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Neither Peace Nor Security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

 

Grassroots International Delegation and Program Trip Report

 

By: Tim Wise and Nuhad Jamal*

 

The bomb that killed 16 and wounded 170 in a West Jerusalem market July 30, just three days after the return of Grassroots International's delegation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was a tragic exclamation point on a tragic story. (The subsequent bombing September 4 further amplified the tragedy.) During its nine days in the area, the delegation heard elements of that story from a variety of sources. While the individual stories varied, they featured a common theme: the profound loss of confidence in the peace process. Clearly, if Palestinians do not soon see any meaningful improvement in their lives or any reason to hope for a viable Palestinian state, the peace process will continue to founder. If it fails, Israelis and Palestinians will share neither peace nor security.

Grassroots International's delegation, which was in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from July 18 to July 27, was led by Grassroots' Program Coordinator Nuhad Jamal and Executive Director Tim Wise. Delegates included Grassroots' Board chair Steve Fahrer; Robert Crane, President of the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation; Mark LeVine, a journalist and graduate student completing his dissertation research in Israel; and Lionel Derenoncourt of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, who joined the delegation for one day of the trip.

The itinerary took the delegation to Gaza for three days, with the remainder of the time in the West Bank and Israel. The trip included:

  • An overview of Israeli settlement activity, including a visit to Hebron hosted by the Christian Peacemaker Team; a meeting with a settler representative at Efrat settlement in the West Bank; a meeting with the Committee for Defense of the Land about the new Har Homa settlement at Jabal Abu Ghneim near Bethlehem; and a tour of planned and completed settlements around Jerusalem with the Mennonite Central Committee.
  • Discussions of the human rights situation with Eitan Felner, Executive Director, B'Tselem (Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories); Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights; and Dr. Eyad Sarraj, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and head of the Commission for Citizens' Rights.
  • Meetings with elected Palestinian leaders, including Dr. Haidar Abdl-Shafi, Legislative Council member from Gaza; Salah Ta'amari, Legislative Council member from Bethlehem; and Azmi Bishara, Palestinian member of the Israeli Knesset.
  • Tours of refugee camps in Gaza and Bethlehem, as well as a meeting at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency with Director Klaus E. Worm and Deputy Director Lex Takkenberg.

The trip also featured site visits to the projects of Grassroots' partner organizations:

  • Jabalia Torture Treatment Center of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP);
  • Abu T'ameh clinic in rural Gaza with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC);
  • Jericho Nursery Program and Women's Program of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC);
  • Democratic Development Unit of the Palestinian Center for Herman Rights (PCHR);
  • Legal Aid and Research Program of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC);
  • Management Training Project of the Women's Affairs Center of Gaze (WAC);
  • Workers' Legal Aid Program of the Democracy and Workers' Rights Center (DWRC).

The report that follows summarizes Grassroots International's main conclusions drawn from the trip. It does not pretend to speak for any of the delegates not directly affiliated with Grassroots International. Because the delegation focused its attention on Grassroots' Palestinian Democratic Development Program and its partner organizations, we do not presume to present a comprehensive analysis of the current obstacles to peace. Rather, we hope to shed some light on the way in which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are responding to the breakdown in the peace process. We also hope to show that, in spite of the multiple tragedies associated with that breakdown, Grassroots International continues to make progress toward its long-term goal of strengthening democratic civil society.

 

Economic Despair

Four years after the Oslo Accords raised hopes for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our delegation heard great disillusionment among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though daily life in the areas now under Palestinian control—most of Gaza and several towns in the West Bank—seemed much less tense after the withdrawal of Israeli troops, the overwhelming perception is that things have gotten worse for most Palestinians since the Declaration of Principles was signed four years ago. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a set of economic and political policies that could more effectively undermine Palestinian commitment to the peace process.

In both Gaza and the West Bank, the delegation heard repeated complaints that Palestinians are significantly worse off economically now than they were before the Oslo Accords. The statistics bear them out. According to the Democracy and Workers' Rights Center (DWRC) and United Nations figures, since Oslo average individual income has dropped 38%, from $2,425 to $1,480 per year (the comparable figure is $16,900 for Israelis). Unemployment is now nearly 50%, higher when Israel imposes closure, which severely limiting Palestinians' ability to travel to work. Almost two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (65%) live below the poverty line. The Palestinian minimum wage buys only 54% of the minimum market basket of goods.

