AL-BURJ, The West Bank (Oct. 26)
From her hilltop village of Al-Burj, located southwest of Hebron, Majida Talahmeh closely followed Israeli and Palestinian negotiators last week as they put the finishing touches on The Wye River Memorandum in the United States.
Like many Palestinians, Talahmeh, 27, is worried about how a new agreement on security cooperation would affect the Palestinian people.
Her family feels that it has already paid a heavy price for Israeli security demands, even though before the latest accord was signed last Friday in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often complained that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat maintained no security cooperation with Israel.
More than two years ago, Israel ordered the Palestinians to arrest Talahmeh’s husband, Saleh, a 32-year-old computer engineer. They gave no reason, but the Palestinians swiftly obliged.
Saleh Talahmeh was never allowed to see a lawyer or put on trial. He remains in prison today — ironically, in a Jericho facility once run by the Israeli army.
Majida Talahmeh, a mother of four dressed in a traditional white head scarf, admits her husband is a sympathizer of Hamas, the Islamist movement whose military wing has killed scores of Israelis in recent years in an effort to destroy the peace process.
But she claims he was never involved in attacks on Israelis, and she cannot understand how his imprisonment improves Israeli security.
“Israel didn’t allow Arafat to enter Palestine until he promised to satisfy all their demands,” she says, echoing a popular Palestinian gripe about the peace process.
A provision of the Wye agreement calling on Israel to release 750 imprisoned Palestinians offers her little hope.
“Arafat might then agree to arrest those who were released,” she says cynically.
Human rights groups echo the Talahmeh family’s sentiments. They fear that the security provisions of the Wye accords, drafted to ease Israeli concerns, will only lead to more human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority, which already has a poor record.
At the same time, they say, Israel appears oblivious to the security dangers of fostering a Palestinian police state on its doorstep.
And some experts even predict tougher action by the Palestinian Authority could backfire by fueling frustration with Arafat and boosting support for Hamas, the very group Israel hopes to see undermined by the new accord.
Immediately after the Wye agreement was signed, Palestinian police launched a series of measures against Islamist groups, though not all appeared to directly improve Israeli security.
They detained 11 journalists — including several representing Western news agencies — who interviewed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas who vowed that the new accord would not prevent Hamas terror cells from carrying out attacks.
Another prominent Islamic cleric in Nablus who voiced opposition to the agreement was also arrested.
And in an ominous sign of possible Palestinian infighting to come, Palestinian police raided an office of Fatah, Arafat’s own political movement, in a search for documents and illegal weapons.
The raid sparked a clash Sunday between Palestinian security forces and Fatah activists in which one Palestinian teen-ager died after being shot twice in the head. Fatah leaders are now demanding that those responsible for the shooting be executed.
Many Palestinians see the new crackdown as a continuation of Arafat’s thuggish policies since his arrival in the Palestinian areas in 1994.
In areas it controls, the nascent Palestinian regime has used many controversial methods reminiscent of Israel’s occupation — including torture and administrative detention — to quell opposition to Arafat and the peace process and to satisfy Israel.
According to Bassem Eid, executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, some 150 Palestinians have been locked up without trial like Saleh Talahmeh.
Another 500 are imprisoned without trial either for allegedly collaborating with Israel or for criminal offenses. Dozens more alleged terrorists have been convicted through the state security courts, which snatch suspects from their homes for midnight trials.
These moves allow the Palestinian Authority to show Israel that it is cracking down on terrorism while avoiding Israeli demands for extradition.
Arafat, whose authoritarian governing style is well documented, appears to have little remorse about using these methods — even though the 1995 Interim Agreement called for security crackdowns to be carried out “with due regard to internationally accepted norms of human rights and the rule of law.”
But Eid and other human rights monitors say Israeli security demands, backed by the United States, only push the Palestinian Authority to contravene international standards of human rights.
“The Americans and Israelis are supporting Arafat’s dictatorial tendencies,” says Eid. “It is already extremely difficult to build institutions of democracy or civil society under current Israeli demands.”
Last week, Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group, warned that the Wye agreement — which calls in part for CIA officials to monitor Palestinian compliance on security issues — could deal a further blow to Palestinian democracy.
“The Palestinian Authority’s human rights record is already deplorable,” says Hanny Megally, executive director of the group’s Middle East and North Africa division. “The U.S. doesn’t condemn these violations now. Will the U.S. condemn violations once it is part of the process that creates them?”
Some U.S. officials say CIA involvement in Palestinian security could lead to an improvement, since the CIA may try to train Palestinian security forces in less controversial methods.
If they don’t, say experts, a further crackdown with more wanton arrests could ultimately undermine Israeli security.
Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, says Palestinian studies show that three factors boost support for Hamas: lack of success in the peace process, poor performance in the Palestinian Authority, and “pressure from the Palestinian Authority against Hamas, usually a result of Israeli demands.”
“Many Israeli analysts recognize this trend, but the government either cannot see it or does not want to see it,” he adds.
Indeed, the gradual transfer of West Bank land to Palestinian control has made it much easier for Israelis to ignore what goes on next door.
During the intifada, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising, many Israelis felt uncomfortable with the way the army was behaving.
“But now, Israelis are building a cognitive partition that runs pretty much along the Green Line,” the pre-1967 border separating Israel from the West Bank, says Tamar Hermann, a political scientist from Tel Aviv University who has been tracking Israeli public opinion on peace-related issues in a monthly poll since 1994.
“There is less and less interest among Israelis in what goes on in the Palestinian areas,” she says. “And the type of regime being established there doesn’t interest them in the least.”
Hermann bases her observations on a poll from 1996. Israelis were then asked what they thought about the historic Palestinian elections that took place in January of that year.
“We discovered that the average Israeli is not the least bit interested,” says Hermann. “I am certain that if I asked Israelis today what they think about the cost of Israeli security demands on the Palestinians, 90 percent would say they simply don’t care.”
Jessica Montell, development director at B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, recalls a comment by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who once said that the Palestinians could crack down on terror better than Israel since they have no B’Tselem or supreme court.
“It’s clear that security is an important concern,” says Montell. “But there are also limits and steps that governments are forbidden from taking. The message that is constantly communicated to the Palestinians is `Stop terrorism — and we don’t care how you do it.'”