Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 August - 6 September 2006
Issue No. 810
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Israel murders democracy

The illegal arrest and detention of elected Palestinian officials is further evidence that Israel is profoundly disdainful of democracy and law, writes Curtis Doebbler*

In February 2006 Hamas won elections in Palestine by a clear margin and obtained an overwhelming majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The elections were hailed as free and fair by international observers. While some observers claimed the vote was a rejection of the then ruling Fatah party's policies, none denied that Hamas had won the hearts of the majority of people by providing them the basics of food, clothing, housing, education and medical care.

Almost immediately after the elections, Hamas leaders began discussions within their own party and with opposition parties to form a coalition government. This was an unusual move given the fact that Hamas controlled an absolute majority in the PLC and therefore did not need coalition partners to govern. As a further show of good faith, Hamas members of the cabinet officially resigned from Hamas making the Palestinian government even more independent.

At the same time, several members of the Palestinian government leadership unambiguously declared that they were willing to enter into a permanent ceasefire if Israel withdrew to 1967 borders as it has been ordered to do by successive UN Security Council resolutions. Israel dismissed this approach, but the unilateral ceasefire that Hamas had already called continued to hold.

What could have been the start of a popular move towards a Palestinian state instead is a deteriorating situation of violence in which Israel is particularly targeting the democratically elected Palestinian leadership. The kidnapping of Palestinians is not a new strategy for Israel. Indeed it has kidnapped senior Palestinians before, including Marwan Barghouti, who remains arbitrarily detained in an Israeli prison, as well as thousands of men, women and children.

The illegal kidnappings -- which Israel calls lawful arrests made in the name of fighting terrorism -- occur on Palestinian territory that Israel has agreed should be under the exclusive competence of Palestinian authorities, usually in Ramallah the seat of the Palestinian government. The cabinet ministers are not arrested on suspicion of particular crimes, but merely because they were members of Hamas.

On 29 June 2006, Israeli forces entered Ramallah en masse and arrested eight cabinet ministers. Several states condemned the kidnapping as a blatant violation of international law, but Israel remained obstinate. Only a few of these ministers have been released and none has been charged with specific crimes.

On 6 August 2006, Israel again entered Ramallah and arrested Abdel Aziz Duwaik, speaker of the Palestinian parliament. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called Duwaik's seizure "another crime of piracy by the (Israeli) occupation against the elected representatives of our people." That didn't deter Israel from its unlawful rampage of arbitrary detentions.

Less than fortnight later, on 18 August 2006, about 30 jeeps surrounded the home of the moderate deputy prime minister and minister of education, Nasser Al-Shaer. His wife, Huda, described the horrifying events to AFP saying: "At 4:30 (01:30 GMT) in the morning the soldiers came to our house and took Nasser." A father, a husband, and a democratically elected representative of the Palestinian people, arrested and disappeared to the black hole of an Israel prison where the torture of detainees is not only commonplace but has even been approved by Israel's Supreme Court.

Ghazi Hamad, the Palestinian government spokesman, speaking to AFP, condemned "the acts of the occupation forces" and described them as "the continuation of the criminal campaign waged by the occupation against the Palestinian government." "Israel's goal is the eradication or weakening of any Palestinian government or authority," he said.

Just slightly over 24-hours later Israel again entered Ramallah and arrested Mahmoud Al-Rahami, secretary general of the PLC.

The arrests are likely to continue, not least of all because the international community and the international press remains virtually silent while Israel proves false any pronouncements of its respect for democracy or human rights. Yes, the arrests are reported in the international media, but with hardly a whisper about their obvious illegality. And yes, some states have made timid statements condemning the blatant affront to the internationally respected principle of every people's right to govern itself, but such objections have been so muted as to lack any authority. Ironically, state objections to the democratic results of the Palestinian elections were louder and more numerous.

International law unambiguously prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention as among the most serious human rights violations. States are unequivocally prohibited from arresting persons without reason for believing they have committed a concrete crime. And when they do arrest them, they must tell them specifically what crime they have committed and allow them to have legal counsel. States are also unequivocally prohibited from detaining individuals without clear legal reason and based on legitimate laws. Arrests based on laws that criminalise political parties because another state -- even a state that is involved in a lengthy, illegal occupation -- disagrees with the political manifesto of the party constitute arbitrary detentions in violation of international human rights law.

This international human rights law is set out in clear words found in legally binding treaties such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights that Israel and its closest ally, the United States, have ratified. For European states, this prohibition can also be found in the European Convention on Human Rights, an instrument that should guide European policy. Instead of being the foundation of a just resolution to this matter, these instruments have been treated like worthless paper. Even United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour has passively allowed the very core of her authority to be trampled on by a recalcitrant Israeli government.

The prevailing silence might have been considered a fluke or based on a lack of knowledge of international legal obligations were it not for the furore that arose when Palestinians fighting to shed the yoke of an oppressive and foreign occupation captured a single Israeli soldier.

Because the Israeli soldier was acting on behalf of an oppressive and foreign occupier, he was a legitimate target for Palestinian freedom fighters who outwitted their enemy with a courageous attack on a military object that resulted in the capture. Almost as soon as it was known that the soldier was captured, the Palestinian government announced that the soldier would be treated in accordance with humanitarian law as a prisoner of war. This announcement contrasted sharply with the lack of respect shown by the Israeli army when it captures Palestinian freedom fighters. Israel routinely refuses to treat captured Palestinian freedom fighters as prisoners of war, despite being repeatedly told it must do so by United Nations human rights bodies.

Despite the circumstances of the capture of the Israeli soldier, members of the international community called for his unconditional release. The international community did not call for the Israeli soldier to be treated as a prisoner of war. The international community did not call for Israel to release any of the thousands of Palestinians it detainees without due process. And the international community did not even mention the inherent legality of the capture. Ignoring relevant international law, the international community merely attempted to impose upon all an ideal Israeli-American view of reality.

While this kowtowing shocked most observers in the Arab world, it is a shock the Arab world has come to expect. "There is one set of rules that they use against us and another that they apply to us," said one lawyer in the Arab world commenting on the glaring inconsistency. The lawyer even refused to be named lest he become a target of Israel's policy of arbitrary arrest and detention.

Indeed, Israeli attacks on the democratically elected government of Palestine are just more actions confirming the arrogance of America and its allies with regard to any international consensus with which it disagrees -- even the most basic of all consensuses, that which is based upon international law. These attacks are evidence of the pursuit of power without concern for law. They are the forensic evidence that future generations will use to reconstruct how democracy was murdered.

* The writer is professor of law at An-Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine.

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