark that will lead to full Palestinian self-rule.

But for many Palestinians, the recent agreement perpetuates what is seen as the subservience of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Israel.

``It is neither `early' nor `empowerment,' '' says Hanan Ashrawi, chairwoman of the Citizens Rights Commission in Ramallah.

The agreement maintains existing Israeli rules and military orders, and withholds major legislative, judicial, and enforcement powers from the PA, based in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho.

Israeli soldiers continue to patrol the streets and control the movement in and out of the major cities of the West Bank, while PA officials cannot travel back and forth without Israeli permits.

``There cannot be a meaningful transfer of responsibilities if early empowerment is not accompanied by measures to alleviate Israeli occupation and gives real power to the PA,'' says Marwan Barghouti, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which signed the peace deal with Israel.

``Judicially speaking, it [early empowerment] is a very strange concept,'' says Jonathan Kuttab, member of the legal Palestinian team that negotiated the early-empowerment agreement with Israel. ``It transfers certain authorities ... but it does not transfer the ability to implement these policies in these spheres.''

But, Mr. Kuttab says, the Palestinians have had to accept the terms in the agreement because they had no choice. ``The fact that the Palestinians have accepted anything cannot be used to prove that it is a good agreement.... The Palestinians had no leverage whatsoever during the negotiations.''

This position was reinforced by statements of chief Israeli negotiator Gen. Danny Rothchild that the agreement ensured that the West Bank remained under total Israeli control.

``The major flaw in early empowerment is that it seriously derogates and circumscribes the authority of the PA to the point of its subordination to Israel,'' says Ghassan al-Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator.

In practice, however, the PA, which is made up of members of the PLO and prominent leaders from the occupied territories, still has to prove that the agreement has not further reduced its role to that of an agency implementing Israeli policies and functions, as Dr. Ashrawi, Dr. Khatib, and many others say.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that will test the PA is taxation. Initially, the Israelis had refused to allow the Palestinians the authority to collect taxes.

But since the agreement transfers ``full financial responsibilities,'' in the areas transferred to the PA, the Israelis agreed to give the Palestinians partial and limited enforcement powers.

According to the pact, civil servants in each transferred area will act as ``civilian police'' for collecting taxes. But the Palestinian administrations in the different areas would have to refer to local courts, controlled by Israeli laws and authority, any problem with taxation payments, delays, or refusals.

``This is a very convoluted solution for the problem,'' Kuttab maintains. He says that the Palestinians had two options: either to leave the taxation under Israeli control and allow the Authority to appear as collaborators with Israel, or to accept the role of a ``helpless and ineffective apparatus that will carry out Israeli functions.''

The Palestinians, he says, accepted the latter. ``Even if the PA found an effective way to collect taxes, why should people pay taxes if the Authority can neither provide real representation or real services?'' Khatib asks.

``If our leader [PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat] needs Israeli approval to leave Gaza or move around, why should you think that we are better off?'' asks a young Palestinian at an Israeli border checkpoint. ``We used to refuse to pay taxes to the Israeli occupation. Then why should we accept to pay taxes for the [PA] if the Israelis control us anyway.''

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