The current push for changes in the Palestinian political process is neither new nor externally motivated. Rather, there is a call to implement a home-grown, authentic program of structural, legal and procedural reform which has been gathering steam in Palestinian society for years. Political reform must come from the Palestinians. Foreign interference will not help the process.
Average Palestinians have become increasingly frustrated with the repressive and extra-legal security services, and with the inept administration in the occupied territories. Throughout the deeply flawed Oslo process, many elected officials stood beyond the reach of their voting constituencies. These matters came to a head after the latest round of Israeli sieges. With much of Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah in ruins, Palestinians began asking: how was this allowed to happen? Where was the protection? Can things be put back together?
The only way to close the gap in confidence between Palestinians and their leaders is to overhaul the political process. A mere reshuffling of the deck will not do. Reform is also needed to strengthen international support and streamline domestic mechanisms for confronting the challenges raised by the ongoing occupation.
Making constitutional changes in the middle of a war, or in the wake of the sort of physical destruction recently inflicted by the Israeli military, will not be easy. Though Palestinian will is not broken, the civil infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority is in shambles. The World Bank conservatively estimates the damage of recent Israeli incursions throughout the West Bank at $361m. This is nothing compared to the suffering and loss of life.
New presidential, legislative council and municipal elections are needed immediately and will require the registration of more than a million voters. All mismanagement, abuse of authority and misuse of public funds must be weeded out. The bloated cabinet should be trimmed to become efficient and accountable. Four-year term limits should be imposed on security officials. There must be equality before the law and a clear separation of powers.
The new draft legislation which would bar the president or the security forces from interfering with judicial decisions - for example, keeping those who have been ordered to be freed behind bars - is a step in the right direction. The application of the new legislation would spell the end of the state security courts, notorious for their lack of due process and rapid-fire convictions. It would also require trials for those involved in extrajudicial killings, including the murder of alleged collaborators.
The call for Palestinian political reform belongs only to the Palestinian people, and it deserves sharp skepticism when made by others. In the hands of the Israeli government the call for reform is both disingenuous and self-serving. The intention is to appropriate grassroots frustrations in order to undermine the credibility of larger Palestinian political demands. The Israeli government also hopes to divert international criticism and increase Palestinian factionalism in order to delay military withdrawal from the occupied territories. Coming so soon after the war crimes committed in Jenin and other Palestinian towns and camps, Ariel Sharon is the last person to be advising others on democratic transition. More importantly, however, Sharon has latched on to "reform" as a precondition for negotiations in order to avoid anything that would foil his unilateral expansion plans.
Coming from the American government, the call for reform is generally counterproductive. American involvement has been far from principled or even-handed, and Palestinian trust of US influence is at an all-time low. Historically, the US administration has been more than willing to turn a blind eye to abuses within the Palestinian system so long as the Palestinian Authority discharged its "security" obligations towards Israel and maintained its commitment to the "process".
Civil society organizations and average citizens have presented the Palestinian government with an invaluable opportunity to correct deep-seated problems. To succeed, the movement for fundamental change must be proactive and steered internally by and for the benefit of Palestinians. Otherwise, it will end up being reactive and forced externally for the benefit of others. Such neo-colonial interference can only backfire.
Hanan Ashrawi is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Ian Urbina, associate editor of the Middle East Report in Washington DC, collaborated on the piece.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002