Text size

The Palestinian Authority sent a harsh message to its population last week when its police opened fire on Palestinian citizens. The message was: When there's a new rapprochement between the PA and that bastion of Western democracy, the United States, together with a return to negotiations with Israel, forget about basic civil liberties such as the right to assemble, demonstrate, oppose the government or report on events. And no - there's no guarantee that your authority will respect basic human rights.

Israel and the United States voiced satisfaction with the message, as if the Palestinian police had gunned down dangerous terrorists who were on their way to murder Jews, rather than a group of demonstrators and passers-by, including a 13-year-old boy.

What would have happened if on Monday, ten days ago, several hundred Hamas-supporting students from the Islamic University had continued their march to the plaza outside the Palestinian legislature, carrying their placards against the U.S. attack on Afghanistan and holding up pictures of Osama bin Laden to the TV cameras? There's no doubt that in the United States, but especially in Israel, it would have been argued this was more proof that "the entire Palestinian nation" supports terror.

The PA could then have responded that it is not allowed to forgo civil liberties: Just as there are demonstrations against the attack on Afghanistan in the United States and Europe, as well as Israeli demonstrations against any deal with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, too, have the right to express views that are not pleasing to the American government. The PA's role, their spokespersons could have said, is to prevent the creation of "an alternative authority" that tries to use the force of arms and the threat of suicide bombers to impose a different policy than that the official leadership sets.

At the same time, these talented spokespersons could have pointed to various polls that show most of the Palestinian public does not support the terror attacks on the United States. They could say the support for bin Laden is regrettable, but does not represent the entire public, and the PA could at least begin a public discussion and educational campaign to prove to the public that bin Laden is bad for the Palestinians.

The Palestinian cabinet and the PA's chairman, Yasser Arafat, were elected in January, 1996, for a term that was supposed to culminate in the end of the interim period, meaning May 1999. The interim period, however, was extended, as were the terms of office for the elected PA officials. As long as there's no date set for new elections, it means, in effect, an open-ended extension on the terms of office.

True, the West and Israel do not expect Arab regimes to be democratic. But the Palestinian public does expect this and expects to develop a political culture that is based on democratic values, the rule of law and respect for civil and human rights by the authorities. With their terms of office extended indefinitely, the members of the Palestinian leadership should be particularly alert to the public. But the opposite has taken place.

From its outset, the civil uprising of the intifada was aimed in two directions: the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians draw a direct link between the scornful and, indeed, corrupt institutions and elected officials, and that the years of negotiations with Israel have not brought them closer to independence, have kept the settlement enterprise growing and have left the Israel Defense Forces in control of most of the territories. People believe a different kind of regime, in which there are consultations, exchanges of views and consideration of the positions of others, and in which all are equal before the law, would have strengthened the Palestinian negotiators in the face of their their Israeli colleagues, cum rivals.

Three families, whose sons were shot dead by the Palestinian police, head large clans in the Gaza Strip (especially the Abu Smallah clan in Khan Yunis). Behind these large clans are other families that are affiliated with them, with the same origins in the Yavne and Beit Daras areas. When citizens feel abandoned by the legal authorities and its government, they seek cover in their basic community - the clan, village and, sometimes, political organizations, which, during the years of Israeli occupation, sometimes served like a clan in its way of dealing with the needs of the public.

The violent dispersal of the demonstrators from the Islamic University sent the students of Al Azhar (affiliated with the PA and Fatah), the students of the Teachers College (also affiliated with the PA, though many of its students apparently support Hamas) and the pupils of many other schools into the streets. A public that was not strictly affiliated with Hamas was, thus, pushed into a common front against the Palestinian Authority.

The shooting at the demonstrators put all the political organizations - from Fatah, which is the backbone of support for a peace agreement with Israel, to Hamas - on a collision course with the Palestinian police. To break this front and to stand up to the threats by the families to undertake a blood feud in revenge for the deaths of their sons - while keeping the Israelis and Americans satisfied at the same time - the PA will have to step up its methods of repression; and this will further blur the distinction between legitimate criticism and the attempts by militias to take over through force.