The loss of employment within Israel is probably having the most serious negative impact. When we were there in July, Israel was allowing 25,000 Palestinian laborers to work in Israel, having just reduced the permissible age of Palestinian workers from 30 to 25 (provided they are married). The number of laborers was up considerably from the spring, when closure cut it close to zero. But it is down dramatically from the 200,000 who used to work in Israel before Oslo and whose wages used to support an estimated one million Palestinians. That work is now being done largely by foreign "guest workers," estimated to number around 225,000, counting both legal and undocumented workers. They have come from many different countries: Rumania, the Philippines, Thailand. The Israeli government seems unlikely to alter the policy of substituting guest workers for Palestinian laborers.

Continued instability has undermined business and employment opportunities in the West Bank and Gaza, as have Israeli restrictions on Palestinian travel. It is difficult for Gazans to go anywhere outside of Gaza. One frequent traveler from Gaza told us that to get to the West Bank he takes a bus to Cairo, flies to Amman, Jordan, then takes another bus into the West Bank, a trip of 10-12 hours, all to cover a distance shorter than many New Yorkers commute every day.

The impact is isolation, political and economic. Most large Palestinian organizations now have Gaza and West Bank offices because staff members can't reliably travel between the two areas. Organizations headquartered in East Jerusalem face additional problems, as Israel increases its travel restrictions on West Bank residents entering East Jerusalem. One lawyer in DWRC's Ramallah office told us he knew the staff members in their Gaza office only by phone and fax; neither he nor they were permitted to travel, so they could not meet in person. As a refugee living in D'heisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, he was not permitted to travel to either Jerusalem or Gaza.

Within the West Bank, the isolation seems particularly arbitrary. Jerusalem is off limits to anyone who does not have a Jerusalem ID card. Cars with West Bank plates cannot enter the city. And the official definition of Jerusalem's city limits becomes ever larger as Israel enforces its de facto claim on East Jerusalem. Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shammas of the Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling lives nearly across the street from her office. The only problem is, her office is at the checkpoint on the road from Ramallah to Jerusalem. While her home is in the West Bank the office is in Jerusalem, the dividing line being the road that separates them. Her car, with West Bank plates, is not permitted cross the street. Sometimes, when Israel imposes closure, she can't either. The penalty for those who enter Jerusalem illegally? A fine, imprisonment, or even a beating. (We watched a home video of one such beating.)

The economic impact is far-reaching and, by many accounts, deliberate. As Hassan Barghouthi of DWRC told us, neither Israel nor Jordan want competition from Palestinian businesses or farmers. Ismail Daiq of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) recounted how their farmers couldn't market their goods, even to other areas of the West Bank. They lost a recent large international order for seedless table grapes when the Israelis let the shipment sit for two days unrefrigerated at the airport. One Palestinian factory manager told us they could only export their penicillin products with great difficulty; they were now exporting to Russia and Yemen. "Export" to Gaza was unthinkable. When there is closure- as there has been for much of the last two years—transport within the West Bank becomes impossible as well.

With a few notable exceptions, the hoped-for investment boom in the West Bank and Gaza has yet to happen. In Gaza City and Ramallah, effectively the two "capitals" of the Palestinian Authority, a great deal of construction is going on. New hotels and restaurants have opened, and both cities featured a metropolitan hustle and bustle. But even there, several people cautioned that some of what we saw was, quite literally, a facade. Many of the buildings appearing to be under construction in Gaza City, for example, were started soon after the Oslo Accords; construction has since stopped midstream due to investor uncertainty about the future, which has reportedly cut property values in half.

Corruption within the Palestinian Authority has contributed to this dampening of investment. The commission set up by the elected Palestinian Legislative Council to investigate alleged misuses of $326 million of public funds concluded that corruption was endemic in the PA and its ministries. The report resulted in 16 out of 18 of the PA's ministers resigning. David Hirst, a veteran Middle East reporter for the Guardian Weekly, reported in April on what he called "Arafat's takeover of the Gazan economy." According to Hirst, a company belonging to PA President Yasir Arafat's wife controls the importation of many basic commodities—cement, gasoline, flour. Hirst reports that "out of the $74 for which a ton of cement is sold in Gaza, $17 goes to the Authority, and $17 into [Arafat's] own account in a Tel Aviv bank."

It is difficult to imagine a significant increase in investment and self-generating economic activity in the West Bank or Gaza until the PA is more accountable and the Israeli government allows more consistent freedom of movement for Palestinians.

