Though the recent quarrel following the distribution of an anti-corruption leaflet has left bitterness and disappointment among many Palestinians, it has brought to light two vital issues. First, it presented the Palestinian democratic experience with its greatest challenge yet. Second, it reflected growing frustration among Palestinians resulting from what they perceive as fruitless peace talks.
If such a thing as a test for democracy truly exists, then the leaflet incident was truly that test for the Palestinians. The document, signed by 20 Palestinian intellectuals and legislative council members, was distributed among Palestinians and news agencies. It was met with decisive and harsh measures from the Palestinian Authority (PA), who failed to recognize other people's rights in criticizing those who govern.
The emotional reaction of those in support for PA president Yasser Arafat can be understood in terms of their dedication to a leader they view as a symbol of struggle. Yet the reaction of the PA itself is hardly associated with any democratic values, which open the stage for freedom of speech and expression. The official PA reaction came in many forms, ranging from immediate arrest of several intellectuals accused of signing the document, to heated speech that described such conduct as a compromise of national unity.
While justifying the swift action taken by the PA against those involved in the incident, Nabil Amr, a senior Arafat advisor, told journalists in at a press conference held in Ramallah that the manifesto was incitement that exceeded the right to free speech. His explanation of such a declaration was summed in a short statement: "The timing is sensitive." The Palestinian official concluded, "There comes at a time when the Palestinian leadership needs the support of the people, not internal strife in times of difficult negotiations with Israel."
The official Palestinian views are alarming and ought to be reconsidered. First, the statement assumes that there is a boundary that constrains and limits freedom of speech. If such a boundary exists, who should determine its limits? Considering the quick arrests which were made of those who signed the leaflets, it appears that the PA took it upon itself to be the one who ultimately decides what goes beyond and what stays within the limits of freedom of speech.
Second, justifying any crackdown on freedom of speech, democracy and those who promote it by simply stating that "the timing is sensitive," should be rejected, as every period within the Palestinian struggle has been both sensitive and consequential. To accept Mr. Amr's argument is simply to accept the disablement of the Palestinian democratic struggle for many years to come. Truthfully, there is no proof that freedom of speech has ever hindered any nation in its struggle to achieve liberation and obtain sovereignty.
Another vital notion introduced and sparked by the leaflet incident is related to the fact that many Palestinians are disillusioned with the outcome of the peace talks with Israel.
Those who chose to sign the document are indeed aware of the internal political environment in Palestine. Consequently, they should have expected the PA's violent reaction. The fact that they've risked their safety and reputation for the sake of carrying out their plan is a strong indication of their firm belief in the matter. Therefore, whether the claims made by the leaflets were entirely false or true, the issue should have been investigated and examined. Regardless of how the PA should have chosen to handle the matter, censorship, defamation and arrest should not have been options.
The leaflet was truthfully one of Palestinian democracy's greatest tests, as Arafat himself was the target of criticism. Has the PA failed the test? Unfortunately it has. That failure shows that the PA is not yet ready to abide by the basic requirements of genuine democracy. The fact that the document was signed in the first place, indicates that Palestinians are refusing to compromise their right to freedom of speech, even if such a stand drives them to compromise their safety.
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