Israel's Democracy Rubs Off on Palestinians


INSTEAD of casting stones at Israeli soldiers, Tasir Faqih will soon cast a ballot as his new weapon to realize his dream of a Palestinian state.

But, he says, the transition from revolution to democratic participation is a painful one that will take time.

"We have not yet changed to civil society ... we are still influenced by the revolution," says Mr. Faqih, referring to the sustained eight-year Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation known as the intifadah.

He has lived all his life under Israel rule, which began in 1967, and his views have been molded by an adversarial relationship with the soldiers of occupation.

When Israel and the Palestinians signed their peace pact in 1993, Tasir remembers being beaten by Israeli soldiers for not showing a permit at a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.

But in three weeks, he will join 1 million other registered voters in Gaza and the West Bank in an election that will give Palestinians their first direct experience with democratic self-rule.

The poll, which will be monitored by European Union observers, will elect a leader and an 82-member Palestinian Council to run self-rule areas.

It will also bestow democratic legitimacy on the Palestinian leadership and create a body of elected leaders to continue negotiating with Israel over the future shape of a Palestinian entity.

The main opposition to the peace deal, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), is not fielding candidates in the poll. But Hamas members participated in voter registration last month and are not planning to boycott the vote.

The outcome of the Palestinian leadership race is a foregone conclusion. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat is sure to win.

And Mr. Arafat's dominant Fatah faction of the PLO, which is fielding 70 of the 700 candidates for the 82 seats, is expected to win a substantial majority of the seats, which are contested by 400 independents and more than 200 candidates from 11 smaller parties and factions.

A new 'adventure'

"What's going on now is like an adventure," says Faqih, a science graduate of Jerusalem's al-Quds University who works in construction.

Faqih is a member of Fatah, founded by Arafat and through which he continues to control the organization and the Palestinian Authority (PA), a council he appointed in July 1994 to run Palestinian self-rule until elections could be held.

Like many Fatah members, Faqih would like to see other strong Fatah candidates oppose Arafat, but he doesn't think that's possible.

"I have to vote for Arafat because there is no real competition for Arafat within Fatah," says Faqih, adding that if a strong candidate emerged to challenge Arafat from within Fatah, it would split the organization.

Fatah loyalists like Jibril Aqiel do not share Faqih's view. Mr. Aqiel is the chairman of the al-Burj Youth Sports Club who chaired a two-hour session on democratic accountability and voter-candidate relations organized by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). "Arafat is the most experienced leader among the Palestinians, so there is no competition."

But Faqih sees the democracy lessons as a vital forerunner to the elections. The village group is one of 230 groups throughout the Palestinian territories that are taking part in the NDI's civic education program.

"It is a social activity to show the people of the village how they should go about choosing candidates and taking part in the elections and how to make them accountable afterwards," Aqiel says.

With an election campaign lasting only 20 days, there is the logistical problem of how voters will get to know even the names of the 700 candidates vying for the 83 elected seats.

"Many villagers leave before sunrise to go to their jobs in Israel and return late at night. They never see television or read the newspapers," Aqiel says.

The ballot will mark the beginning rather than the end of a debate about democracy in Palestinian ranks. Western-style democracy is something of a novelty in the Arab world, and Arafat's record on democratic principles leaves much to be desired.

Since taking control of the PA, he has banned newspapers for writing critical articles about him and the PA. He has also operated military-style courts, which deny legal representation to alleged offenders and are closed to public scrutiny. At least three detainees have died under interrogation in Palestinian jails.

A preelection delegation from the NDI and the Atlanta-based Carter Center, headed by former President Jimmy Carter, noted Palestinian concerns about the intrusion of a "growing security apparatus" and persistent reports of press censorship, arbitrary detention, and torture and deaths in Palestinian places of detention.

"For the electoral process to succeed, it is necessary that the Palestinian Authority demonstrates greater respect for human rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law," said the report of the delegation headed by Harry Barnes, director of Conflict Resolution and Human Rights Programs at the Carter Center.

Israel as role model

Ironically, the Palestinian entity could have a head start with democracy because of its close contact with Israel. It occupied and ran the West Bank and Gaza for 28 years, but is the only fully democratic state in the Middle East.

"We are very much affected by Israelis, and we see how successful Israel is as a democracy," says Abdel-Latif Abu Safiyeh, a Palestinian NDI organizer in the Hebron area.

Faqih is committed to voting. "I don't know what will happen later, but it seems that this election offers the first opportunity for me to begin changing my mentality," he says. "The elections will show to what extent the people are changing from revolutionaries to peaceful civilians."

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