 

Obstacles to peace

Among the experiences the delegation found most sobering were its numerous meetings with Palestinian civic leaders who had initially supported the peace process but now spoke of it as a failure. We rarely heard even the slightest hint of optimism; "Oslo is dead" was the more common sentiment. In practice, most civic leaders we spoke with remain committed to operating within the framework of the accords. But, having lost faith in both Arafat's leadership and Israeli intentions, they see little hope negotiations will lead to a viable Palestinian state. Ominously, the images heard most often were of "apartheid" and "bantustans," not freedom and self-determination.

Whether or not one accepts the comparison, there is no denying that the government of the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, through concrete actions and policies, intends to maintain control of a significant portion of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem. As many comi~ientators have noted, these actions represent a grave threat to the peace process. According to the Declaration of Principles, the status of Jerusalem and the future of existing settlements were to be decided in so-called "final status" talks, which have yet to begin. The agreement committed both sides to refraining from any actions or policies that compromised future negotiations on these issues.

Unfortunately, the Netanyahu government does not see it that way, and Israeli settlements cover more of the West Bank every day. The delegation met with a settler representative at Efrat, a settlement near Bethlehem. His moderate tone did not mask his own clearly stated belief that Israel had every right to build and expand settlements and assert its claim to East Jerusalem. He stated that Israel's new settlement of Har Homa, which we saw under construction, did not violate Oslo because it was within Jerusalem.

Only a skewed interpretation of the Oslo Agreement could yield such a perspective, but it seems to reflect that of the Netanyabu government. We spent an afternoon with a guide from the Mennonite Central Committee driving around the ring of current and planned settlements that surround Jerusalem and cut Palestinian communities off from one another. Settlements and the access roads being built to connect them occupy a significant percentage of the land of the West Bank. What remains for Palestinians is not only limited but is so carved up by settlements and roads, and so thoroughly cut off from Gaza, that one can easily see why the "bantustan" comparison is so frequently invoked.

In addition to looking at the settlement activity around Jerusalem, we visited Hebron, site of continuing clashes between the 160,000 Palestinians in the city and the 250 settlers and 150 Israeli students who occupy several buildings in the heart of the old city. Netanyabu's agreement on the long-delayed redeployment of Israeli troops from Hebron may have been considered a significant concession in the peace talks, but in Hebron it is clear that Israeli troops have in .no way "withdrawn." The agreement gave Israel direct security control of about one-quarter of the city, mostly the old section. This is where the settlers live, but so do about 20,000 Palestinians. Israeli soldiers hold fortified checkpoints all over the area, giving the impression of a war zone. Indeed, it often is, according to the Christian Peacemaker Team, which hosted us and is trying to prevent further violence by establishing an international presence in the area.

Even the Gaza Strip, which has the image of being freed from direct Israeli occupation, has seen Israeli settlements expand. Some 42% of the Gaza Strip is still controlled by Israeli military installations and settlements that house only 4,000 people. Meanwhile one million Palestinians are squeezed onto what remains.

If the settlement question seems increasingly non-negotiable for the Netanyahu government, the status of Jerusalem appears even more set in stone. Despite proposals for an international city or a shared capital, the Netanyahu government is taking actions to establish Israel's unilateral claim to both East Jerusalem and the West Bank lands sometimes referred to as "Greater Jerusalem." This larger entity is almost ten times the size of East Jerusalem and stretches nearly to Bethlehem in the south and Ramallah in the north.

Eitan Felner, director of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, told us of a new Israeli policy that further restricts the rights of Palestinian Jerusalemites by limiting their access to identification cards. Without a Jerusalem ID card, a Palestinian cannot enter Jerusalem, including East Jerusalem. The new policy forces Jerusalemites to provide extensive documentation showing their current residence in the city. If they fail to do so to the satisfaction of Israeli authorities, the ID is taken away. Since it will not be reissued, one loses the right to live in Jerusalem forever. According to B'tselem, an estimated 1,000 Palestinians have lost their ID cards.

Felner also decried the Israeli government's threat to issue demolition orders for the thousands of homes built by Palestinians without permits. Building permits are rarely issued, as the Israeli authorities try to decrease the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. So Palestinians desperate for housing have built without permits. If Israeli authorities went ahead with such a massive demolition effort in the heart of East Jerusalem and its West Bank environs, Felner said, it would undoubtedly provoke an explosion of Palestinian outrage.

The Netanyahu government is clearly cementing its claim on all of Jerusalem and, through its settlement activity, much of the West Bank. Unless international pressure can force the Israeli government to put these contentious issues back on the negotiating table by easing its actions in East Jerusalem and suspending settlement activity, Palestinians will increasingly see the peace process as little more than a cover for Israeli domination and Palestinian defeat.

