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Palestine cannot build a democracy while occupied

If economic and military aid should be linked to human rights performance, the same mandate should be applied to Israel as well

In what can only be described as chutzpah, David Keyes, the executive director of a group called Advancing Human Rights, penned a column in The New York Times last week called Palestine's Democracy Deficit.

Mr Keyes begins his piece decrying the Palestinian Authority's (PA) arrests during the past few years of activists who have been charged with criticising the leadership. That done, he gets on to his real goal - making it clear that the Palestinians are not partners for peace, are not ready for a state of their own, and should not receive US aid.

In his words: "A good indicator of how committed a government is to upholding peace with its neighbours is its commitment to protecting the human rights of its own citizens. Palestinian human rights are key to the peace process. A positive first step would be linking western economic aid to the Palestinian Authority's respect for free speech. Human rights, too often seen as a diversion from the peace process, are in fact the secret to it."

Several observations must be made in response. First, there is the Bush/Sharansky origin of Mr Keyes' thesis.

The rather bizarre notion that the Palestinians must first build a "practising democracy based on tolerance and liberty" before they can have a state was first articulated by George W Bush in June 2002.

Back then, with Israeli-Palestinian tensions at a high point, the world waited for two months while Mr Bush framed his approach to restoring peacemaking efforts.

How, I asked back then, could a people under military occupation establish a functioning democracy without any functioning economy and their people seething in anger at the daily humiliation they were forced to endure, the denials of their rights to movement, and the loss of their property and hopes all brought to them by their "democratic" neighbour?

State Department officials who had worked on the initial drafts of Mr Bush's speech were floored when the White House inserted its "democracy first" demands. We later learnt this had come directly from the president after he had read a treatise on democracy by Natan Sharansky, an Israeli hardliner and critic of all things Palestinian. In this context it is useful to note that Mr Keyes for many years worked for Natan Sharansky and refers to himself as a "Sharanskyite".

Then there is the organisation which Mr Keyes directs, Advancing Human Rights (AHR). AHR was the creation of Ben Bernstein, who had earlier founded Human Rights Watch (HRW). But in 2009, Bernstein resigned from HRW charging that it had become too focused on criticising Israel. Two years later he launched AHR which, from a review of its website, criticises everyone in the Middle East but Israel.

I cannot condone the PA's performance or its behaviour - and I have told them so. In the 1970s, I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC) which defended Palestinians who had been tortured in Israeli prisons, held for prolonged periods under "administrative detention" (without being charged with any crime), whose homes had been demolished in acts of collective punishment, or who had been illegally and summarily expelled from the Occupied Territories and separated from their families.

In the mid-1990s, I was asked by the State Department to host a meeting for a visiting delegation of PA officials, one of whom had been an administrative detainee during the 1980s. I assembled a group of individuals who had signed a petition back then to the Israeli occupation authorities calling for his release. After criticising the PA's human rights record, we turned to that former prisoner and said: "We defended your rights when they were violated, don't force us to turn against you because you are violating human rights. Because we will." And we have.

At the same time, I am fully aware of the impossible conditions that have been imposed on the Palestinians by a persistent and corrosive occupation. They have been, in effect, required by the Israelis and the US to manage the occupation and control their own people. Denied by the Israelis of the opportunity to grow their economy and produce a vibrant private sector, the PA has become dependent on the largesse of others to pay salaries for a bloated public sector that is, for too many Palestinian families, the only available source of income.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the mid-1990s, I was asked why Yasser Arafat couldn't be more like Nelson Mandela or Boris Yeltsin? I responded that while those leaders assumed power over fully functioning sovereign states in control of their economies and borders, Mr Arafat and the fledgling PA inherited nothing but little captive "cantons" with no ability to import or export, no freedom to move or grow, and still losing control over more of their land to ever-expanding settlements and a network of Jewish-only roads. It would be inappropriate, under these circumstances, I noted, to single out the victim for blame.

This in no way justifies the behaviour of the PA, but it puts the burden where it belongs - on the occupation that continues to maintain its demeaning control.

I agree with Mr Keyes that economic and military aid should be linked to human rights performance. But I would insist that this mandate should be applied to Israel as well. To suggest that Israel be exempt and not held to account for its abuses of the human rights of a people it holds captive is the definition of chutzpah. However, I am not holding my breath for either AHR or, for that matter, the US Congress to measure human rights by one yardstick.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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