Sheltered from the desert sun in a makeshift tent that stands vigil on the hill overlooking Israel's Har Homa construction project, Palestinian Legislative Council remember Salah Ta'amari told us, "For Israelis, peace means security. For Palestinians, peace means freedom. I don't think we can make any compromise on freedom." Declaring his belief that the peace process "is not dead," Ta'amari said the only way there would be security for everyone was when Palestinians had their freedom.

 

"Putting the Palestinian house in order"

Widespread despair about the peace process has provoked some Palestinian leaders to turn inward. Dr. Haidar Abdl-Shafi is a Legislative Council member and former head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid talks that were upstaged by Oslo. While he decried the actions of the Netanyahu government, he was also critical of Arafat, pointing to his lack of commitment to democracy. "What is needed is to put the Palestinian house in order," he told us. "Inside the West Bank and Gaza, democracy is the crucial issue."

If there was an encouraging sign on this trip it was seeing Palestinian civil societyrs commitment to building a democratic society. In the face of Israel's continuing occupation and the Palestinian Authority's undemocratic methods, we found this commitment remarkable.

Politically, many Palestinians are working to make the Legislative Council, the only elected, pluralistic body in the West Bank and Gaza, a meaningful branch of government. The Council is close to issuing a "Basic Law," which would be the equivalent of a constitution for this interim period and would be the foundation on which a full constitution would be built. The drafting process has been fairly inclusive, with Palestinians from a wide range of groups commenting and proposing. Leaders of women's and human rights groups told us that while the law was far from perfect, it was quite good and quite democratic.

The same is rarely said of Arafat. Dr. Abdl-Shafi said Arafat has been hostile to the Council and uncooperative in developing the Basic Law, slowing the process and failing to comment on the first draft. He said the Legislative Council, which includes many Arafat loyalists, will pass it without Arafat's signature if necessary. The Council is increasingly willing to stand up to President Arafat, its investigation into corruption (mentioned earlier) being the most dramatic example.

By most accounts, the Authority has not responded well to criticism, sometimes jailing opponents. Human rights groups continue to report abusive treatment, including torture, by PA interrogators. The Authority has also cracked down on independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which have emerged as the leading voice for democracy within Palestinian civil society. The Authority prevented the Gaza chapter of PINGO, the NGO network, from meeting to elect leaders. It also intervened to take over the Board of the non-profit Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem, an action UPMRC's Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi fears will destroy the hospital. Several NGO activists told us the PA has also begun spawning its own NGOs to capture World Bank and other funding earmarked for non-governmental activities.

 

Palestinian NGOs still the best hope

Progressive Palestinian NGOs, some of which Grassroots' Palestinian Democratic Development Program supports, remain the most vibrant and hopeful feature of the harsh landscape in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They are providing needed services to Palestinians, keeping alive the hope that peaceful activity can lead to improvements in the standard of living. Their structure is democratic, promoting community participation and offering a concrete model of democratic principles in action. And overall they remain committed to the vision that once had Palestinians rejoicing over the signing of the Oslo Accords: a democratic, secular Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

What follows are brief reports on the work of the Grassroots International partner organizations we met with on the delegation.

 

Health

UPMRC's Abu T'ameh Clinic, Gaza: UPMRC continues to face great obstacles in its efforts to provide basic primary health care to the poorest Palestinians. International funding remains limited, with much of the funding for Palestinian health work going to the PA's Ministry of Health. Several clinics remain closed after UPMRC was forced to curtail operations following the Oslo Accords. The Israeli authorities continue to impede UPMRC's work. The repeated closures have made it impossible for UPMRC staff and other health professionals to deliver services, including in emergency circumstances. A Grassroots' medical shipment Valued at about a half-million dollars was held up earlier this year for over two months by the Israeli authorities, limiting the usefulness of some the medicines with close expiration dates.

Our visit to UPMRC's clinic in the rural village of Abu T'ameh in Gaza, which Grassroots International supports, demonstrated the value of the organization's work. Dr. Bandali San-Saiq and the two women trained by UPMRC as village health workers welcomed us. The only health facility in the area, the clinic serves the 3,000 people who live in Abu T'ameh and another 3,000 in surrounding villages. They currently have 350 children under three enrolled in their well-baby program. They credit the program with dramatically cutting infant mortality and child malnutrition in the area. They were particularly proud of their campaign to promote breast-feeding, one of many health education campaigns UPMRC sponsors. They currently have 27 women enrolled in a first-aid program. Grassroots' financial support has been the mainstay of their budget.

Jabalia Torture Treatment Center, Gaza Community Mental Health Program: GCMHP founder Dr. Eyad Sarraj has described Gaza as "a traumatized society," and his organization's research bears him out. Over 100,000 Palestinians were detained by Israeli security during the years of the intifadah. According to a 1994 Human Rights Watch report, more than 20,000 were interrogated, with the majority enduring some form of torture. According to GCMHP research, 30% of former detainees suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Even more troubling, a GCMHP survey of 2,779 children found that:

  • 85% had witnessed night raids;
  • 55% witnessed beatings, often of family members;
  • 42% had been beaten themselves;
  • 19% had been detained for short periods.

Since it opened in 1991, the Jabalia Torture Treatment Center has treated 2,100 people with a wide range of programs. We spoke with a psychiatric nurse, a clinical psychologist, and a social worker. (All had been detained, tortured, and treated for post-traumatic stress themselves, which was not atypical of GCMHP staff—nine of the eleven staff members at the center had been detained by the Israelis at some point.) Due to the stigma about mental health issues in Palestinian society, much of their) work is done outside the clinic in the community.

They spoke of the new challenge of treating Palestinians detained and tortured by the Palestinian Authority, who they said suffer shame and guilt. And they spoke of a remarkable GCMHP initiative to reduce the PA's abusive practices. By their estimates, some 90% of Palestinian security people spent time in Israeli prisons, and the majority were tortured. GCMHP considers a great deal of the brutality they are seeing from the PA a direct result of that abuse, so they have started a program for interrogators. Through sessions arranged with the PA, they are identifying the interrogators who are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and are willing to get treatment.

Given the levels of trauma to Gazan society, we were very impressed with GCMHP's commitment and effectiveness.

 

Economic Development

Management Training Project, Women's Affairs Center of Gaza: There have been many failed efforts to promote women's economic development in the West Bank and Gaza, which is what prompted the Women's Affairs Center to focus on intensive training programs. These programs have been very well received by Palestinian women. A great deal of funding is flowing into Gaza now for women's microenterprise development. According to WAC director Na'ila Ayash, the international aid agencies managing the projects were providing very little training. WAC convinced them to hire WAC to provide it. They have trained 340 women in the first half of 1997 in 20 workshops that last 10 days and involve 30 hours of work. The content includes bookkeeping, marketing, financial planning, profits/losses, and group dynamics. Another 20 workshops are slated for the second half of the year. They are now working with Bir Zeit University to develop a program in Nonprofit Management.

WAC's own evaluations have shown the trainings to be very effective. Women report that they plan their time better, improve the assessment of profits and losses, and are more encouraged to move successful businesses outside the home, where most begin. An impressive 80% of participants pay back their loans on time. Maysoon Louzon, who coordinates the training program, told us they also incorporate gender training, which she says is particularly appreciated in more conservative rural areas of Gaza.

In addition to the training program, WAC has a Communications and Media Program that trains women in video production and publishes a magazine by women. The videos the center produces become part of ongoing public education campaigns. For example, they have prepared 30 workshops all over Gaza to view and discuss their new film on early marriage, a particular problem for Gazan women, where women's average marriage age has dropped to 17.

With a staff of just ten and a budget of less than $250,000, we were very impressed with the range and the quality of WAC's work, which appears to be breaking new ground in the area of women's economic development.

Jericho Nursery Program and Women's Economic Development Program of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee: Farmers have been hard-hit by the disruptions caused by Israel's periodic closures of the West Bank and Gaza, and this has taken its toll on PARC's Jericho Nursery Program. PARC had structured its vegetable nursery as a for-profit company; as PARC director Ismail Daiq told us, "We encouraged companies, not cooperatives; in Palestinian culture, cooperatives are associated with handouts from foreign aid programs." Unfortunately, conditions have made it very difficult for any Palestinian enterprise to be profitable. Export is virtually impossible, and transport of agricultural produce to markets within the West Bank is often restricted. During the last year, many farmers could not even leave their villages to get to their fields.

This created significant losses in the vegetable nursery, which farmer/investors are now trying to pay off. PARC still distributed about 1.2 million vegetable seedlings to 800 farmers. They hope that decentralizing their nursery work will increase their resistance to disruption. The palm nursery program is succeeding as well, in spite of similar problems. Israel would not allow PARC to import valuable palm seedlings until late last year, slowing the project. With healthy palms now growing, PARC will no longer be dependent on imported seedlings as it can harvest the shoots from its own healthy plants. PARC is also diversifying its production to include other types of nut and fruit trees, such as guava.

The Women's Economic Development Program, because it was already one of PARC's most decentralized programs, was less affected by closures. We met with one women's group in Jericho engaged in a literacy class. Agronomist Amira Abu Shusha introduced us and showed us the preserves the women's group have produced and some of their needlework. They run a revolving loan program of about $500,000 per year; with PARC training, women show a 90% repayment rate.

 

Human Rights and Democracy

Democratic Development Unit, Palestinian Center for Human Rights: We have detailed the human rights situation elsewhere in this report. PCHR continues to play a leadership role in documenting abuses committed by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The center has successfully completed its transformation from the Gaza Center for Rights and Law and is now functioning with a full complement of staff. It remains one of the most reliable sources of human rights information in the area.

Legal Aid and Research Project, Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling: WCLAC director Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shammas shook her head when we asked her about the dynamic growth of the center, which began just four years ago. WCLAC now has some 15 staff members, a Hebron branch office, and several successful new initiatives. The core of their work remains legal aid and counseling for women and advocacy for women's rights in law. In the first half of the year, the center handled 214 legal cases. The majority involve domestic abuse or divorce/child custody. Their hot line is handling about 1,000 calls a year. Maha said one of the most encouraging signs is that local Palestinian government officials and police are now referring people to the center and asking for training in domestic-violence issues.

One of the center's most interesting initiatives is their "Women's Model Parliament." Working with other women's organizations, the center is trying to educate and involve women in defining the laws that will govern Palestinian society. In October, they will hold five regional women's parliaments with 80100 delegates each. These representatives will discuss women's issues and draft laws that will be taken to a national model parliament in November. The campaign is supported by an extensive media campaign designed to put women's issues squarely on the national agenda. Maha said the project thus far had probably involved more than 2,000 women.

Workers' Legal Aid Project, Democracy and Workers' Rights Center: Director Hassan Barghouthi is very clear about ho center's work. "There are 400,000 workers in the West Bank and Gaza," he told us. "They are potentially the most important sector in a changing society." A great deal of the center's work involves taking legal cases to the Israeli courts to demand a refund of the 12.6% the government deducts from Palestinian workers' pay checks for social services (unemployment, social security) they do not receive. The center is very successful, winning significant settlements for its clients.

Barghouthi makes clear that their real goal is to stimulate and support union activity among Palestinian workers. There are few independent unions in the West Bank or Gaza, and DWRC activists say working conditions are terrible. The PLO established its official Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), but it has few actual unions with members and contracts, serving instead as another patronage vehicle for Arafat. "We now find PGFTU leaders are often colonels and military officers," observes Barghouthi.

Barghouthi sees great cause for hope in the emergence of independent workers' committees, which he says are now functioning in over 400 factories. The recent teachers' strike, declared over opposition from the PA-appointed union leadership, suggested the potential strength of this movement. Barghouthi pointed out that it also demonstrated the dilemmas the movement poses for Arafat. He ordered the detention of the entire 25-member ad hoc strike committee, but his security forces waited two days to carry out the order because 15 of the leaders came from the same political organization as the security people: Arafat's own Fatah organization.

 

Conclusion

If the peace process is to have any meaning for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who supported Oslo Accords in overwhelming numbers when they were signed four years ago, it must show that it can deliver the two things Palestinians most want: self-determination, in the form of a viable Palestinian state, and an improvement in the quality of Palestinians' lives. Right now, it shows little promise it can deliver either.

The collapse of the peace process would pose great peril to everyone except the most extreme elements of Palestinian and Israeli society. If Palestinians' hopes are to be restored, Israel must reverse its policies of expanding settlements, asserting unilateral control over East Jerusalem, and restricting Palestinian movement through closures. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, needs to do its utmost to prevent the kinds of attacks seen in recent months. As New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis pointed out, however, "force and punishments are not adequate deterrents." The only effective deterrent is a peace process that restores the hopes of a despairing Palestinian people. In the meantime, Palestinians will continue to try to "put their house in order" and build democracy within the limited structures they now control.

 

 

* Tim Wise, Executive Director

Nuhad Jamal, Program Coordinator for the Middle East and Africa

Grassroots International, 179 Boylston Street, Boston MA 02130

617.524.1400, Fax 617.534.5525

[email protected]


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